Thomas Donaldson, Rights in the Global Market (1990)


1.   Rights we take for granted are trampled upon abroad

      a. In central America, most start working full time 12-14 years old

      b. In many countries right to minimal education, free speech, basic nutrition, freedom from torture is a dream

      c. Death by stoning as punishment for adultery

      d. Wife beating in Korea


2.   Main question: Do multinational corporations (=MC) have obligations to honor and encourage the protection of such rights?

      a. Donaldson’s answer is yes


3.   Child labor: Refusing to hire children in Honduras even if it harms competitive position

4.   Worker safety: Duty to keep arsenic levels low in the workplace, based on workers right not to be poisoned (without such a duty the right means nothing)

      a. Even if local laws don’t address the issue

5.   Dumping toxic waste in West Africa

      a. In 1988, safety standards went up in U.S., so cost of waste disposal shot up and every country on West Coast of Africa was approached to take this waste

      b. One company found a country (Guinea Bissau) to take the waste for $120 million (about the size of the entire GNP of that country)

      c. Another MC got rid of toxic waste (PCBs) in Nigeria, workers in thongs and shorts unloaded it for $2.50 a day and placed in a residential area.

          i.        Workers not told contents of barrels

          ii.       Who is responsible?

                    (1)     Wrong to say it is simply the local government

                    (2)     They may not be sophisticated enough to develop the necessary regulations or they might be corrupt

      d. Toxic Trash: Will your discarded TV end up in a ditch in Ghana?

      e. Global Sludge ends in Tragedy for Ivory Coast

      f. Dumped in Africa: Britain’s solid waste  


6.   Morality not same as legality: Following the law is no guarantee of ethical behavior, especially overseas

      a. Some plausibility (though not much) to say that in our country all a business is morally required to do is obey the law because our laws are so well developed

      b. Overseas, this is highly implausible

          i.        Many countries and governments don’t have the regulatory apparatus to make laws that control corporate behavior to a minimum moral standard

          ii.       Corruption abounds overseas (e.g., laws to protect workers not passed because a local government official has a financial interest in not strengthening the laws to protect workers)


7.   Donaldson develops a list of fundamental international human rights

8.   These rights entail duties

      a. Rights = “justified entitlement to something from someone” (Feinberg)

      b. These rights involve morally-minimum mandatory duties that corporations, individuals and governments must respect

9.   Duties of corporations somewhat different (weaker) from those of government and individuals

      a. Of the three types of duties that go with these rights (viz., avoid depriving, help protect from deprivation, and aid the deprived) corporations only have the first two, while government and citizens have all three types.


10. Donaldson’s takes his list to be one of universal (=objective) rights

      a. All international agents most honor these rights, whether they acknowledge these rights or not

      b. Applicable to all people, even if they fail to compose an identical list

      c. If the Fulanis--a nomadic cattle culture in Nigeria--treat women unfairly and unequally, that right remains unfulfilled in their culture;

          i.        Culture is poorer for failing to protect right against non-discrimination


11. Donaldson argues that some rights (other than the ones on his list) might be relative to context and vary by nation

      a. Citizens of a rich, technologically-advanced nation might have right to kidney dialysis, that citizens of a poor nation don’t have


12. Key features of these fundamental international rights

      a. Protect something of extreme importance

          i.        Valid claim to things of moderate importance not a right

          ii.       Right not to be tortured, no right to be treated with courtesy

      b. Protects something subject to significant, recurring threats

          i.        No need for a right to occupy space (can’t be threatened)

      c. Affordability-fairness: Obligations rights impose must be economically affordable and fair (not place disproportionate burden on some)

          i.        Ought implies can; No person can be held responsible for doing something they can’t do (which is not in their power to do)

                    (1)     Perhaps because it is “unaffordable”

          ii.       Kidney dialysis example:

                    (1)     A government of a poor country in Africa, can’t afford to provide kidney dialysis of all of its citizens

                    (2)     Thus they have no such right

          iii.      Drug lord counter-example: Imagines a case were a country can’t protect its citizens for kidnaping and murdering drug lords

                    (1)     Does that mean the citizens of that country have no right to not be kidnaped or murdered?

                    (2)     Drug lords can “afford” duty to not torture

                    (3)     Government has duty to try (not succeed)?

