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What Do I Think About Boycotts?

04/13/2014 Comments (3)

A reader asks:

Last weekend, some friends and I were discussing a topic that became more serious as the conversation wore on. (This was one of those conversations that men have on a weekend retreat at the lake with beer and cigars, their wives wisely already fast asleep with the children.) I recently came across a list of companies that signed a Friend of the Court brief in favor of same-sex "marriage". I'm not sure if you're familiar with the list, but one of the more prominent and ubiquitous companies is Amazon. I'm sure you're familiar with their CEO's stance on the sexually libertine issues. But this was the last straw for our family: we have decided to boycott Amazon until they publicly recant of their stance. I made this known as a means of enlightening my brethren, some of whom hadn't known of this issue, and it touched off a multi-layered discussion of topics proximally, and not, related to boycotts. As someone whose acuity, and dare I say un-educated common sense, I respect, I hoped you might weigh in briefly on this matter.

Without going too much into detail, as I'm sure mine is only one of a large number of e-mails you receive daily, I hope you'll allow me to uncover some of the more salient points. Firstly, as pointed out by one friend, Amazon is an employer, and that status means that if a theoretical large-scale boycott were to be effective, it might endanger the employment of hundreds of well-intentioned, and even ignorant, men and women. These would be "casualties" of the effort so to speak. I don't put much faith in this argument because I cannot support businesses only out of deference to their position as employers. Another friend pointed out that Amazon may not be affected by such a boycott, given their immanence and established reputation. (Indeed, how often do even Catholics refer others to buy their books and music at Amazon!) I merely pointed to the successful boycott of Pepsi a few years back as an example of the efficacy of the movement. Finally, an astute friend of mine, who was also my Confirmation Sponsor, mentioned that many people buy at Amazon because of the price differential between them and other (online and brick-and-mortar) retailers. I think this hits the crux of the matter, and it's something that has troubled me throughout my twenties: "voting" with your dollar. If you'll permit me, I'll close with two tracks of thought, and then I'll pray that you have any time to offer any length of response.

At once we agreed that for a boycott to be more than a simple act of vengeance or pride, it must have as its motive a goal of conversion from heinous practices. Another man pointed out that this need not be public, for even if our sons and daughters were the only ones to witness their parents paying more for an item, or mentioning at a dinner party that they shouldn't shop at Amazon if it was the last place that sold music - then even still that would be enough of a witness to make a difference in the world of virtue. Perhaps Amazon would not be converted, only the rest of the world. One could say that a boycott should be pre-meditated and organized, though both of those words have a nefarious connotation that would be the opposite of the goal we try to accomplish. Furthermore, a boycott may by its nature cause more pain or discomfort to those boycotting, than to those at whom the boycott is levied! And I think this point touches upon an even deeper issue in our economic system than can't be fully developed in an e-mail. Suffice to say though that if we have heretofore shopped exclusively based upon price, we may henceforth find ourselves shopping for more than a financial bargain.

In closing, perhaps a boycott is only one means of manifesting a more Catholic approach to economics and finance. Perhaps regardless of outright support of homosexual "marriage", or other aberrations, we should make our dollars speak for us instead letting them control us. Perhaps the entire system of "consumer" and "producer" doesn't mean that the one shouldn't also be the other. (I believe Chesterton's "The Outline of Sanity" is a fantastic treatise on this question.) Perhaps too much beer and smoke flowed for any summary of the discussion to be coherent outside that midnight-lake dock. Regardless, I hope perhaps that you'll shed a ray of light on any of the points above with your brand of common sense prudence.

Truth to tell, I'm not sure what I think about boycotts. With things like voting, I long ago came to the conclusion that the main thing voting affects is not the outcome of the election, but you and the way in which you rationalize your political choices. So people who vote for candidates they know are going to use their vote to enact grave intrinsic evils have to have some "proportional reason" for doing so, according to the Church's best authorities. Sometimes that proportional reason can be found (according to some), other times not. In the last election, I could not find a proportional reason to vote for either candidate, so I voted for somebody who didn't advocate grave intrinsic evil. But the point remains that the Church does permit "remote material cooperation" with people and organizations who advocate and do evil things, so long as there is some proportional reason to do so.

Now, a dollar is a kind of "vote" in economic spheres. When you give somebody your money for a product, you are voting to patronize them and not somebody else. So the question becomes, "Is there a proportional reason to patronize some corporation that supports evil policies?" Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn't. With Walmart, for instance, I'm becoming increasingly persuaded that the evil they do outweighs the good in terms of cheap goods. So I am increasingly leery of patronizing them. With Amazon (and lot of other companies in our intensely interconnective economy, I'm not so sure. Walmart's (and, of course, many company's) evils are more directly inflicted on the workers they subjugate, on the communities they ravage, on the taxpayers they rob, and on the small businesses they destroy.McDonalds, for instance, is on record as telling their full time employees to go on welfare rather than paying them a living wage.  In short, they commit a sin which, according to the Church, cries out to heaven for vengeance (defrauding workers of their wages), and they do it while defrauding you and me and forcing us to pay what they refuse to pay. Other companies, such as Amazon's, evils seem to me to be more remote cooperation with evil (advocacy of social policies at odds with the Church's teaching, but with no ability to give such advocacy the force of law). And, of course, with a particular company like Amazon, the nature of their business is such that they help to spread the work of lots of people who oppose such advocacy and who support the Catholic faith (in short, while Jeff Bezos is doing his bit to promote gay "marriage" he is also making the Catechism and pretty much every other saint, theologian and Catholic spiritual writer available for cheap to the entire world). So I think a case can be made that there are proportional reasons to patronize something like Amazon. My main misgiving with them is that, like an increasing number of big corporations, they tend to hire their workers on a contract basis, squeeze as much out of them for as low pay as possible and then cut them loose when the time comes that they need to pay them benefits and give them a permanent position. That stinks.

A secondary consideration, of course, is "Do boycotts work?" That requires information and knowledge I lack. My guess is "Sometimes yes, sometimes no." If the point of a boycott is to obey one's conscience regardless of the impact on the company (which I heartily endorse, by the way) then let your conscience be your guide. If the point of a boycott is to try to get a company to comply with your will, then the question is "Do boycotts do that as a general rule?" And to that, I have no answer since I don't know anything about the general effectiveness of boycotts. Maybe one of my readers does.

My entirely provisional and open-to-change-if-persuaded position at present is that Amazon does more good than evil and that remote material cooperation with it is therefore morally permissible, so long as our cooperation is ordered toward supporting the good and not the evil. In a radically interconnected economy, I frankly don't see how you can make almost any economic move without somehow remotely cooperating with some corporation that advocates something evil. Where you strike the balance between proportional good and unproportional good is up to your prudential judgment. The main thing to remember is "prudential judgment" doesn't mean "do whatever the heck you want unless the Church absolutely forbids it" but really means (as my reader clearly understands), "do the best you can by the light you have, even if the Church may not require the particular action you feel bound in conscience to take."

All this approach to the particular case of Amazon is, of course, very rough and off the cuff on my part, not some iron law. You could fill libraries with what I don't know about Amazon, boycotts, and economics. Take it as a by guess and by golly response. Ultimately, it's going to be up to you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.