The Moral Culpability of Employers

James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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121 Responses

  1. Kazzy says:

    May I offer a thought experiment?

    Employer cuts check to insurer. Employee’s son seeks routine medical procedure. Employee is reimbursed by insurer. Procedure goes wrong, son dies.

    Any moral culpability on the part of the employer?Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:


      I would probably say no, unless the following (or some other implausible scenario) is true:

      The employer chooses a particularly shady insurer that pressures doctors to adopt risky, contraindicated procedures in the hope that the patient dies.Report

  2. Kazzy says:

    To your specific question, I would not assign culpability to the employer for the suicide. Society probably would, but probably not because of any principled reason but rather sheer emotion and/or tribalism (i.e., the left would blame the employer more than the right).Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

      What about if, instead of suicide, the employee, as in Murali’s original example, shoots the president?Report

      • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

        Still no. The employee acted under his own volition and assumes full responsibility for his actions. Unless the employer forced a gun upon him and/or brainwashed him, the employer bears no culpability.Report

      • Does the employer know the employee wanted to shoot a specific person? Why are they providing the gun voucher? It’s the combination between those two, I think, that might bring up culpability.

        ie if the employer hires employees they know might do bad things ™ with their guns, but still decide to give it to them anyway because it helps them retain more employees and get tax benefits, then the employer is substantially more culpable than if they did it after making sure employees are all sport shooters and NRA subscribers who care about gun safety and are ardent quakers and/or buddhists.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to James Hanley says:

        “Does the employer know the employee wanted to shoot a specific person?”

        If that’s the case (and the employer had reason to believe the employee was serious about it and capable of doing the deed) then the employer has a duty to inform the police of potential criminal activity, and the analogy breaks down.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to James Hanley says:

        Without a priori knowledge of a bad act or the possibility/potential of a bad act, culpability is nil (boss had no way to know I’d attack someone with an assault LMP in an 8″ pie pan).

        With a priori knowledge, culpability is only possible if the employer failed to act to notify authorities of the potential bad act (boss informed the police I probably was in possession of an assault LMP & I probably intended to use it against someone; and if the authorities fail to act, that is on them, not the employer).

        If the bad act is morally offensive but not illegal (taking liberties with my LMP, in the spirit of Jim Levenstein), culpability in the legal or social spheres remains nil. If the employer him/herself feels culpable, that is on them and is an issue they’ll have to handle within themselves. This is even more so if there are other uses for a LMP other than personal sexual gratification.Report

  3. Tod Kelly says:

    @james Allow me two responses:

    First, a simple answer to your question: No, I do not believe that there is additional culpability by the employer. Indeed, I believe the argument that there should be to be silly.

    Second, you seem to have gone out of your way to take one overly-emotional charged issue (the ACA, BC) and replaced with another (Gun Control, BC) to use as an employee benefit. Might I suggest that for such a thought experiment, it is better to use a non-emotionally charged employee benefit? There sits one rather obvious example at the ready:

    Two men live in different cities, and are completely unrelated to one another. Each commits murder suicide by driving by driving a car at high speed into a grocery store. One of these men made regular car payments using a money from his paycheck. The other drove a company car — or perhaps the man was reimbursed for mileage and car payments as a benefit.

    Do we view the moral culpability of the two employers differently?Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I’m willing to entertain the idea that a different scenario might be better, and yours might be, but I didn’t say anything about gun control, and since Murali’s original example was about guns, I don’t get where you think I “went out of my way” to use guns.

      How about this. I buy a lemon meringue pie with my paycheck and smack someone in the face with it vs. my company compensates me in part with vouchers to a bakery, one of those vouchers specifically being for lemon meringue pie, and I smack someone in the face with it.

      That seems pretty emotionally uncharged.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to James Hanley says:

        Sorry, from the time I read your piece, went to go make coffee and returned to my computer, I got yours and Murali’s examples mixed up.

        In either case, my answer to your question remains the same.Report

      • James Pearce in reply to James Hanley says:


        A better example would probably be meat. A vegan employer forced to provide vouchers for meat rations or fur coats. It’s absurd in the real world, of course but it’s a better example for thought experiment purposes.

        That one should be “morally culpable” for providing access to meat is not a commonly-held belief, but it is one for vegans. Meat may not be less emotionally charged, but at least it’s charged with the same level of emotion. It’s certainly not bringing murder into the equation.

        That said, in a world of meat vouchers for all, we would need a good reason to make vegan employers provide them for their employees.

        Their carnivorous employees provides a satisfactory reason.Report

      • James Pearce in reply to James Hanley says:

        That said, I don’t see how having to provide meat vouchers makes a vegan employer more morally culpable for their carnivorous employees flesh-eating.

        If anything, it gives them a step back. They didn’t want to do it. They had to. Is the draftee made more morally culpable for not having volunteered?Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to James Hanley says:

        ” They didn’t want to do it. They had to. Is the draftee made more morally culpable for not having volunteered?”

        As Burt said below, “you may now discuss low-ranking Nazis”.Report

      • morat20 in reply to James Hanley says:

        I think a better example: A vegan company offers, as part of a compensation package, a food voucher that can be used solely to purchase food.

        The company had in mind that employees would use it to purchase vegan food. Are they morally culpable if the voucher is used for meat?

        One of the thing missing from the analogy is that the voucher is not good for ‘a’ thing, but a very wide array of things, only some of which are against the issuers moral beliefs. (And further, is complicated by the fact that this voucher or free item is part of a defined compensation package, and further STILL complicated by the fact that companies generally do not give you the WHOLE thing, but generally pay 60 to 80% of the cost, with the other 20 to 40% born by the employee).Report

      • I’m not actually sure any of these clarifications are helping. I think there’s definitely a point where making more analogies isn’t really helpful on the culpability angle, and moving it closer to the original topic is kind of rearranging deck chairs.Report

      • morat20 in reply to James Hanley says:

        I think differentiating between “This is good only for a gun” and “This is good only for Walmart, which sells guns” is kind of important to moral culpability.

