Oil and water are, famously, not great mixers.
Nor, it seems, are oil and theatre, which became apparent when the Royal Shakespeare Company announced it would no longer take sponsorship money from oil mammoth BP. Shortly after, the company severed its relationship with Shell.
What the theatre’s namesake would have made of all this—like most things to do with the clouded life of the playwright—is difficult to know. As well as being a writer and actor, Shakespeare was a skilled entrepreneur, developing profit-share schemes, patronizing the wealthy and their institutions, and negotiating commissions (or “sponsorships” as we call them today) to underwrite his work.
Was Shakespeare squeamish about who to take money from? We can’t know that, either. His plays famously wrestle with some of the great moral dilemmas of all ages. But the quandary of how to respond to the existential threat of a climate emergency, with all its potentially devastating impact on millions of species and billions of human lives, is one that Shakespeare never had to consider.
To navigate this age of corporate-social existentialism, any CEO today is being called on to add a new skill-set to their CV: that of the moral philosopher.
These days, pretty much every business has to consider climate change, along with other matters of large-scale social impact, in one form or another. It is no longer enough to simply be responsible for traditional business performance criteria. A business leader is also accountable for a company’s position on the swathes of social issues that are dividing societies around the world.
As any practitioner of philosophy will tell you, moral philosophy is not a discipline which offers up easy solutions. Consider what happened when Delta Airlines ended its relationship with the US’s National Rifle Association in 2018.
What could be more principled, in the wake of yet another school shooting involving semi-automatic weapons, than that an airline announce it was ending its discounts for NRA members? Cue the rousing applause!
But that applause—at least among Delta’s shareholders—died down a week later when the governor of Georgia announced he was abolishing a fuel tax break the airline previously enjoyed. “Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back,” he said in a tweet. The tax break was worth about $40 million.
As Delta learned, having principles isn’t cheap.
Cutting out the middle
We could say that the lesson learned is an easy one: Don’t let your company get involved in politics. Stick to your knitting, and let others do the hand-wringing. In an increasingly polarized world, stay neutral. Be Switzerland!
But being Switzerland isn’t really an option in an increasingly fraught world. Especially when it comes to business.
The middle-ground is now growing vanishingly small. Today’s political and culture wars can feel like a centrifuge, forcing debate to extremes, with no option to stand ground where the middle used to be. To the combatants at each polarity of a given issue, the very act of lingering in the middle is actually taking sides.
If you don’t believe this applies to you or your company, consider this checklist: Guns, LGBTQ+ issues; tax avoidance; Brexit; religion; diversity; child labor; animal welfare; drugs; gambling; drink, privacy; gender; fair pay; environmental impact; obesity; governmental repression; #MeToo; free speech; diversity; class; disability, impact on children; ethical supply chains; climate change; water; abortion; immigration; same-sex marriage; homelessness.
Assuming you employ human beings, some of these will apply to some aspect of your business. Your employees will care passionately about at least one of these issues, and likely several of them. So will multiple stakeholders and millions on social media who, for the first time in history, have a unique voice and power of influence.
The new moral standard
There is an important distinction in this new age of professional philosopher. Traditional moral philosophers had the advantage of time. They could—and can—think long and hard, sometimes for a lifetime, about particularly intractable issues.
A modern-day CEO doesn’t have that luxury. When the moment comes, no CEO will have the time to sit down with a learned book and a cold towel on their head to ponder. No, your comms team will want an immediate response.
On any given issue, a challenge may come from a journalist. Or a pressure group, or single-issue NGO. It could be in the form of a tweet that’s beginning to trend. Maybe you’re being denounced by one of your own—a Gen Z employee disappointed that her employers aren’t living up to their (or your stated) values. Or, a public figure. The repudiation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s deal with BP came from one of the UK’s most celebrated and loved actors, Sir Mark Rylance, who triggered the public parting of ways with the oil conglomerate with his resignation.
A new type of chief
Personally, I don’t think it’s enough to add philosophical thinking to CEO qualifications. We have CEO and the CFO, CMO and COO; how about hiring a CMP—a chief moral philosopher?
The job description, essentially, would be to get ahead of the curve. To predict the issues that may come back to bite you, and to have defendable arguments at the ready when they do. To ensure a company’s actions reflect mission statements and commitments to the communities it serves.
From my 20 years of editing a newspaper in the turmoil of digital disruption, I know how often I felt compelled to ring someone who might know nothing at all about news editing, but had thought deeply about, say, privacy, or security, or data, or power, or religion, or the limits of free speech. There is barely a day when an editor is not involved in decisions that are fundamentally about ethics rather than journalism. Yet few newsrooms include people with significant training in the related necessary disciplines. Imagine what would have transpired if I could have called up our in-house philosopher.
“Conscience,” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “does make cowards of us all.” Cowardice is not a good look in a business leader. Being armed in advance with as many answers about issues of conscience as you can isn’t a nice-to-have: It is a prudent piece of housekeeping.