Seeking Redemption? Dirty Hands and the Global Marketplace
by Claudia Kwan, 2022 Business Fellow
The FASPE trip was the culmination of my first year of business school, in which the questions of ethical and professional responsibility loomed large and reached fruition. It was, however, also a beginning, pushing my thoughts in any number of new directions. The reflections below are my best attempts at putting into words the most salient places this experience has taken me. While they are more ponderings and questions than they are answers, my hope is to continue pursuing them and, in so doing, to sharpen my own thoughts while advancing our conversation as professionals.
I Could’ve Been a Perpetrator
One of FASPE’s central premises is the challenge of seeing ourselves in the perpetrators, trying to see what we, as human beings, are capable of and how we might become the “bad guys.” Reflecting on this, both intentionally and unintentionally during the trip, I became acutely aware of how the values which animate me can, indeed, look very similar to those which animated people during Third Reich.
For most of my life, I have wrestled with a triple minority: my race, religion, and gender. I am a Chinese Indonesian (Indonesian nationality with Chinese ethnicity), a Christian from the world’s largest Muslim country, and a woman in a patriarchal society. As such, I have constantly lived in the shadow of the history of “my people.” I have felt this way throughout growing up, whether because of the 1998 riots, in which Chinese Indonesians were targeted, or in the frequent bombings of churches back home. But I have also benefited from much privilege, where even writing this now seems strange when only 10% of Indonesians receive a university education.
I bring these factors up to contextualize why group loyalty seems natural to me. Yet, the closeness I feel to those identities is not as straightforward as I once imagined. What I have realized is that this language of loyalty, duty, and love sounds precisely like that that was used to justify the Holocaust. As came up during one of our classroom discussions, we seem to exist on the same value-spectrum as Heinrich Himmler himself, whether we like it or not. We may not act as he did, but our motivations and ethical orientations are not—through our shared humanity and the intrinsic fallibility of that condition—totally unalike.
Degrees of Complicity
One classroom conversation that has lingered with me concerned whether Nazi bureaucrats were more culpable than the businesspeople who, for instance, provided the logistics that transported the disabled towards their death as part of Aktion T4. At first, the answer seems obvious—of course the Nazi bureaucrats were more culpable. But our conversation provoked questions that denied us such a neat answer. Who had more agency to not follow orders? Which group truly possessed the faculty of judgment? Despite our conversation, we could come to no simple “right” answer.
The discussion did, however, bring out the issue of degrees of complicity. Whose hands are dirtier? Does that matter? And if it does matter, how dirty is too dirty? This line of reasoning seems most prevalent in politics, in which Michael Walzer’s seminal article, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands”, stirs such questions.1 Its central premise is simple: it is by his dirty hands that we know the truly moral politician. If such a person says he does not have dirty hands, he is either pretending they are clean—and thus a politician and nothing more—or cannot bring himself to dirty them—and thus a moral man and nothing more. The argument follows then, that to do the good work of politics, some form of dirty hands is necessary. It is inherently part of the job.
This provokes a related question: Can we say the same for business? Are these forms of complicity simply the cost of doing business, or are we able to find ways out of such a bind? If we avoid dirtying our hands, would that make us moral people and nothing more, or could we still be moral businesspeople? I would like to think we can be the latter. Business decisions need not adopt the zero-sum mentality of politics. Couching the problem in these terms, however, does reveal important nuances within our profession.
In evaluating these nuances, two categories seem helpful: industry—that is, what sector a business is in—and locality—that is, where it is located. Are some businesses more prone to this form of thinking than others? A company in the defense industry likely wrestles with these issues far more often, and on a larger scale, than a retail company does. Beyond sectors, the place at which a business exists and operates must also have an impact. Ways of working or conceptions of the responsibilities of business in Southeast Asia, for example, can vary drastically from those in North America. On the one hand, this brings us to the classic problem of the universal and the particular. On the other, it forces us to ask whether there are limits to qualities like agility and adaptability that our profession prizes so dearly.
Perhaps more poignantly for multinational corporations or international corporate citizenship, this discussion of locality touches on the complexity of global supply chains. In a long value chain that encompasses continents, should a company be responsible for all the activities along that chain or are there different degrees of responsibility? What about different degrees of complicity? If one’s end-product fulfills an important social need and the corporation itself plays a key societal function, does this allow for parts of the production process to be “dirty”? Palm oil is a good example. It is ubiquitous in everyday consumer products and is an industry of national importance to some developing countries, yet its production capacity seems to rely on mass deforestation. Or what about the links between Uyghur slave labor and the production of solar panels?
Placing myself in the shoes of a business owner who must grapple with uprooting an entrenched, complex global supply chain amid absent laws and regulations, it seems that the solution is neither as simple as halting the production of these products nor as straightforward as ignoring the ethical issues along the chain. In pondering this question, we return to the same problem: Is it morally permissible for our hands to be dirty in the conduct of such business? How dirty is too dirty? What makes us complicit, and if so, how much? Where do we draw the line between influence and complicity? These questions, it seems to me, must remain at the forefront of our minds when “doing business,” particularly given the ease with which we rationalize and justify our actions.
The Role of Redemption?
Pushing this thinking one step further, I cannot help but ask another question: What about redemption? Assuming all the above has occurred and a business finds itself in the position of being complicit in moral harm—as we have learned that nearly all the major German companies were through their involvement in the Holocaust, from Bosch (which is currently 90% owned by a charity) to BMW—what happens next? What is the correct and proportional remedy? Some may well argue that there can be no such remedy for the evil perpetrated during the Shoah. I would concur, and that seems only to push the question further. What does redemption look like for a business? Individuals can forgive and be forgiven. Can we say the same for businesses? I don’t have the answer yet, but the question remains.
So, what do we do then? Returning to the things that have shaped me, I find myself challenged but inspired to uphold the values of love, community, and loyalty in ways that mitigate insularity and prejudice—and in so doing, seek an understanding of business and a practice of leadership driven by these considerations. Is this an impossible task? Are these qualities inherently at odds? I think they are not, though they can be. And in the gap between “not” and “can be” is where I believe we find our agency.
Claudia Kwan was a 2022 FASPE Business Fellow. She is pursuing a master’s degree in Business Administration from Harvard Business School.
- Walzer, Michael. “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands.” War and Moral Responsibility, 1974, pp. 62–82., https://doi.org/10.1515/9780691238234-005.