        My moral culpability in any sense is reduced by how much capacity you have for choice. If I arrange a situation in which I have systematically removed all possible choices but evil ones, then the fact that you are forced to make an evil choice lies heavily on me — I have arranged it so!

        However, if I place you in a position where you may make many choices, some good and some evil and some neutral, then the morality of your choice is more on you.

        So perhaps a good analogy is this: I give you a “one free item” coupon to Walmart, you choose to buy a gun and shoot someone with it, am I culpable? No, not really.

        I honestly don’t think I’m culpable if I give you a voucher to a gun shop, insofar as you had a infinite number of things to use your gun to shoot — and you chose a person, not a target.

        If I give you a voucher that can ONLY be redeemed for a gun whose SOLE use is to shoot people, then I’m going to feel culpable. But if I give you a voucher to Walmart and you buy such a murder-gun, I’m not.

        The key point to culpability is capacity for choice. The more I restrain anther’s choices, the more culpable I am in his or her actions.Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      ” Might I suggest that for such a thought experiment, it is better to use a non-emotionally charged employee benefit?”

      Or maybe what he’s hoping is that someone will think “huh, my immediate reaction to the gun control scenario is both strongly felt and entirely opposite to my conclusion in the [lemon meringue pie] scenario, even though the same chain of reasoning is used in both cases, I wonder if I’m allowing emotion to short-circuit my judgement in the instance of gun control and what that might mean for [lemon meringue pie]”.

      What’s actually going to happen is that people will think “RAAAGH BLAAAAGH GUNS DAAAARGH GUUUNS AAAAAAAGGGGHGHHH”.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Except, of course, that so far a total of no one is doing that.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        “Might I suggest that for such a thought experiment, it is better to use a non-emotionally charged employee benefit? ”

        In other words, “I’m thinking about how mad guns make people rather than thinking about the example itself”.

        Or, restated, “ARRRGH GUNS DAAARRRGGH”.

        Or, further restated for those horses who take pride in not drinking, “I consider my emotional reaction to the issue of guns to be more important than any other chain of reasoning or inference that James Hanley might intend that I follow”.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Lord, Heffman, you’re really not helping at all.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        You say that like you think his motivation is to help.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Jim Heffman says:


        I addressed this very point, though I’m probably not exactly who you are thinking about because despite being rather leftish, I’m pretty ambivalent on gun control. But I did concede that with the particular example given in the OP, the left would be more in favor of finding the employer culpable, but also stated that this would be for reasons more likely related to emotion or political ideology, not necessarily principle.Report

  4. Saul Degraw says:

    I do not think the employer is morally culpable in either situation unless the employee committed suicide because of workplace harassment issues that the employer did him or herself or knew about or had reason to know about but did nothing about. So if Jill committed suicide because she was assaulted by a co-worker or very valued customer and told not to rock the boat, then the employer is morally culpable.

    I still think that a lot of men do not understand the literal and symbolic power of [lemon meringue pie]. It seems to me [lemon meringue pie] is very important in allowing women to enter modern economic and civil life because it lets them control when they get pregnant or not. It also gives them freedom in their sex lives. If we did not have [lemon meringue pie], women would need to decide between a career and a romantic/sex life in more stark terms. I think the [bunny] and argument basically reads like social control over women. It probably does not help the libertarian argument here that [bunny] is run by Christian fundamentalists/evangelicals and evangelical folkways seem to be a behind the times in many ways when it comes to the equality of women. There are still very strong and vocal parts of the evangelical community that argue a woman’s role is to follow her father and then her husband and is way too focused on female purity. Hence why non-fundamentalists tend to find things like purity balls, pledges, rings, and daddy-daughter proms to be on the freaky side. If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t want her running around with a ne’er do well or a cretin but I am pretty sure that a purity pledge would not be my solution to that problem. So everything gets jumbled together whether it should be or not. Politics makes a muddle of things.

    Then there is this lovely bit from the Texas Republican Party Platform:

    This is what the see as the freedom for women:

    “We strongly support a woman’s right to choose to devote her life to her family and children.”

    I don’t see what her other options are in this platform. They might as well write that women should be barefoot and pregnant by 18.

    I understand your point on [bunny] but again politics makes a muddle of things. It seems to me that a large chunk of the country has been in open rebellion against any progressive advancement since WWII if not before. I think it started way before Goldwater. It started with people who were bitter about Eisenhower getting the GOP nomination over Taft. There are always going to be conservatives and people on the far-right but the fact that we have such an entrenched battle against most massively popular legacies of the New Deal and the Great Society says something very interesting. No conservative in Britain would dare argue against NHS like modern Republicans argue against Social Security and Medicare. The cult of Ayn Rand and Reagan is still way too strong and will seemingly take decades to die down or fade.

    So [bunny] is really about a broader resistance to modernity even if it does cross over to a reasonable enough libertarian point about what employers should and should not pay for. One of my standard problems with some people in the libertarian and conservative movements is the fetishization of property rights over all other rights. Rights are in competition and balance but it seems to me that allowing minorities to fully participate in economic and civil life is much more important and libertarian than the right of a business owner to be allowed to hang a sign that says “Blacks and Hebrews and Gays need not apply or enter.”Report

  5. Burt Likko says:

    Employer has no moral culpability in any of these cases. Employer is not the agent deciding anything in any of these scenarios.

