I bet people who have followed this blog in the past will be surprised to see a post titled “Apple Sucks!” On the other hand I have made it very clear on many occasions that I am not much of a devotee of modern big multinational corporations and Apple is undoubtedly one of those, so maybe it isn’t that much of a revelation.
I have often ranted about how I disapprove of the short-sighted, greedy, self-serving nature of modern commerce but at the same time I have enthused about the great products produced by at least one company (Apple) which is guilty of all of those things.
Am I being inconsistent? Am I being hypocritical? Surely not!
Actually, I don’t think I am. There is a difference between liking a product and liking the organisation that creates that product. Since I have chosen IT as my career I am sort of trapped into being part of the corporate world but that doesn’t mean I approve of it. And if you are going to be part of that world you might as well choose to work with the products from a corporation which, while it is just as evil as any other in its business practices, at least produces spectacular products.
At the same time I do try to use tools which don’t come from the traditional corporate world. I do a lot of web programming and use PHP and MySQL for example. And yes, I know MySQL now belongs to a big corporation! I also use few programs created by big business.
For example, I use no Microsoft or Adobe products. I have made my dislike of Microsoft clear in the past. Not only are they an evil corporation which stifles innovation and quality but they also produce crap products! In the past I excused the evil practices of Adobe because I found at least one of their products (Photoshop) exceptionally useful. But I have even moved on from there and now use an alternative image editor (Pixelmator).
So the software I use either comes from Apple (who receive a reluctant dispensation because they produce great products) or from smaller software publishers, such as Pixelmator (a small company which has only been around a few years and is dedicated to producing great software instead of just producing great profits like Adobe clearly is).
That explains my position on the subject and how I am forced into a compromise which I think is reasonable, but what actually is the problem with corporations? What caused my lack of confidence in the “system” which many people think works extremely well?
The event which lead to me writing this post at this time was a report on how Apple avoids paying tax through various dirty business tricks. As the company’s profits have soared the tax they pay as a percentage of income has reduced. They pay far less tax (as a percentage) than me, for example.
There’s nothing illegal about any of it of course, but is it moral? In a reply to the criticism of their business practices Apple said this: “Apple has conducted all of its business with the highest of ethical standards, complying with applicable laws and accounting rules. We are incredibly proud of all of Apple’s contributions.”
Really? Using tax-loopholes, exploiting the tax laws of small countries, and manufacturing products in virtual slave-labour economies is ethical? Maybe we should have a look at the definition of those words…
Ethics: a set of moral principles, especially ones relating to or affirming a specified group, field, or form of conduct.
Morals: concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.
So that’s not very helpful, is it? Ethics is about moral principles and morals are about right and wrong. But who decides what’s right and wrong? Depending on your source for that anything can be ethical!
It’s a similar problem to one I experienced recently in a discussion with a religious person I met on the internet. He maintained that only God could be the source of morals and only people who followed his god could be moral.
I countered this by saying that for that to be true at the very least his god had to exist, an idea which he was far from proving. And even if his god existed we could never be sure if that god was truly good and whether we could accurately interpret his wishes anyway.
So in the end ethics and morality are all about what we as individuals think is right and wrong. There is no absolute morality in that sense so what right do I have to say that Apple is immoral or for Apple to say that they are moral? Either way it is just an opinion.
Not quite. I think morality is an emergent property of human thought, social interaction, and biology. And there is a strong common set of standards that the vast majority of reasonable, sane people from multiple cultures see as being moral: things such as don’t kill, steal, cheat, lie, etc.
Of course there are plenty of exceptions to these rules but there are just as many exemptions for the god-given versions as well, so I don’t think that makes them any weaker. For example, the Bible says “thou shalt not kill” but George Bush (a supposedly sincere Christian) genuinely thought that God had told him to start two wars which lead to the deaths of a hundred thousand innocent people.
In fact the only moral rules which differ between cultures are those of an obvious religious nature. Most people would agree with many of the Ten Commandments for example (those against murder, theft, etc) but those are just basic moral laws anyway which pre-date the Bible. But the nonsense about the Sabbath, graven images, and having other gods is just irrelevant to anyone who hasn’t bought into Christian mythology and has nothing to do with morality.
In many ways religious people are actually less moral than atheists. But that isn’t really what this blog entry is about and could perhaps be pursued in more depth elsewhere. The question should be: would Apple’s tax avoidance behaviour be seen as moral by the majority of reasonable people?
Probably not. Apple could pay a lot more tax, employ just as many people, and produce just as many great products. They would just have slightly less profit and given how much they already have that would be no real hardship!
So by my definition (and I would contend that of the majority of others) Apple are not ethical despite the fact that they employ a lot of people and produce a lot of great products.
But the simple idea that people and organisations are either ethical or not is maybe an unnecessary source of misunderstanding and conflict. Apple is both ethical and not ethical. So are philanthropists like Bill Gates (who despite creating Microsoft has done far more good than most other people). And so are people who are usually labelled evil, like Osama bin Laden.
Apple, you suck because you fail to pay your fair share of tax but you are great because of the employment you provide (both directly and indirectly) and because of your fantastic products. Fire a few of those tax accountants and corporate lawyers and hire a few moral philosophers. You can do better!