Outsourcing responsibility

In many countries, variants on “possession of stolen property” are considered a criminal offence.  We also generally accept this as being morally wrong (note that what is legal is not always moral, nor is what is illegal always immoral, and legality and morality should not be conflated).  If you knowingly benefit from harm being caused to someone (who lost their property to theft), you are in turn worsening the problem by not rectifying it.  Yes, this is true even if you paid for the stolen property.  This is a simple case, where the problem could easily be rectified by returning the stolen property to its original owner, or at the very least to the police.

Somehow, though, we’ve started finding ways to ignore this when it comes to harm that is less direct or obvious, or more complicated.

Outsourcing isn’t that new.  People have done it for ages – rather than do something yourself, pay (or ask) someone else to do it for you.  To a certain degree, this is what drives market economies – I do one thing well, you do something else well, let’s exchange those things (or involve many other people in the exchange by using money).  But outsourcing has blown up in the last couple of decades, and I’m beginning to fear it’s crossed over into our collective consciousness as a way to avoid ever actually taking responsibility.

I’m going to put a new twist on the definition of outsourcing, and suggest that in this context it refers to a situation where one party does something, and a different party benefits.  That first party (the outsourcee) might get paid for it, but ultimately it’s the outsourcer that gets to take all the credit for it.  Except when something goes wrong, then the outsourcee gets all the blame.

The most obvious form of this is in business.  When a Pakistani company called Saga Sports manufactures soccer balls for Nike, and they get used in the English Premier League, Nike’s logo is all over it and people think “hey, what a great soccer ball, Nike is awesome!” (exaggeration added for effect).  When they get caught using child labour, all of a sudden it’s not Nike who manufactured the soccer ball, it was Saga Sports, and Nike claims blamelessness.  Likewise, when people whose job it is to manufacture iPhones (yay! Apple makes such good products!) in China start killing themselves, or threatening to, and their bosses respond by asking them to sign an agreement saying they won’t kill themselves, Apple can very happily say that those problems are those of Foxconn, and that they’ll try to help out but have no legal obligation to.

In both scenarios, the American brands get all the credit and none of the blame.  The responsibility is that of someone else – an easy scapegoat.  And since people so easily conflate legality and morality, they generally get away with it.

But putting aside the legal form for a minute, I have to wonder why we are so willing to write these companies such a clean slate.  When Foxconn produces high-quality computing devices, Apple gets to bask in the compliments and support thrown its way, and is quite happy to do so.  Whether they compensated their subcontractor sufficiently to pass all of the risk on to it is almost of no consequence.  If it weren’t for Foxconn and its employees, Apple would not have the iPhones it makes so much money from.  Period.  It reaps the benefit of someone else’s evil – from a moral perspective, I would argue, Apple, Nike, and all those other companies are not guiltless.

This is all old though — it’s ongoing, but it’s a topic of discussion that’s been going on for years.  What I’d like to propose is that outsourced responsibility is starting to become accepted as a legitimate moral argument by those of us who are privileged enough to benefit from other people’s wrongs.  And this is troublesome.

A simple example is the environment.  How often do you hear “I didn’t put the vast majority of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, why should have to do anything about it?”  Or, “well yeah, but me driving a car isn’t the problem, it’s themThey aren’t giving me enough options to get around without one.”  The fact that the car companies, or the government, or the manufacturers of our consumer products, are choosing not to do anything about the environment isn’t the point — all of us in developed nations are benefiting from the fact that they have made those choices.  Pointing our fingers across the table or across the planet (to the places that manufacture the products we consume) won’t solve the climate crisis.  And doesn’t change the fact that, for the time being, we have benefited off the backs of others.

I’ve had so many conversations with people, and witnessed many political discussions online or in the media, where people have said things like “well I didn’t steal the land from the aboriginals, so why should I do anything about it (or even care about it)?” Or, further, “well, the [Canadian/Australian/US/etc] government shouldn’t punish all us immigrants who came here and bought our property outright from the [earlier immigrants] by making us pay higher taxes to pay out settlements.”  It goes on, but I won’t.  I hear this logic so often and, for a moment, it actually seems pretty sound.  If I did no wrong, why should I have to pay (directly or indirectly) to compensate people descended from those who were wronged?  But stepping back, each and every one of us who is not aboriginal (in whatever country we’re in) has benefited from the wrongs of our ancestors, or of those who committed wrongs upon the aboriginals of the past.  Most of us would not have the homes we have if the land they were situated on had not been taken through force from those who formerly lived on it.  That doesn’t mean we didn’t work hard to get those homes, and don’t deserve to have homes.  Absolutely none of that is relevant in a moral context.  We have to at least start acknowledging that a certain part of that fortune comes from the wrongs that others have committed for us – even if this transcends time.

The last analogy is the one that originally made me think of this topic.  I’ve blogged about it already – and it’s the Conservative majority in the house of commons of Canada.  All of the media focus, and focus spun by the Conservatives themselves, has been on whether or not the Conservatives were the ones responsible for the voter-suppression Robocalls.  The point is that it doesn’t matter if they were the ones responsible.  Someone was – whether it was someone they paid, or someone who just really wanted to help them.  They have benefited from the wrongs of someone else.  And refusal to do anything about it is, frankly, irresponsible.

We need to start broadening our definitions of responsibility.  We cannot rely on “I didn’t do it” as an excuse.  If we’re going to move forward as a rational species we need to start looking further than complicated legal structures, or blame-passing. We need to stand up and recognise when we’ve gained from a wrong, and do what we can to rectify it.  Regardless of who did it.

And finally, legality does not equal morality.  Setting up complicated legal structures and/or buying your way out of legal responsibility does not eliminate moral responsibility – let’s not forget that.

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