    If employer says, “hey, employee, lemon meringue pie is THE BESTEST THING EVER and you should eat a lot of it,” maybe employer is culpable in part for employee’s eventual obesity and heart bypass surgery. But note there how the employer is actually doing something volitionally.

    In the [bunny] case, the employer was instructed by the law to buy insurance for [lemon meringue pie] so the employee could [eat] it if she wanted, or not. Complying with the law is not volitional, nor is employer encouraging the consumption of [lemon meringue pie]. No agency, no moral culpability. And let’s not forget the further remove, which is that the company itself, a non-human legal entity, is properly understood as unable to e press a preference concerning [lemon meringue pie] and so the moral preferences of its human stockholders must be imputed to it. Illogically and wrongly, IMO.

    But even if it were a sole proprietorship, compliance with the mandatory law removes moral agency.

    You may now discuss low-ranking Nazis.Report

  6. Nob Akimoto says:

    I think what makes this thought experiment a bit different is that we’re talking about actual demonstrable harm either in the case of the suicide or smacking someone in the face with a lemon pie

    I get that from the perspective of people making the argument about moral culpability these things are equivalent, but this seems a little off to me as a comparison, because the amount of harm done isn’t subjectively equivalent.

    How about something more neutral? Say a company provided car. If you run over someone while driving a company car, is the employer more culpable than if you did so with a car you bought with the money they gave you instead?

    The reason the employer provided you with the company car might be part of the equation in such a case. For example, if the employer decided to give you a company car because non-income compensation got privileged for their taxation purposes AND gave them a benefit in the hiring market. Would that have a different level of moral culpability than if they provided the car because they thought everyone should drive a gas-electric hybrid and did so because they felt they had a moral duty to provide hybrids due to their environmental friendliness?

    I think in that case, yes, there would be a difference in culpability.Report

    • Chris in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      The car example is a good one, because you can apply the sorts of considerations that should go into moral judgment. For example, did the employee to whom the company provided the car have a history of reckless driving, or perhaps drunk driving, of which the company was aware (or could easily have been aware, and therefore should have been aware)? Then the company is morally culpable.

      Having knowledge that something is likely, or the reasonable expectation of such knowledge, is sufficient for moral culpability if you put someone in a position for it to happen. Giving a drunk with a dozen DUI arrests a company car would count. Giving a person with a clean driving record a car would not.Report

  7. Jaybird says:

    Okay, the example that I came up with, thought about, thought about some more, and was eventually troubled by.

    Oftentimes, I discuss paying my way through college by working at the restaurant. (This was back when it was cheap enough for someone living at home to pay for college by working at a restaurant.)

    Now if I said that my mom was trying to prevent me from going to college, that’d be downright slanderous. I get pissed off at myself for even typing that sentence hypothetically in an argument. (And it’s not exactly true, it’s more that I got through my college fund by the time I was done with my sophomore year and I had to finish my schooling in a local college that was cheap. BUT WITH THAT SAID. Let’s go with the example.)

    Anyway, I paid my way through college. If I wanted to say that my mom was trying to prevent me from going to college because she didn’t pay for it, that’d be downright risible. As a matter of fact, if someone else said that, I’d probably write something about their towering sense of entitlement and ask about when they suspect they will be responsible for themselves, if ever.

    Okay. Then I started thinking about it some more.

    Let’s say that I have X siblings.
    Asa Bird had mom pay for his college.
    Bea Bird had mom pay for her college.
    Cece Bird had mom pay for her college.
    Dee Bird had mom pay for her college.

    And so on.
    We get to Jay Bird and, suddenly, “I’m not going to pay for your college but neither will I prevent you from going.”

    And while it’s technically true, it sure as hell would *FEEL* like I was being prevented.

    (Now let me say again that mom provided immeasurable help for me to go to college, not least of which included the expectation that I’d go and the expectation that I’d graduate. Thanks, Mom.)Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to Jaybird says:

      To be correct, your mom would have to say “I’ll pay for community college but not Harvard”.

      Or, even more properly, “I’ll pay for tuition and books and the basic meal plan, but if you want an upgraded meal plan then you have to buy that yourself, because it’s morally strengthening for you to eat in the dining hall, and that expensive fatty sugary food is bad for you anyway”.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Well, it’s about the feelings, isn’t it?

        Over and over again, I come back to the story that demonstrated Solomon’s wisdom.

        Solomon is boring. The mother of the live baby is boring.

        The mother of the dead baby? That’s some fascinating stuff going on there, I tell you what.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        I’ll pay for you to play afterschool volleyball or baseball or lacrosse, but I am not paying for you to play soccer, because soccer players go crazy and murder people. Also, Ann Coulter says that soccer is communism.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Is this one of those things where you see your analogy as a slam dunk for your position and I see your analogy as a fair representation of what’s going on (though with a handful of extraneous (and a a dash of inaccurate) info) and we’re stuck with you seeing it as obviously wrong to not pay for 4 things instead of 3 and me saying “it’s your money”?Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Also, I’m going to claim to tax break for paying for sports.Report

    • Glyph in reply to Jaybird says:

      So what you are saying is, if the slope is already slippery, benefits at least better slide down it all the way to ‘J’.

      (but not all the way to Zack Bird. That dude needs to get off the basement sofa already).Report

    • Guy in reply to Jaybird says:

      What if it wasn’t that Momma Bird had agreed to help Asa-Kelly Bird through college, but that Momma Alligator, Momma Bird, Momma Crocodile, Momma Deer, and so on had all agreed to pay for their children’s college*, whatever college that might be. But, when Jay Bird wanted to go off to Specific Private University A, Momma Bird said, “I don’t think you should go there. You won’t get a good education
      if you go to SPUA. You’re an adult now, so you’re free to go wherever you want, but I’m not going to pay for a degree that won’t help you get employed.”

