What Should Customers Do About Dirty Practices of Big Companies?

By Cansu Canca

The video “Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics” recently went viral on social media. It purports to document the suffering of former workers of Chinese electronics factories that supply smartphones to big brands. According to the video, these workers contracted serious occupational illnesses such as cancer and severe nerve damage as a result of exposure to the toxic chemicals benzene and n-hexane. The workers are said to be unaware of the fatal risks; and in any event, many would be too young to consent. The film calls for elimination of toxic chemicals in electronics factories, which it claims can be done at a negligible cost.

Watching this video and learning about this problem, are we, the customers, now under a duty to act?

For instance, in an effort to convince Apple to remove toxic chemicals from their factories, the “Bad Apple” campaign asks customers to sign a petition, call the brand, and maybe re-consider upgrading their phone less often. The campaign targets Apple because of its powerful position in the public eye as well as in the industry, which currently lacks any toxin-free option.

The question is: What is the morally right response of a customer? To put it in more detail, are you morally required to take action? If so, is signing the petition or calling the brand sufficient or should you, for example, boycott the brand?

Here is the answer: You are probably right to do anything, including nothing.

An Obscure Duty

Calls for participation in collective action tend to receive two standard replies that seem to be in absolute conflict: “Why should I bother knowing that my action will have almost zero effect on the outcome?” and “Of course, I should act because I have a responsibility.” In fact, neither of these replies is as strong as it first sounds.

It is true that in a world-wide campaign, where the number of possible actors is so large, the probability of any individual’s action being pivotal is extremely low. This classic argument for inaction is present in this context as much as in others like elections (in fact, it is typically assumed that inaction is the rational choice).[1] But this argument fails to recognize the size of the gain, if the campaign succeeds. If “the social benefits at stake” are large enough, it might indeed be rational for a socially concerned customer to take action even with the low probability of being pivotal.[2]

What does this mean in the context of the “Bad Apple” campaign? It’s hard to say. According to the campaign’s website, between 1991 and 2008, about 43,000 Chinese workers suffered occupational poisoning, with a mortality rate of 16.5 percent. It is hard to estimate the number of participants of a one-time campaign, and thus the probability of your action’s significance. If you do manage to quantify the expected benefit of your action, you can now compare it to the cost of it. You will not just sign a petition because someone made a capturing film and a good looking website. Taking into account the cost of researching the accuracy of the data and the argument presented by the campaign, is the expected benefit still larger than the cost? Putting aside the problem of comparing cost and benefit values expressed in very different units, does this extremely imprecise calculation result in a moral obligation to act at all? If yes, what kind of action does it require? Should you just sign the petition or take stronger actions?

Non-consequentialist arguments are hardly any use to guide us out of this puzzle. One can make the argument that one has a responsibility to prevent harm, and more importantly not to incentivize it. This responsibility does not vanish simply because many others share it. In other words, you should take action and participate in this campaign. But does it also mean that you must?

The scope of this responsibility is massive. It doesn’t stop at smartphones or shoes produced at sweatshops. Hearing about all the dirty work of Big Pharma, should you also stop using medicine? Is this responsibility only towards what you know about or does it include a responsibility to investigate? Should you learn about “behind the scenes” of your favorite car brand or your insurance company? Surely “ignorance is bliss” is not the answer – it would be absurd if you could evade your responsibility, for example, by simply not checking the facts of the “Big Apple” campaign. But if your responsibility includes all these, then this cannot possibly be an absolute duty – one which must be fulfilled at all times, in all cases. And once it is not an absolute duty, then its demands remain vague. Specifically, what is your responsibility for this campaign? Could you pass on it on the grounds of pursuing other duties? And if you shall act, which action is the appropriate one: signing the petition, boycotting the brand, or giving up all smartphones?

Maybe all this obscurity is precisely the reason why these campaigns never rely on a rigorous moral argument showing each person is obligated to take action. Rather, they make a moving film and rely on your emotions. Probably, rightly so.


[1] Two quick examples of this can be found in an NYT article and in a post by Peter Singer, both sharing the same title “Why Vote?”

[2] Details of this argument in relation to voting can be found in Aaron Edlin, Andrew Gelman, and Noah Kaplan, “Voting as a Rational Choice: Why and How People Vote to Improve the Well-Being of Others,” Rationality and Society 19 (2007): 293–314.

Cansu Canca

Cansu Canca

Cansu Canca, Ph.D. is a philosopher and the founder and director of the AI Ethics Lab. She leads teams of computer scientists, philosophers, and legal scholars to provide ethics analysis and guidance to researchers and practitioners. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy specializing in applied ethics. Her area of work is in the ethics of technology and population-level bioethics. Prior to the AI Ethics Lab, she was a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, and a researcher at the Harvard Law School, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, Osaka University, and the World Health Organization. She tweets @ccansu

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