Boycott BP?

Dan has (for reasons that only he and god know) given me the ability to guest-blog in his absence. And what better temp could there be for Dan than a heterosexual, libertarian-ish, atheist… Might I add that I’m not a doctor... that I merely diddle around in the ivory tower?

Our local BP station is a nice shop. The mechanics seem really to know their stuff and it has the warm feel of a “mom and pop” shop (as much as any automotive garage can). It’s a small business run by real people from “Main Street.” Ultimately, though, the masterminds of the current catastrophe in the gulf are behind it, collecting revenue, enjoying profits. In a recent fit of anger directed, not at my local shop, but at BP the corporation (or at least some fuzzy idea of the gargantuan entity responsible for the current catastrophe) I was tempted to “boycott” BP, i.e., stop filling my tank and getting my cars repaired there. But I wondered, what did the local owner do to deserve that, or the hard workers in the garage barely eking out a living? Assuming that BP acted negligently, weren’t these workers participating in the BP franchise mislead too? Didn’t they trust BP to conduct their practices safely and responsibly? If so, should they be punished for the misdeeds of their ultimate owners?

On the one hand, we certainly don’t want to punish these folks. They’ve done nothing wrong but might well suffer from a boycott, or at least a boycott with any significant impact (whether or not boycotts actually wind up effecting any change in the first place is a different issue -- it’s a matter of “principle”). On the other hand, those responsible need to be held accountable, and perhaps we shouldn’t continue to support the BP Corporation, even if it means that some innocent folks would suffer by losing jobs.

In that regard, I don’t think a boycott of BP is as insensitive to the worker as it might seem at first glance. Consider: if you work for an employer who, unbeknownst to you, engages in criminal activity, would you really want people to continue to support the employer just so you can retain your employment (think Enron or Bernard Madoff)? Even if BP’s actions aren’t accurately characterized as criminal, BP erred royally. And erring royally even with with the best of intentions shouldn't allow you to keep your job, especially when public safety is at stake on a large, perhaps even global, scale. It might be difficult for the innocent workers who participate in the BP franchise to restructure their lives, however, that does not seem like an adequate excuse for not taking action against the BP corporation.


  1. I'd want to know, too, if BP's practices are substantially more reckless than the rest of the industry.

  2. First, I'd point out that there is a vast difference between criminal activity and erring royally. Conflating the two is normally a sign that a proof needs work. Adding the criminal activity part doesn't strengthen your argument.

    Second, I agree in general with the proposition that erring royally ought to have consequences. There is no doubt that BP is taking a financial hit, and I have no problem with that, nor with consumers boycotting BP if that is their choice.

    But. BP operated, legally as far as I know, under the oversight and regulations of the Federal government. There has clearly been a failure of regulatory authority here; BP was exempted from various parts of the regulatory process (and I might add, due in some part to political considerations of the current Administration). If BP is to be punished, the Federal agencies involved ought to be punished as well. If BP's employees are to be affected, we shouldn't exempt Federal employees from taking a hit as well. The erring royally part involved not only BP, but the Federal government, and citizens should demand action against both.

  3. Yes, there's a legal difference between acting criminally and erring royally. But, depending on the case, there may not be much of a moral difference. The issue isn't merely legal, it's moral, and so comparing a case of criminal activity with erring royally is an apt analogy for some (but not all) cases. That's not a conflation of criminal activity with error. It's moving to the more fundamental question of what's moral (regardless of what the laws might be).

    The question you need to raise is whether the analogy goes through in this particular case. It might not, but that is not entirely clear yet, since we don't know exactly where BP went wrong (their intentions and whether they acted with negligence will matter, even if they acted within the law).

    Though you're right to point out that even if BP's errors were within the constraints of regulation (but perhaps still immoral) the regulators ought to be blamed as well. But as you rightly point out, that wouldn't establish that one ought not boycott BP. It would lend support to the claim that one ought to boycott both BP and the regulators. I'm perfectly happy with that consequence.

  4. Well, we have the law, which is generally fixed and usually the same for everyone, and we have morality, which is fluid and has details which depend upon what presuppositions one adopts. I'm usually skeptical of appeals to morality beyond the basic, large ape morality our ancestors evolved. After all, why should I care when your morality has been offended, or you care if my morality is offended? It isn't as if there is some objective, rationally reasoned morality that I must accept as true (unless, of course, I accept the nonrational presuppositions you hold).

    Boycotting regulators? I'm not sure how that would work. Government isn't like BP, you can't just go down the street and do business with another Federal Government. Penalize the government that fails by actively opposing it and reducing its power. That is the equivalent to boycotting BP.

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  6. GJ, the kind of unrestricted relativism implicit in idea of 'personal moralities' should be dispensed with. It involves the confusion of a metaphysical claim (what actually is or is not 'moral') with an epistemological one (what one believes to be or not be 'moral'). It's one thing to suggest that moral claims aren't capable of truth-values, or that their truth values are restricted by, relative to, some set, e.g., 'apes'. However, unbridled relativism, to suggest that each individual actually determines (the truth value of moral claims) for themselves, is quite another.

    The laws are arbitrary, in that they can be whatever legislators say. Morality, on the other hand, whether you're a realist or an anti-realist, doesn't work that way. You can't determine that x is in fact moral simply by deciding that x is.

    Nevertheless, I'm not sure I see the difference between 'boycotting' and 'actively opposing'. It's not like 'boycotting' has strict necessary and sufficient conditions. What I originally meant by 'boycott' was just that I would actively avoid giving BP my business, and that doing so was justified, not that I would march out front of BPs with signs or anything like that. But I take the decision not to give them my business as boycotting (or actively opposing) BP. Granted you can't choose to do business with another Fed Govt, as you say, you can actively oppose it (perhaps marching around with signs is more appropriate in response to gov't). As the situation progresses and more data turn up (suggesting that BP might not be quite as innocent as they're claiming - even if they manage to slip by legally), I do think that *some* (perhaps not the same) kind of action should be taken against both BP and the government.

  7. Alrighty then! I am in the "moral claims have a truth value restricted by some set" camp. I think humans can determine that some moral set is hardwired due to evolutionary conditioning of large primates.

    And the difference between morals and law is that laws are in fact knowable by all parties (in the US, at least) whereas morality beyond the large primate category falls into the not-knowable camp. I care when BP, or you, break laws, because everyone can know what behaviors are legal (modulo quibbling about precise interpretation). I care much less about moral claims because I can't know in advance what behaviors you, or BP, might put under the rubric of 'moral.'

    Having said that, I do agree that BP appears to have skated close to the line of legal behavior. This was with the agreement of the Federal government, sadly. And if the latest info is correct, BP/Halliburton's actions are well into the stupid and perhaps into the illegal. BP now says there was a clear warning sign of a "very large abnormality" in the well, but work proceeded anyway.