      Now is Momma Bird stopping Jay Bird from going to college?

      *And all of them could afford it. Let’s stipulate that all of these mothers are multi-millionaires.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:


      But you also have to factor in that if mom pays for college, tuition is X. But if you pay for college on your own, tuition is 10X. Almost no one — not Birds or any other animal family — pays for college on their own. Damn near everyone gets help for college payments from their moms because the system is setup to make it significantly easier to do so. And it is the government that made the system that way, mind you. The government put its finger on the scale to make college cheaper for people whose parents will pay for it, then said that parents had to pay for it, but then said, “Oh, sorry 10th born children, they don’t have to pay for you.” So the 10th borns and the 10th borns alone are left paying 10X for college.Report

      • Murali in reply to Kazzy says:

        In fact, in Singapore, for a while starting from the 80s, and going on to the early 2000s, IIRC, the 4th child(3rd in the 80s) would not have subsidised primary and secondary education while the first three (two in the 80s) would.Report

  8. Mike Schilling says:

    To get the analogy right, the insurance should cover a variety of generally useful and unobjectionable things, say hardware, and the guy commits suicide by hitting himself over the head with a crescent wrench, which the vast majority of people use for fixing things around the house. And the entire RIght Wing Noise Machine keeps saying that household repair is immoral; if you break things, you need to live with the consequences.Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Your version only works if the primary purpose of crescent wrenches is suicide, and they are in fact advertised and prescribed for that use.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Nope. Try again.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Actually, @jim-heffman , the better analogy would be a knife. We all likely use them every day for perfectly peaceful uses, cutting food and so forth. And yet some are explicitly designed and marketed as weapons and any knife can be used as a weapon.Report

      • Kim in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        Truedat. and I know a knife dealer, who did decide to stop selling certain knives… after learning about several satisfied customers relieving underlings of appendages (pinkies).

        Morality is a little bigger than actual culpability.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      I’m not trying to make an analogy to [lemon meringue pie]. I’m trying to talk about a general question of logic and/or emotional response.

      It’s a question that has, as we can see, lots of various scenarios, which, sure, can all be seen as analogies to each other. But I’m not interested in analogizing to one of them. I’m interested in the general logic.Report

      • Philip H in reply to James Hanley says:

        I can agree with you that in the case of the legal requirement that [bunny] provide [lemon meringue pie] written into the ACA, lots of illogical emotion seems to have ruled both public discourse and the ultimate SCOTUS decision. And there in lies the rub. You are asking us about general logical approaches (and I presume fallacies) on highly emotional issues of public policy and discourse, and you trying to do so with a redacted reference to a recent SCOTUS decision. That approach, in and of itself, is likely to get you illogical emotional responses BECAUSE you keep trying to refer obliquely to the case in question.

        That aside, I see nothing in the discussion here, or in the [bunnies] case that imputes corporate moral or ethical culpability to the [bunnies] simply because the [bunnies] owners moral code runs against 4 types of [lemon meringue] out of the many types offered to the employee in insurance coverage. If you want to go to moral culpability issues, then ask why [bunnies] using SCOTUS to achieve a waiver from part of the [lemon meringue pie] mandate was a morally or ethically superior approach to just turning the insurance part of the employees compensation from a defined benefit to a reimbursement for purchase of insurance on the exchanges (which I understand to be a legal option). Where’s the moral culpability of the [bunnies] when it comes to inflicting their views through expensive court proceedings?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        BECAUSE you keep trying to refer obliquely to the case in question.

        No, I’m trying to detach the issue from that case, because I think it’s an interesting question in its own right.Report

      • Volition + agency = moral responsibility.

        ~ volition = ~ agency = ~ moral responsibility.

        Volition + ~ no agency = ~ moral responsibility.

        We need not make this about lemon meringue pie, the thing that pies are analogies for, Nazis, guns, laws, or anything else.

        The ability to act, and a decision to thus act, are necessary conditions for moral culpability to attach to an actor.

        The wolf is not morally culpable for killing the deer. The rifle is not morally culpable for the assassination of the President. The paralyzed hospital patient is not morally culpable for failing to perform CPR on the nurse suffering a cardiac incident.

        The employer is not morally culpable for decisions made by an employee outside the course and scope of her employment.Report

      • morat20 in reply to James Hanley says:

        So that leaves the questions of “why do they feel they are” and “under what circumstances should we cater to their feelings of culpability, and thus restrain the freedoms of others”

        Because here we have a case of those who feel they ARE culpable in pie-eating (or whatnot) whose actions are making it more difficult for others to, you know, eat pies. Should we allow the anti-pie people to assuage their guilt at the cost of increasing the burden on the pie-eaters?Report

      • This may sound a bit cruel at first, but I’m not sure I care all that much about how they “feel,” @morat20 . There are bad moral acts going on in a cosmic sense, but there is a point beyond which it is unreasonable to hold a particular person morally culpable for them. The only metrics by which I can imagine moral culpability being ascertained are the two great pillars of ethical philosophy: intent and effect, which is to say, volition and capability.

        Either that moral event horizon creates an objective boundary within which one is morally culpable and beyond which one is not,* or one’s own subjective perceptions of where one’s own individual moral event horizon lies governs.

