Thursday, September 22, 2005

Role Models and Corporate Roles

By Mitchell

Celebrities as role models is a subject I've written about more than once, so it's no surprise that I was intrigued by the story of model Kate Moss being dropped as spokesperson by the (very trendy) clothing story H&M because of her admission of illegal drug use. There's been an interesting discussion about this over at NRO's The Corner, centering on a conversation between Andrew Stuttaford and Ramesh Ponnuru.

In particular, I'm looking at a portion of Stuttaford's argument in which he says that H&M is justified in dropping Moss only if her presence hurt the company's bottom line. Here's an excerpt from his remarks:

Cancelled contracts. That's up to the companies, so long as their motive was the p&l, not anything else. I'm with Milton Friedman on the 'moral' responsibilities of companies. It's to make money for their shareholders and stay within the law. That's it.

Ramesh responds thustly:

As for your criticism of the companies, the fact that it is based on the moral views of Milton Friedman does not make it compatible with the view that we should refrain from making other people's business ours. Now if Friedman had joined you in issuing (vague and self-contradictory) fatwas against the criticism of Moss, you might be able to say that your errors here were also those of the great man. But under the actual circumstances, I think Friedman should be left alone.

Now, it's getting late this evening, and I'm too lazy to turn around and pull out one of my Friedman volumes to find out in what context he might have made that assertion. I admire Friedman greatly, but if that's what he said, then I disagree with him. As you know from some of my other posts, I'm a great believer that corporations do have a moral responsibility that extends far beyond the bottom line. Where some become confused is in thinking that it's up to the government to determine what that moral responsibility is, and then to impose it on corporations through law.

Corporations are morally neutral, neither good nor bad. It's the actions of those who run the corporation that determine the "morality" of the company. So perhaps in a strict sense Friedman is right in that the corporation (as defined by its board of directors or other governing body) has a moral obligation to run the company in such a way as profits its shareholders. If that's the case, I would add that those board members themselves have a code of morals to which they themselves must live, and that code extends to the types of products they produce (not only regarding quality, but in terms of the effect their production and sale has on society), they way they treat their employees, and so on.

So some of this could be mere wordplay. But there is no doubt that the corporation, however you want to define it, does have a responsibility to the society in which it functions. I happen to believe that part of that responsibility extends to the way in which that company presents itself to the public. If H&M believes Kate Moss casts the wrong light on the company, then I say bully for them. Of course it may have something to do with profits (one could imagine any number of potential consumer boycotts or protests), and certainly there may be something about what H&M sells and how they sell it that might suggest a certain amount of hypocracy in their action - I don't know.

But I've said many times that we're all role models, no matter whether we're celebrities or not. Maybe we don't act that way, but it's part of our calling, and it's something to which we need to face up. Furthermore, to suggest that the moral obligation of the company (however you want to define it) begins and ends with the bottom line is, well, immoral. As Pat Buchanan once said, we must worship at a higher altar than the bottom line.

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