Author: Jonathan Webb - Categories:
Outside of the world of procurement, I attend philosophy events. This may not seem directly relevant to the pragmatic concerns of the supply chain but a discussion this weekend led to some interesting implications for work.
The question being: Is it right to treat people as commodities?
For many in business and economic policy-making, the easiest ways to manage a workforce is by simplifying its members to measurements of functional value.
People aren’t so much as humans, as units of labour output, distilled to their core capabilities: accountant, data entry clerk, buyer, etc. The methods that these are aggregated, though market modelling, smoothes over the identification characteristics of people and reduces them to the level of commodities.
This is by far the easier way to manage complex groups. It allows minimal resources to administer large swathes of data, enabling quick decisions. Arguably, it is a process which reaches the fairest outcome, where individuals are judged solely on their abilities, not other aspects of their identity, such as gender, ethnicity, political views, etc.
However, the question for many is whether this dehumanising process has gone too far.
Undoubtedly convenient, this commoditisation of workers also leads to abuses, which would not stand as ethically tolerable. For instance, child labour still exists in many supply chains, but we would feel is morally repugnant to treat children purely as units of functional output.
So where should we draw the line between the expedient and the moral?
It’s not so much a line between two alternative ideologies, but perspectives that can be used by socialy aware and intellectually flexible agents.
Most of the time, business requires the automated process of generalisation to make clear decisions. However, as the reach of organisations expands, some activities require an alternative perspective, which requires a broader appreciation of human identity.
Yet, the concepts at play in this broader perspective relate to more abstract ideas: human rights, dignity, self-determination, etc. This is an entirely different class of questions from cash-flow and resource allocation.
Yet, many organisations are doing just that. They are looking at CSR as business opportunities and seeking means to monetise green issues and other ethical concerns. Unsurprisingly, the general public has granted these declarations with little credibility. Partly, you might say, because these two perspectives are inherently incompatible. Either we treat people as commodities in terms of business decisions or look at broader aspects of humanity.
Making a cost/benefit analysis of reputational risk, cost of non-compliance, consumer disapproval are not social actions - they are the self-interested and entirely rational responses to change in external conditions. Real social responsibility requires a studied appreciation of the moral value of human beings, which requires a complicated array of belief systems. At the moment, businesses are pitifully ill-equipped to change their perspective. Companies have no tools for mapping human rights and not systems to determine moral values.
Until they do, perhaps businesses will never be socially responsible.