        Now, if there is an objective boundary to one’s moral culpability (this is how I vote), then how I “feel” about events happening near but beyond that border is quite irrelevant to the fact that they are, in fact, beyond the boundary of things that I am morally “on the hook” for. If there is no such thing as an event horizon, then why is your perception of the extent of that moral event horizon any better or worse than my own?

        And the nature of this very discussion is such that we have arrogated to ourselves the ability to perceive the point when that event horizon has been crossed. Correctly, I should think, for I maintain that morality is knowable by human beings even if sometimes it is difficult. So if it is knowable, and we aspire to or pretend to know it, then the subjects of our ethical inquiry no more get to claim moral culpability when it does not actually attach by virtue of their subjective and fallible perception than they get to escape culpability by saying they don’t feel like they ought to be culpable. They either are or they aren’t.

        * We may alternatively posit gradation of culpability rather than an all-or-nothing event horizon, but again with what will we ascertain those gradations other than the moral actor’s capabilities and intentions? No other metric appears even plausibly relevant. And again, the question of “morally culpable or not” must ultimately have a binary answer, for to pronounce one “morally culpable, but only a little bit” is the equivalent of being “syphilitic, but only a little bit.”Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        if there is an objective boundary to one’s moral culpability (this is how I vote),

        What, no reasonable person standard? 😉Report

      • The “reasonable person” standard is an objective standard! Professor. Subjective standards are when they are party-specific (e.g., did the woman actually receiving the proposition perceive it as offensive).Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        I’m not sure I’d call what 12 semi-randomly selected people determine at any given time is reasonable to be an objective standard. Granted, it’s a good effort to minimize the subjectivity of any one person’s reasonable, but still…Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to James Hanley says:

        I think Burt’s point here is salient.

        If we allow a corporation to “feel” a sense of culpability that comes from the holders, that we would not otherwise legally ascribe to it, and then grant that corporation a privilege not normally accorded other such entities who do not “feel” such culpability, do we not risk the reversal? Could someone outside a corporation then sue for relief against the corporation & it’s holders because they argue they feel the corporation is culpable. How is their subjective sense of who is responsible any less valid than the corporations?Report

  9. Nob Akimoto says:

    Can this be turned around and asked:
    If you knew the employee was suicidal and there was some way to pay him that made him unable to buy firearms, would not taking that path include moral culpability if he took his standard pay, bought a gun and shot himself?Report

    • And does the extent of the culpability change depending on whether or not the employer in question claims a certain set of beliefs?Report

      • Guy in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        I think when we ask “would agent X be culpable if it countributed to act Y in this manner?” we don’t really care if act Y is immoral. There’s already an implied [and act Y is (hypothetically) immoral].Report

      • Guy in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        mod rescue?Report

      • Chris in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        Would paying a person in everything-but-gun stamps prevent him or her from getting a gun? Would it even make it significantly more difficult?Report

      • Chris in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        And would not getting a gun make suicide more difficult? Can you pay someone in everything-but-gun-rope-razor blades-and-bridge toll stamps?

        Also, if you pay a large number of people, knowing that X number of people commit suicide with stuff they buy with the money they earn, that is not different than paying for the service that provides the guns/ropes/razor blades/tokens for the bridge toll on request to your employees, from a moral calculation standpoint.Report

    • zic in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      Perhaps a better question would be that, given any person’s medical records are private, does the local gun store (who both a business and a person) hold moral culpability for a person who buys a gun and then uses it commit suicide? To go on a murderous rampage?

      This better reflects the analogy to [lemon meringue pie], and flips the position of those claiming the right to impose their action-limiting moral rules on others.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to zic says:

        We’re not discussing an analogy.Report

      • zic in reply to zic says:

        Then for the discussion at hand, I think you need to also consider the morals of the employer kidnapping an employee and forcing them to bodily do something for some amount of time; something that will have life-long repercussions on the employee.

        Otherwise, I continue to argue this whole exercise is nonsense, a moral exercise in examining apples while the bowl on the table is filled with oranges.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to zic says:

        Personally, I’m opposed to employers kidnapping employees.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to zic says:


        Nobody’s making you participate in this discussion. If you’re insistent on talking only about bunnies and lemon meringue pie, there’s already a thread for that.Report

      • zic in reply to zic says:

        I did not include lemon merengue pie in my comment, for what it’s worth, somebody thought it appropriate to put words in my mouth for me.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to zic says:

        Yes, @zic, I gave fair warning in the OP that I would do that, and I’ve done it to several folks here. It’s not personal.Report

  10. Mike Dwyer says:

    Let’s try this one in the reverse direction: Employee is forced to join union. Union donates employee’s money to get candidate John Doe elected. President John Doe sends troops to invade Timbuktu and seize their chocolate chip refineries. Lots of people die.

    Who is at fault?

    We could say that the employee has no choice but to give money to the union, just like an employer might have no choice but to fund a health insurance plan. The union makes the decision to donate to a political candidate, not really knowing what he might do if elected just like the employer might not know what the insurance company is going to offer the employees in the way of benefits. The reason why the two situations are not equivalent is because the employee and the union don’t know what the candidate will do once in office. the employer knows exactly what the insurer is going to do.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      And again, I’m not seeing the culpability of the employee here.