                    (4)     What are the opportunity costs of succeeding? (No other government services provided?)

      d. List is a minimal one to which one might add


1.   One: Duty to not actively deprive person of these rights

          i.        E.g., not to assassinate leaders stand in way of business

      b. Clear MCs have these duties

      c. For most part MC probably succeed in fulfilling these duties

      d. But they also must avoid depriving people of these rights cooperatively

          i.        E.g., Corporation fighting against land reform when it is necessary for subsistence of local peoples, cooperates in the deprivation of people’s rights to subsistence

          ii.       E.g., When Shell Oil company cooperated with the Nigerian authorities who murdered poet and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa

          iii.      Shows how one can actively deprive a person of a right, even if only cooperating with others

2.   Two: Duty to help protect from deprivation

      a. E.g., failing to tell the police about a murderer’s intentions violates this duty

      b. Honoring rights involves acts or omissions that help prevent deprivation of rights

          i.        E.g., Preventing workers who are physically threatening other workers from violating the rights of these other workers

      c. Critics of MC fault them on failing to take reasonable protective steps

3.   Three: Duty to aid the deprived (MC do not have this duty)

      a. Government bound to honor rights to adequate nutrition by distributing food after a natural disaster

      b. Government defends political liberty by requiring an employer to reinstate an employee who was fired due to voting “the wrong way”


4.   Corporations have only duties one (for all rights) and two (for some rights), never duty three; while governments have all three, as do individuals)

      a. Corporations can’t be held to same standard of charity and love as individuals

      b. Nor can corporations be held to same standard as governments for enhancing social welfare

      c. Governments were created to do this

      d. Corporations designed for economic mission; an economic animal

      e. Corporation is a narrower moral actor than others

      f. Corp sole role not to maximize profit for investors, do have moral responsibilities

      g. But must define responsibility differently from government and individuals

      h. Note: Here we have a position in between Carr (Friedman?) and Goodpaster on issue of corporate social responsibility

5.   Corp don’t have duties of class three (to aid deprived):

      a. Corp violate no rights by failing to aid the deprived;

      b. Whereas governments and perhaps well-off individuals do

      c. Can we think of counter examples in emergencies, natural disasters?


1.   Freedom of physical movement

      a. Should not chain workers to machines or lock them inside sweat shops

2.   Ownership of property

3.   Freedom from torture

4.   Fair trial

5.   Non-discrimination

      a. By race, sex, caste, family affiliation

      b. Can’t go along with nepotism common in many countries?

6.   Physical security

      a. E..g., provide protective goggles, even if local law doesn’t require it; to not do so is to violate rights even though didn’t inflict injury directly

7.   Freedom of speech and association

      a. Corporation obligated not to prevent emergence of labor unions by coercive tactics

      b. Refrain from lobbying host government for restrictions that violate this right

      c. Perhaps protest host governments practices that do this

8.   Minimal education

      a. MC not entitled to hire a 10 year old child for full time work

      b. For among other reasons, this blocks child’s ability to receive a minimally decent education

      c. Any MC action that blocks child’s ability to read/write, violates this right of hers

9.   Political participation

      a. In 50s, MC helped overthrow regime in Honduras

      b. Corps that support dictatorships in countries with growing democracies

      c. Corp that bribe public officials:

          i.        Lockheed bribed prime minster of Japan for $7 million to get a jet contract; undermines democratic system

          ii.       Not an objection to payments generally

      d. Foreign ownership of property at some point violates right to national self-determination; e.g., owning major segments of land and industry

10. Subsistence

      a. Example of MC violating this right

          i.        Buying land can contribute to starvation

          ii.       MC goes to a country where malnutrition is rampant

          iii.      Buys parcel of land that used to be farmed by sharecroppers who were given a portion of the crops by the land owner

          iv.      Converts the land from black beans to coffee; stable local food source to cash crop for export

          v.       Result is local folks are malnourished

          vi.      MC violated the right to adequate food



1.   Controversy over whether positive rights should be included: Many of these list of rights--including UN Declaration of human rights signed by most of the world--include positive welfare rights (economic and social rights)

      a. That require duties not of forbearance, but of assistance to obtain specific goods (food education, shelter)

2.   Henry Shue’s argument that basic rights (ones that must be satisfied for any other right to be meaningful or possibly exercised) include positive welfare rights

      a. Security: being secure from beating is a prerequisite to right of freedom of assembly

      b. Subsistence: Freedom of speech meaningless is one is so weak from lack of food that one is reduced to silence

      c. Contradictory to support rights but not the necessary precondition to those rights

      d. Any negative rights, entails positive rights (to police, courts) to enforce it