The Series Philosopher

Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn

S02E16: On the genealogy of corporate morality

THE GOOD WIFE: 2x16 Great Firewall -

THE GOOD WIFE: 2×16 Great Firewall – Shen Yuan (in the midle) presses charges against Chumhum, an American ‘Facebook’ for Chinese people, because they gave his IP address to the Chinese authorities and had him tortured and sent to jail.

Can we blame companies for being unethical, even though they did not break any laws? Are they supposed to abide by moral principles or is capitalism by principle immoral? How could international firms cope with the cultural diversity of its markets without bruising anyone’s feelings? Or should we just say that might is right?

In the sixteenth episode of the second season of The Good Wife (CBS), a fictional Chinese-speaking American social network called Chumhum is sued by one of its users, Mr. Shen Yuan (portrayed by Ken Leung, Lost), who was jailed and tortured by the Chinese authorities after sending a message on the website, saying that democracy would come to China. Abiding by the Chinese laws, Chumhum turned over Yuan’s IP address. In the following excerpt, Shen Yuan and his lawyers Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski, Cybill), Will Gardner (Josh Charles, Sports Nights) and Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies, ER, the lead role of the show who is a newbie in the firm and lets the big guys talking during the whole sequence) are welcoming the lawyers of the company Chumhum, among which Viola Walsh (Rita Wilson, Girls) in the conference room in order to record Yuan’s statement.

SHEN YUAN: It was a Thursday. I had just come home, uh, from classes. Very late.

VIOLA WALSH: Now, Mr. Shen Yuan, when you’ve discussed this in the past…

DIANE LOCKHART: Excuse me, don’t you want to hear the rest of his answer?

VIOLA WALSH: Oh, certainly! Please. Continue. [Offering him some cookies] Would you like…?

SHEN YUAN: Um, I-I teach at Beijing Hongwu University… Sorry, I-I taught-taught at. I was working on notes for a lecture. It was 10:00 at night, and the phone rang. It was a voice I didn’t know. He said, “Are you home?” Uh, I laughed. I said, “Yes, of course.” And he hung up. I thought it was a wrong number. Then I was saying good night to my wife. And, um, I-I remember, I-I started to-to say, “Do you think Tolstoy died happy?” But before I finished, the door broke open and ten a-agents came in– Guo an bu– g-government agents. They threw me on the floor, bound my feet, hands, and took me away in my nightclothes. This was in 2004. I didn’t see my wife again until last year. I was, uh, imprisoned in Beijing Prison #9, accused of inciting subversion. You see, I-I had sent a-a blog entry, and I had sent it to a friend here, in Chicago. And I had argued to him that democracy would come to China.

VIOLA WALSH: And how did you know that this was the reason for your arrest?

SHEN YUAN: How-how did I know?

VIOLA WALSH: Yes. There’s no record of your trial or your arrest warrant. How do you know that it wasn’t someone just informing on you?

SHEN YUAN: Because the security men who tortured me for the next three weeks told me so.

VIOLA WALSH: And why do you blame Chumhum for this, sir? Why not the Chinese authorities?

SHEN YUAN: I do… I do blame the Chinese authorities, but I used your social media website. I trusted my writings to remain anonymous. But Chumhum gave my IP address to the police. It’s the only reason why I was arrested, imprisoned and tortured for five years.

[After the deposition, in Diane’s office, while Shen Yuan is waiting behind the door, the attorneys negotiate in private]

DIANE LOCKHART: $28 million. And an agreement to not turn over any more names to the Chinese authorities.


DIANE LOCKHART: Okay, then, what else do we have to talk about? Your cookies?

VIOLA WALSH: Chumhum is a worldwide company, like Yahoo, Google, Facebook. We do business in Canada, Mexico, China, even… Easter Island. We have to follow the laws of each individual country.

WILL GARDNER: That’s your defense?

VIOLA WALSH: That’s part of our defense.

DIANE LOCKHART: And, uh, human rights, they don’t matter?

VIOLA WALSH: Uh, what human rights? One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. Shen Yuan, as sympathetic as he is, broke his country’s laws. We didn’t make those laws. In fact, if we hadn’t handed over his IP address, we would’ve been breaking their laws.