      (Though fwiw, I liked this analogy.)Report

    • greginak in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      But the employer doesn’t know or have any say in what the employees do even if the insurer offers a benefit. All they know is the insurer will offer. The choices by the insurer about whether to authorize a payment, based on it’s internal polices, and the employee are made entirely by individuals other than the employer. So the employer doesn’t seem to have any culpability.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to greginak says:


        I agree with your assessment here, however didn’t the [bunny] case hinge on the employer being able to stop funding a plan that provided [lemon meringue pie]? Or what if when they negotiated the plan they simply said that would be a deal-breaker? Those on the losing side of the case argued that they shouldn’t have the right to do that. It would be no different of the employer said they refused to fund a plan that would not give vaccinations because they thought they cause autism. Stupid? Yes. Their prerogative as the funder? It seems legally so.Report

      • greginak in reply to greginak says:

        Well yeah, that is what the Pro-[bunny] side argued but i thought that was weak along with the Supremes decision. I never saw [bunny] as enabling the things they didn’t like, it was solely the choice of their employees and [bunny] had no culpability. It seems a somewhat feudal attitude for a company to feel responsible for the entirely private medical choices their employees make.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to greginak says:

        It seems kind of weird to say that a company should abdicate their feelings of moral culpability when we so often hear that companies are not moral enough. Businesses are regularly criticized for claiming that some Terrible Byproduct of Their Business is not their fault because the problem happened downstream. It feels like the same old political debate where both sides ignore the contradictions in the way they behave in any given situation.Report

      • Guy in reply to greginak says:

        @mike-dwyer I’d say a downstream byproduct of a company’s business is quite a bit different than how their employers choose to use their compensation, from a moral standpoint. The key difference being that in the second case, there’s another agent more directly involved.Report

      • greginak in reply to greginak says:

        Depending on the issue you might have a point Mike. I think businesses should be responsible for things they directly cause. If a factory puts stuff in the air they are culpable for that. I think if we talk about food we see a lot of these contradictions and confusions. I don’t think McD’s is responsible for obesity even among a person who eats there often. I know plenty of people would however be accusatory of McD’s. But the total food consumption and exercise output of a person is their own responsibility. There habits are their own to deal with for better or worse. I think it is fair to say McD’s is responsible for making unhealthy food for whatever that may mean( i had a very yummy big mac and fries on sunday btw). Their is responsibility on both sides about different things although they may overlap.

        Food especially is an issue where many liberals fall back to much on blaming companies which puts to much culpability on business.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to greginak says:

        ” I think businesses should be responsible for things they directly cause.”

        Does buying tungsten directly cause the suffering of Congolese children?

        Does making guitars from hardwood purchased without the proper forms of documentation directly cause the destruction of old-growth forests?Report

      • greginak in reply to greginak says:

        Jim- Well if Spacley Sprockets goes to a tungsten mining company that employs child miners and says i would like to buy a piece of tungsten from you, they are moving towards being partly culpable for what the mining company does. That partial culpability hinges on whether SS knows the mining practices of Conglomerated Tungsten Inc. Also is CTI the only place in the world to buy a piece of tungsten? If SS’s actual choice is to buy Tungsten from CTI who pays their child miners in one dollar of company scrip vs. Amalgamated Tungsten Mine whose miners are well paid adults with OSHA protections then SS is culpable for their choice.

        I think companies are culpable for the actual materials they use to build their stuff. That seems obvious. If their are forms to be filled out that might or might not be an actual pita.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to greginak says:

        “Well if Spacley Sprockets goes to a tungsten mining company that employs child miners ”

        I’m talking about conflict minerals and Dodd-Frank.Report

      • greginak in reply to greginak says:

        And i gave you an answer to the query you raised. It just wasn’t the answer, apparently, you really truly wanted. Do you have an actual question or contribution?Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to greginak says:

        “And i gave you an answer to the query you raised. ”

        You gave a nonsense answer based on a misreading of the question due to your lack of knowledge.

        Does a business’s purchase of tungsten directly harm Congolese children? Look up the details of conflict minerals and the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act before you answer so that you don’t look like an idiot again.Report

    • zic in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      (Shouldn’t that be President John Dough?)Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      Maybe we could resolve this problem by asking if people should be forced to pay union dues.

      Was there a recent Supreme Court case about that?Report

    • Philip H in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      If the employer knows exactly what the insurer will do in terms of the plans it offers, and the employer has a moral objection to a small part of the plan, then the employer needs to get better negotiators if it can’t get the plan it wants.

      The thing everyone seems to be papering over in the [bunnies] discussion is that [bunny] wanted to be waived from 4 of 26 allowable options for [lemon meringue pie]. They claimed that the ACA was an all or nothing proposition, but reading it (I know, who reads federal laws) what it appears to say is here are the types of [lemon meringue pie] that should be in employer sponsored health insurance plans. It doesn’t say you can’t negotiate for four less then that number, and it doesn’t say you can’t negotiate for more options. It just says what we think should be there.

      And again, of there’s a moral culpability issue anywhere, its on the use of america’s courts to negotiate supposedly free market insurance provision – which is as illogical a business approach as anything I’ve ever seen.Report

  11. Dan Miller says:

    I’d say there’s no moral culpability in either case. It would be possible for someone to feel that lemon meringue pie is morally wrong, and to lobby the government to not require that employers give their employees pie vouchers. But assuming that the pie vouchers are in fact the law of the land, there’s no reason that the employer should feel guilty when his employee smacks someone in the face with a pie. I highly doubt society would see it that way either.Report

  12. Chris says:

    Conditions sufficient for moral culpability for any agent:

    1) Foreknowledge or the reasonable expectation thereof.
    2) Preventability or alternative courses of action.
    3) Willful action (or inaction) given (1) and (2).

    If I know that immoral act Y will occur if I do X, and I willfully do X anyway, I am morally culpable. This is not always a straightforward calculation, of course: it requires counterfactual reasoning, and with more than a few parameters, counterfactual reasoning gets messy fast, but if it can be shown that these 3 conditions hold, then we have a good reason to assign moral culpability.Report

    • zic in reply to Chris says:

      There’s something in this mix about whose moral culpability that gets lost.

