Should You Own Stock in a Company You Despise?
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
How much of a difference can one person make in the world? That's a question a lot of us have wrestled with, and today we pose it to New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen.
Mr. RANDY COHEN (Ethicist): Hi, Debbie.
ELLIOTT: Listener Pam Roman(ph) wrote this week's letter to the ethicist. We have her on the line now from Trumbull, Connecticut. Hello there.
Ms. PAM ROMAN (Caller): Hi, how are you?
ELLIOTT: Good. You told us you had some investments that are bothering you.
Ms. ROMAN: Well, at the time of the letter, we actually, my husband and I, owned stock in two companies which - one was a tobacco company and one was a oil company, and we've since sold one. But we've held onto one of the stocks, and we really dislike the company a lot. But the stock is doing so well that we're kind of torn as to what to do. I mean, we're not in it to be great people necessarily. We're in it to make money. But still, it kind of feels not so great to own stock in a company like this.
ELLIOTT: What is your problem with the company?
Ms. ROMAN: Well, they've got a bad record vis-à-vis the environment. I get the sense that an oil company is not necessarily Earth's best friend these days.
ELLIOTT: Now, I heard the mega-investor George Soros talking about this very issue just a few weeks ago, and his take was that anonymous individual investors have no effect on a stock or on a company by owning that stock one way or another. So according to his ethics, you're fine.
Ms. ROMAN: That's one way of looking at it, I guess. I'm not an expert on the stock market. You know, I don't own a million shares, by any stretch of the imagination. We're making a few bucks off of it. But it just doesn't feel good. So I'm not really sure what kind of an impact I can have by investing or not investing in it. And that was my question to Randy. Is this okay to do this? Should I feel okay about it? Or should I be looking to put my money elsewhere?
Mr. COHEN: Those feelings you're referring to, not to get all technical and ethical on you, but I believe the word for that is your conscience.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ROMAN: Yes.
Mr. COHEN: And that - when that is bothering you, that's worthy of respect, that you maybe ought to pay heed to that. You've described a series of practices that you claim to despise, and yet you're bound up in making a profit directly from them. I wonder what the point is of having values if you don't act on them.
Ms. ROMAN: Mm-hmm.
Mr. COHEN: You know, there's a certain kind of question I get that once a person feels compelled to ask it, I feel it's answered itself, that you yourself feel you're acting contrary to your own beliefs. Reason enough to change your behavior. If you didn't know the answer, you wouldn't ask the question.
Ms. ROMAN: That's a very good way of looking at it, and that's the way I've been talking to my husband about it. But you know, other people, and my husband, have said, well, you know, we're in this to make money. We're not in the stock market because we have a conscience. We're in the stock market because we want to have money when we retire someday. So...
Mr. COHEN: I believe that's what Don Corleone once said.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COHEN: We're not in this, you know, to feel good. We're in this to make money. It's a business. I think the desire to make money doesn't mean that all bets are off in terms of your moral judgments.
But just in case I've convinced you, I'd like to stir the pot and completely muddy the question and make the counterargument, or at least let someone more eloquent than I make the counterargument. In the introduction to Major Barbara - you know George Bernard Shaw's play, Major Barbara?
Ms. ROMAN: Yes.
Mr. COHEN: Major Barbara's a major in the Salvation Army, her father a great arms merchant. And the question posed in the play is, should she take his money? Because it's wicked money, the way she saw it. And Shaw thought it was impossible to remain aloof from money that's connected to wicked enterprises, that there's no such thing as good money and bad money. There's just money.
And here's how he put it. He said, the notion that you can earmark certain coins as tainted is an unpractical, individualist superstition.
He wasn't trying to comfort unprincipled rogues, but he was trying to unnerve pious people like me, to remind complacent people like me that we can't be insulated from our society, that Shaw wasn't saying you have less of a duty to act, because all money's the same; there's not good and bad money. But he was saying that you're a member of your society and you have to be fully engaged in your society.
Ms. ROMAN: A friend of ours said, why don't you take the profits or some of the profits that you're making from this stock and send some of it to Greenpeace if you're so worried about it?
Mr. COHEN: You know, I'm not convinced of that. I...
ELLIOTT: Robin Hood?
Mr. COHEN: No, I don't buy that. That's the charity option, that you have to judge your actions on their own terms. And again, if Don Corleone made a lot of money from the murdering business but donated it to charity, that would make murdering all right. You can't cleanse your wicked deeds by using some of the profits for good. You really have to think about what you're doing on its own terms.
Ms. ROMAN: All right.
ELLIOTT: Thanks so much for your letter.
Ms. ROMAN: Thank you very much. I appreciate the advice.
ELLIOTT: If you've got a question for Randy or some hot stock tips, write to us. Go to our Web site, npr.org, click on Contact Us, and select WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Put the word Ethics in the subject line, and please include a phone number where we can reach you. Randy, thanks as always.
Mr. COHEN: A pleasure, Debbie.