WILL GARDNER: Yeah. Ask Yahoo how well that defense worked.

VIOLA WALSH: Yahoo never went to court.

WILL GARDNER: Yep. They paid up, instead.

VIOLA WALSH: Now we’re talking! Lower your ask.


Obviously, Chumhum didn’t do anything illegal, and that is part of its defense line. The show quotes real-life examples of Yahoo, Facebook, Google, as many successful companies that turn their noses up at ethics and morals in their races to more profit. In 2012, Margaret Hodge, British Public Accounts Committee chairman, waged a highly-publicized war against Google, Starbucks and Amazon, all accused of leaking tax revenues from the UK to tax havens abroad.  She is now famous for saying: “We are not accusing you of beeing illegal. We are accusing you of being immoral“.

In 1996, a scandal blew up and ternished the reputation of one of the most powerful brands: in the June edition of Life magazine, an article about child labor in Pakistan showed pictures of a 12-year-old named Tariq, stitching together the pieces of Nike soccer balls for 60 cents a day.  Even if child labor is a human rights issue to the eyes of the International Labour Office, those Nike sweatshops were totally legal in Pakistan.

And what about Rupert Murdoch and his barely concealed flirtation with the Chinese communist party? His British corporation Sky is expected to be careful never to hurt the feelings of the Chinese government. As Frédéric Martel puts it in his investigation report  Mainstream, Murdoch would cultivate dollars rather than ideas, profits rather than conflicts.

What’s wrong with that? Isn’t it like accusing capitalism of being capitalism?

If you asked Machiavelli (1469-1527), he would tell you to do whatever needs to be done to achieve your goal as a company. We mentioned him and the chapter “Concerning those who by wicked meanes have attaind to a Principality” of The Prince, in our article “Is Honesty an Impediment to Career Success?“. Basically, Machiavelli would say: “Do all the wrong stuff you need to do now. If you gotta kill, kill. If you gotta steal, steal. But keep in mind what you’re trying to achieve as a leader. The sooner you do all those wrongs, the sooner people are going to forget what you did.”

Look at Europe now. It is called the developed countries, the rich countries. And people seem to have already forgotten what it took to Europe to achieve that leading position in terms of legalized violence, genocides, pillaging and human traffic throughout the centuries. And the exception that proves the rule is that Adolf Hitler is remembered for the mass murder of Jewish people rather than for his efforts to revitalize the German economy. The latter are presented in an economic study of the Third Reich by British historian Adam Tooze (born in 1967), called The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (2006).


However, Chester Barnard (1886-1961) would not think like Machiavelli. Instead, he would encourage you to regard corporations as an agregation of individuals. And the behavior of each individual is influenced by moral principles. Barnard was an American business executive, the head of New Jersey Bell in the 1930s, known for his book The Functions of the Executive (1938). He offered an example of management theory through moral persuasion, authenticity, and trust. According to Chester Barnard, any executive should be responsible for defining the purpose of their organization and for instilling loyalty. That loyalty can only result from the employees being satisfied. And once you achieve such loyalty from your employees, you will see managers work for the organization’s good rather than for their own advancement.The key is to satisfy multiple moral codes, such as responsibilities to customers and shareholders.

In other terms, companies that follow a moral code nurture loyalty among their employees. Those employees end up placing the firm’s interests before their personal interests. Is this a deam scenario or a nightmare scenario? On the other hand, bad press about the immoral manners of certain companies can deeply harm their business. Take Nike that was boycotted after the sweatshop’s scandals, take Starbucks that I have been boycotting for years, take Chick-Fil-A that posed itself against same-sex marriage in the US, or Barilla (another brand I’m boycotting), whose CEO Guido Barilla said in March 2013 on an Italian radio show: “I would never do an advert with a homosexual family”.

I used to work for Gleeden, a dating website for married women looking for an affair. “Do you have no shame?”, I was often asked. I don’t know, should I? In some countries, Guido Barilla’s principles will be considered as righteous and moral. In some countries, Gleeden’s principles are criminal and those unfaithful women underlying Gleeden’s tremendous success would have been sentenced to death.

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The Series Philosopher is a blog by P:S • Arts & Entertainment

The Series Philosopher is a woman in her late 20s. Not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.

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