Norman Bowie, Morality, Money, and Motor Cars (1990)


        Does business have special moral obligations beyond legal ones to protect the environment?

                  Yes, but not those one might expect

        Yes: They shouldn’t lobby against or try to weaken environmental laws

                  This prohibition on political lobbying by business is not true in general

                  Business can generally participate in the legislative process (“pursue their own parochial interests” and lobby concerning minimum wage, worker safety and so on), but they should not do with respect to environmental regulation

        First reason: Environmental laws are at a special disadvantage in political process

                  Cost concentrated on a few and are immediate

                    -        Businesses will have to retool and consumers spend more $ now (e.g., to switch to alternative to gasoline auto engines)

                  Benefits are spread out over many and occur in the future

                  So it is not in politicians’ self-interest to pass environmental laws

                    -        Because they worry about being re-elected, politicians favor projects with immediate benefits and costs spread to the future and they pay more attention to the few who scream loudly

        Second reason:

                  Businesses argue it is up to consumers and the government to make the tradeoff between environmental quality/safety and cost

                    -        It is not their role to decide, e.g., how clean and resource rich our environment should be

                  So it is inconsistent for them to interfere in this decision making process (by political lobbying on environmental issues)


        Bowie also suggests special responsibilities of business with regard to the environment

                  To educate the public and to promote environmentally responsible behavior on their part

                  If they have greater expertise/knowledge than others regarding an environmental issue, they need to share that expertise


        Do businesses have an obligation to pollute less and conserve resources more than the law requires of them?

        No: Because the risk/harm businesses do when they legally pollute and legally harvest resources in an unsustainable manner has been accepted by the public/society

                  It is the consumers’ and government’s responsibility to decrease pollution and conserve resources

                    -        By which products they buy (green consuming) and by voting for and passing environmental regulations/laws

        Benefit/cost-risk tradeoff on environmental related goods has been made by consumers (when purchase environmental unfriendly product) and by legislature (by passing laws allowing environmental harmful/risky business behavior)

                  Businesses should respect these decisions, just as they accept consumers’ and government’s decisions to have cars that are less safe than they could be (Bowie’s car analogy, p. 406)

                  Should respect decisions to allow the production of environmentally harmful chemical cotton clothes and consumers decisions to buy them rather than ones made from organic cotton

        Consumers choice of environmental unfriendly products (e.g., chemical fruits and vegetables, instead of organic fruits and vegetables, hummers rather than hybrids) shows that consumers accept harm business causes by legal pollution and legal resource degradation

                  “Businesses have every right to assume that public tolerance for environmental damage is quite high and hence current legal activities by corporations that harm the environment” are permissible

Problems with the claim that consumers accept the environmental harm caused by products they buy

        Public good characteristics of many environmental goods

                  Many environmentally friendly goods are public goods (goods people can benefit from w/o paying for) and so market demand for these public goods will be less than what people want

        Related problem of free riders

                  Best situation for a consumer will be if others buy the (more expensive for them) environmentally friendly product, while she does not

                  Thus many consumers will be free riders and benefit from other’s purchase of environmentally friendly products without having to pay the cost themselves

        Because of such market failures

                  It is a mistake to assume that consumers who buy environmentally unfriendly products accept environmental harm/risk businesses cause while producing them.

        Further, because they are public goods on which individuals can free ride, it is a mistake to leave the choice of environmentally friendly or environmentally harmful products up to the consumer

        Government and business need to take the lead in moving toward more environmentally friendly products, by banning or not producing the environmentally harmful ones.

        Consumer choices not= citizen choices:

                  Another reason we can’t assume that consumers accept the environmental harm the products they buy produce is that consumers may buy things that as citizens they oppose

                  In short, the argument confuses what we will buy as consumers with what we as citizens believe is right and will vote for

                  A consumer may only buy a few organic vegetables at the store, but she may vote to ban all chemical vegetables