      Once they ate the apple and were thrown out of Eden, God only told Adam and Eve what was moral and immoral, he left them with the free will to make the choice.

      Assigning that moral culpability to the employer infringes on the free will of the employee to find their own moral path. For a lot of women, preventing an unwanted pregnancy is a deeply-held moral responsibility.Report

      • Chris in reply to zic says:

        For many Christians, knowingly acting in such a way that promotes an immoral act, even if it would happen without your so acting, is a sin. This is why, to take one example, many Christians vote to outlaw gay marriage: it is not so much that they think the government should enforce their morality as it is that, if they voted not to outlaw them, they would be complicit in what they see as a sin, and therefore sinners themselves.

        This is, I believe, not exactly the same as the sort of moral calculation I’m talking about. It has an element of guilt by association that I think is very difficult to deal with legally, because it requires a wholly separate calculation about what constitutes Christian support/complicity/condoning/etc. This, I think, is where the [bunny] case is much, much messier than any of the scenarios James provides. We can reasonably make a distinction between, say, paying a large group of employees in cash knowing that percentage of people in the general population who will pay for guns that ultimately lead to murder or suicide, but can a Christian group do so? If so, can they do the same with vouchers for guns? These are religious questions, not secular ethical ones.Report

      • Chris in reply to zic says:

        tl/dr version: Those of us who don’t think about sin and our relationship to it quite the same way an Evangelical Christian does making points about moral culpability are almost certainly going to miss the point by a pretty wide margin.Report

      • zic in reply to zic says:

        The problem here becomes that if they are morally culpable for indirect acts, they are culpable for the collective action, too, not just the company action. The collective action, under ACA is to provide contraception; the collective action is that sex outside of marriage is legal. The logical extreme of their moral culpability is that they are culpable for any of these things that are legal.

        We have tried this experiment; the women in Ireland who got pregnant outside of marriage, for instance, banished from their families to a home to give birth, and then sent away from their children — who had not right of family — into indentured servitude.

        That is immoral.Report

      • Chris in reply to zic says:

        The problem here becomes that if they are morally culpable for indirect acts, they are culpable for the collective action, too, not just the company action.

        True, and you won’t have to look far to find Christians who think this way. This is why some of them will interpret things like natural disasters as collective punishment. Because we tacitly condone the direction of society by being part of it, we’re guilty in the eyes of God.Report

      • Chris in reply to zic says:

        By the way, I’m not trying to defend them. I’m just pointing out that our reasoning in the cases that James has provided in the OP and the reasoning of many Evangelical Christians will be different.Report

      • zic in reply to zic says:

        Their reasoning, based on belief, is subject to critique and push-back by people who hold other beliefs, too. ‘Belief’ reasoning rests on first-amendment protections, but how far can one person’s expression of their belief intrude into another’s expression of their belief? And the first protects expression of ‘religion’ instead of ‘belief,’ and religion here strikes me as the basket of moral beliefs people hold; so are people who have strong beliefs but no religion not protected by the 1st since they cannot sincerely claim their belief is religious belief. Isn’t this unequal treatment?Report

  13. Hey James, I think this is a fairly decent thought experiment (and I’m glad the thread hasn’t turned into discussions about shooting bunnies), so I’m going to answer the two question you pose:

    Question 1
    Situation 1: I say the employer bears no moral responsibility (barring other facts not presented).
    Situation 2: I need to put a qualifier here (because I don’t think the question can be satisfactorily answered without it): the employer bears no moral responsibility if there is a non-nefarious use for a gun. If a gun only has nefarious uses, then, yes, the employer bears moral responsibility.

    Question 2
    I think many people would see more culpability in Situation 2, but it’ll probably rest on your opinion of guns and American gun culture. Someone could easily argue that giving money to the NRA perpetuates America’s unhealthy love of guns. Maybe that doesn’t make the employer specifically responsible for the specific incident, but it would make them somewhat responsible on a more general level…but this blame would fall on the employer separate from their roll of employer.

    (However, if you don’t think America has an unhealthy love of guns, I imagine you would not blame the employer at all.)

    Okay, now I have a question or two for, if you please:
    Regarding Situation 2, is the donation to the NRA considered part of the employee’s compensation package? Or, to tweak a bit, does the employer make a donation to the NRA for each new hire the employer makes?

    It would seem to me that if you answer “yes” to either of those questions, then there is an inducement/incentive for the employee to go out and buy a gun. If you are, in any way, encouraging people to buy guns and then one of those people does something bad with the gun, then, yeah, you’re probably somewhat responsible.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:


      My unstated assumption was that the contribution to the NRA was part of the employee’s compensation. That’s where the reimbursement for the gun (or ammo) comes in.

      We could simplify it and just say a coupon to a gun store, which might be more straightforward. But I wanted to get the same structure as Tod’s situations, so I tabbed the NRA to stand in the place of an insurer. Possibly that added uneeded complexity.Report

  14. trizzlor says:

    There’s no doubt in my mind that if an employer as policy gave the employees an option to receive a paycheck at the end of the month or a gun, then the anti-gun public would hold the employer responsible for any subsequent shootings. Indeed, a relaxed version of this kind of policy – where employees would go to a bank where they could also buy a gun – was one of the big punch-lines in Bowling for Columbine showing how crazy those rednecks get. More recently, there have been sporadic instances of organizations having gun raffles which have sparked loud contempt on the left, even though a cash prize isn’t particularly difficult to turn into a gun in states where this happened. So there’s no question that people tend to view the two situations as different.

