Is it morally reprehensible to buy a Mercedes?
Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in The Atlantic of his desire to buy a BMW. Being Jewish, he had been participating in a single-handed boycott of German automakers. This had been a topic of interest for me since I was a young kid. I remember asking my mother if she would buy a Mercedes if she had the money, and she said yes. I asked if she would still buy one if she were Jewish, and she said no. This bothered me. Cars can’t moral for Hindus but immoral for Jews.
More generally, at what point should we exert moral judgment in our consumption choices? Rose says it’s OK to watch and enjoy Woody Allen movies. But Allen at least says he is innocent. What about the admittedly guilty?
War profiteering wasn’t unique to Daimler-Benz. Large companies in almost every country are often called upon to serve their governments in wartime. They can’t necessarily say “No, we’re not going to fill that order for you.” For this reason, even if the false claims that Daimler-Benz built gas chambers were true, I wouldn’t really hold it against them.
But Daimler was not just a war profiteer. They used slave labor, allowing them to starve or freeze to death. Managers murdered workers, factoids the company now acknowledges were “poor, prison-like conditions”.
But even that could be forgivable if we think Daimler-Benz couldn’t have refused its slave labor. Absent any evidence to the contrary, I think it is perhaps right to forgive them this. We could take issue with the fact that they managed to delay at least one compensation agreement until 1988 and limit their exposure to less than $12 million despite using more than 46,000 slave laborers in 1944, but perhaps there are explanations for that that I have yet to come across. For a frame of reference on that amount, in 2010 the company paid $185 million to settle bribery charges. (I wouldn’t boycott them for that either. If you boycott every company that has been accused of bribery, you’d have to become a subsistence farmer.)
What I find most problematic about Daimler and what separates them from some other German multinationals is that they supported the National Socialists politically before they took control. The defense that you had no choice loses much of its credibility if you brought about the very conditions that later bind you.
Then again, part of why we know about the sins of Daimler is that the company itself opened its files to historians. Clearly, this is not the same company that committed these atrocities originally.
Accordingly, I have never discouraged any of my friends who have bought German cars. As I’ve noted before, I will only support a public boycott “if I view what they are doing as unusually bad when viewed in the spectrum of current beliefs in the society.” No German car company comes close to meeting this standard. Before reading the Goldberg article I had thought my qualms were mine alone.
On the other hand, “I will personally boycott anything you want, even if it isn’t unusually bad in comparison to the spectrum of beliefs in the society.” The history here does make me squeamish. Perhaps if they made better cars at more attractive price points, I’d face a tougher decision. As is, the value proposition of most German cars lag far behind Japan’s. Honda and Toyota far more than any moral scruples make it easy for me to do “the right thing”.