Philip Morris is pivoting to smoke-free cigarettes, because “society expects us to act responsibly, and we are doing just that by designing a smoke-free future”. Also, KFC “promises not to let vegans down” with their new meatless chicken-like nuggets. They’ll have to compete with factory-farming mega-conglomerate Tyson Foods, who are coming out with their own vegetarian chicken option.
Clearly this is progress. Tobacco-free cigarettes have helped a lot of people quit smoking; meat substitutes have helped a lot of people (recently sort of including me) become vegetarian. I want a smoke-free meatless future. But does it become a mockery when the same companies that provided the smoky meaty past are selling it to us? If they make a fortune being evil, resist change, and lose, should they get to make a second fortune being good? If Hitler, when the war turned against him, quit the Nazism industry and opened a matzah bakery, would you buy his matzah?
I think the answer is supposed to be yes. I’ve heard many smart people argue that we should offer evil dictators a comfortable and lavish retirement, free from any threat of justice. After all, if they take the offer, they’ll go off and enjoy their retirement instead of continuing to dictate. But if they expect to be put on trial for war crimes the second they relinquish power, they’ll hold on to power forever. If Hitler had been willing to give up and open a bakery when he lost Stalingrad in 1943, think how many lives would have been saved by letting him. And if Kim Jong-Un wants to give up and move to Tahiti, of course you say yes.
In the same way, if evil companies want to go good, you should let them. If they have a line of retreat, they won’t fight so hard against change. If Tyson Foods wants to use its lobbyists to support meat substitutes instead of sabotaging them, that’s good for everybody. If they want to use their research budget to push plant-based meats forward, so much the better.
The counterargument is that punishment is the only tool we have to make bad actors do good things. If dictators fear punishment, maybe they won’t dictate to begin with. If companies know that moral progress will eventually leave the immoral companies bankrupt, maybe they’ll try being moral before it’s immediately profitable.
We’re in a weird situation where before anything happens, we might want to precommit to “punish companies who do evil, no matter what”. After companies have started doing evil, we might want to break our previous precommitment and switch to “let evil companies avoid punishment if they stop doing evil”. And after companies have stopped doing evil, we might want (if only for the sake of our own sense of justice) to break both of our previous precommitments and go with “punish them after all”.
What is the right action?
I’m not sure, but I lean toward “buy the meatless chicken from KFC”, for a few reasons.
First, I’m skeptical that corporations can predict moral progress, and I expect them to have high discount rates. I don’t think Colonel Sanders in 1952 was thinking “Maybe I shouldn’t sell chicken, just in case later generations punish my successors.” That removes a lot of the advantage of precommiting to always punish evil corporations, but keeps the advantage of rewarding evildoers who turn good.
Second, realistically there are probably many companies that are as bad as these (like oil companies), which we don’t think about because they’re not in the process of going good in ways that make their evil more ironic and salient. It would be dumb to boycott only the companies that are trying to improve.
Third, boycotting companies is hard. In the process of writing this article, I learned Tyson Foods until recently owned Sara Lee, the cookie company, which itself owns a bunch of popular coffee brands. Also, they seem to have invested in Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats and all the other vegan-meat-substitute companies that we would feel good about buying from if we boycotted Tyson. If Tyson Foods really wants to make money off of vegans, they can probably do it without those vegans noticing.
I’m curious what other people think, so here’s a poll you can take on this.