    And while I’m sure that it would be gut-wrenching for a pacifist organization to provide gun-vouchers for their employers, at the end of the day they are not ethically culpable, and their anguish has to be weighed against the compelling interest of such a policy. If we lived in Israel, where the government has demonstrated a compelling interest in arming the population, and such a policy (required gun-vouchers) was implemented, my response to pacifist organizations would be the same: 1) learn to deal with it by educating your employees and the public about the necessity of pacifism; 2) become a non-profit and institute any policy you want; 3) accept the financial penalty that goes along with not participating in this government policy.Report

  15. DavidTC says:

    There are a lot of us who don’t see any moral culpability either way. Or, rather, the same amount of moral culpability, which is not very much. (On the scale of ‘moral culpability for a suicide’, surely someone’s friends who failed to notice something was wrong bear more culpability than some HR guy who printed a paycheck.)

    Especially if what was left out of the hypothetical was true, that the employer was *required by law* to pay for ‘gun insurance’. (The Affordable Gun Act? Presumably this world has panthers and bears and other dangerous animals wandering the streets, so owning a gun is basically a requirement.)

    Of course, I’m not entirely sure this disproves the point you’re trying to make, because the *purpose* of guns, in this hypothetical world, is to kill animals, and the person who committed suicide is *misusing* them. The analogy doesn’t quite work. You really need something that people object to *the standard use* of. Let’s see if I can think of a better example:

    For some unknown reason in this hypothetical world, *housing* is tied to employment, and employers often provide houses for their workers, because that’s not subject to taxes. With the passage of the Affordable House Act, the government has mandated that employers, if they want tax deductions for providing a ‘house’, must provide specific things in the house. One of these things is heating and cooling.

    However, some people have moral objections to paying for cooling systems, because they claim that those cooling systems destroy the ozone layer. They are, in fact, wrong, they’re thinking of freon, which is not used anymore, but nevertheless they still believe that. (And others are objecting to all air conditioners, period, claiming that the lack of heat and humidity causes people to become weak.)

    Meanwhile, in a bit of this world’s history, people who live in warmer climates in this country have, often, been discriminated against (The invention of climate control was a great advance in their civil rights), and a lot of people are pointing out the interesting fact that only *those* people really need cooling system, and it sure is interesting that no one seems to have a problem with paying for heat pumps, which is basically just an air conditioner running backwards.

    There you go, James, you can have that analogy for free.Report

  16. Bert The Turtle says:

    I’m going to try to thread the needle here and come up with a new analogy as well as an answer to the Prof’s question of moral culpability. Let’s say that the management of the company Wobbly Bobby has a moral objection to investing in stocks because they consider it to be against the biblical injunction against usury. However, the government has passed a law that declares that all employers must provide a comprehensive 401(k) plan to employees or the company will have to pay a tax penalty. Wobbly Bobby tries to get around this by providing a 401(k) which only allows employees to invest in either gold or mayonnaise jars filled with cash and buried in the backyard. The gov’t comes in and says that a 401(k) without stocks is not comprehensive and that Wobbly Bobby will have to either pay the tax penalty or provide a different 401(k) to employees.

    Now back to the question of moral culpability: if Wobbly Bobby makes contributions to an employee’s 401(k) which the employee subsequently uses to purchase stock shares of Lemon Merengue Pies Inc. (symbol: LMP), is WB promoting usury? I think I have to conclude “yes,” but only very weakly. In my view, the threshold for moral culpability is primarily determined by the ability of an actor to choose between alternate options. In this case, WB can pay the tax penalty to avoid the 401(k) mandate and thereby avoid directly the usurious funding of LMP. On the other hand, if no tax penalty were available and the only other option was to dissolve the company to avoid forming a 401(k), then I’d probably swing the other way and claim that WB is in the clear. This goes back to Tod’s post about paying taxes which fund government activities that some would consider as immoral. Since avoiding taxes isn’t an option, the aspect of choice has been removed and WB is absolved.Report

  17. Patrick says:

    I’m having a day of days, so uncharacteristically I haven’t read the whole comment thread.

    Here’s my first observation: the first question of moral culpability of the organization is going to rest on the organization’s low-lying fruit, as it were.

    To some extent, a case can be made (anything from a trivially weak case to a very strong case, circumstances depending) that an organization has either aided or abetted the actions of a member of that organization.

    If you claim to be a morally-motivated organization, then, my first heaping of opprobrium, if any, is going to come to you not based upon what the member of the organization did, or in what manner that was operationalized by the organization, but instead what the organization knew about the member of the organization in question.

    Like, if you have a run-of-the mill org and some employee goes off his or her nut and drives a car through a storefront window, as suggested by Tod above, I’m not particularly going to say that the employer has any culpability at all unless, you know, the employer has a record of showing up at the start of the working day plowed out of his gourd on the Demon Rum… in which case, having piloted an organizational car is far less relevant (for anybody other than the insurance adjuster) than… “why were you employing a serial drunk driver, now?”

    If the organization claims a moral duty in this space, I think the first expression of that moral duty is in who you hire, not what access you give them, or not.Report

  18. LWA says:

    I think one of the things creating difficulty here is the premise that 2nd degree moral culpability can be reliably determined by some logic where [lemon meringue pie] or [X] is a variable that can be assigned any value.

    In most moral orderings, the obligation of 2nd degree participants varies with the gravity of what is at stake- for minor issues, the 2nd degree participant can enable or empower someone, and yet remain detached morally from the outcome. But when the severity crosses a threshold, there is an assumed obligation to intervene in the actions of others.Report

  19. Wardsmith says:

    I wanted to comment on this, but kept reading about lemon merengue pie, and now I’m off to the store to find some. It’s hot outside, so I might settle for key lime pie instead. 🙂Report