Recently my MBA business ethics class discussed the case of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo as well as the case of the Danish Mohammed cartoons published in 2006. Somebody also brought up Sony and its movie The Interview. We had just covered the virtue of integrity: loyalty to rational principles. The consensus in class seemed to be that integrity is important because consistently acting on principle is the only way for business firms to achieve long-term profitability.
Most students were nodding their heads when I brought up the example of BB&T, the Fortune 500 bank, and its long-time (now retired) CEO John Allison who ran the company with great integrity. For example, he refused to let BB&T finance any deals where government used eminent domain to confiscate private property for the sake of “public interest.” The bank lost a few municipality clients, but thousands of new clients flocked to it, commenting that they wanted to do business with a bank that acted on principle.
However, when we started to discuss cases that involved integrity and freedom of speech, the students were not so sure anymore whether loyalty to that principle was such a good idea. They (at least some of them) thought it would be better to find a balance between “sensitivity” to others and freedom of speech, so as to not to offend anybody and to avoid violent reactions, such as the barbaric murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, deaths due to rioting and damage to Danish companies in the Middle East in response to the Jyllands Posten’s Mohammed cartoons, and the threats of revenge from North Korean dictatorial regime should Sony release its movie parody of Kim Jong Un.
But the whole point of the virtue of integrity—having rational principles to guide one’s actions to achieve long-term goals—is that principles are applied consistently and not compromised. If a principle is compromised every time that it is not “convenient,” or someone might be offended, or is prone to react violently, then it is not a principle anymore. Unless there is an imminent physical threat (such as someone pointing a gun at you), the decision to follow the principle becomes arbitrary, in essence amounting to: “Do I feel like following the principle in this instance or not?” There is no such thing as having “a little bit of integrity.” Either one upholds the principle systematically, or one does not. To compromise a principle even once is to abandon it as a principle (unless one realizes the error and recommits to the principle again).
I have discussed the importance of the principle of freedom of speech, particularly to companies in publishing, broadcasting, and bookselling in another post (you can read it here), so I will not repeat those arguments here. However, I want to re-emphasize that that freedom of speech and the broader principle of the right to liberty are a cornerstones of the Western civilization. It is crucially important that businesses uphold them, even when someone might be offended, or worse, react violently, like Islamists who do not like the idea of freedom. If businesses start cowering and self-censoring, the violent enemies of the Western civilization are winning—and we are losing. By self-censoring, businesses are conceding their right to liberty—and giving up their ability to flourish on the long-term. There is no middle ground between the right to liberty and being “sensitive” to what might offend one group or the other.
The role of business is not to fight those who initiate physical force. Companies can hire security services to deter attacks on their employees, customers, or property. But the protection of businesses and the rest of us against the initiation of physical force by Islamist terrorists or anyone else is the responsibility of government. The sad truth is that governments today are not doing enough to protect us. Witness the recent attacks in France and Denmark, and the continual evasions of President Obama about the security threat that Islamist terrorism in particular poses. Businesses should not self-censor and appease those who bully them. They should uphold the right to free speech and liberty—and pressure governments everywhere to do their job of protecting business and the rest of us against the initiators of physical force.