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Morally assessing business partnerships

A continuation on the petition discussion

By James Spiegel | Contributor

In contemporary American culture, there are many challenges which face Christian institutions, whether they are businesses or universities.  One of these regards making morally responsible decisions about contractors and service providers with which to partner.

Junior Brett Lawson signs the petition of his choice.

Junior Brett Lawson signs the petition of his choice.

For one thing, it is not always clear just what a given company’s values and social commitments are. Secondly, such a large number of companies take positions that contradict Christian values that it is virtually impossible to avoid partnering with some of them. And, thirdly, no one has the time to thoroughly research all of the companies out there with regard to their principles, values and positions on social issues.

Consequently, some argue that that it is unrealistic, if not impossible, to effectively draw moral lines between potential business partnerships. Unfortunately, as common as this thinking might be in some Christian circles, it is mistaken, confused, and perhaps morally lazy.  Here are several basic distinctions which are helpful when making moral assessments of companies when considering a potential partnership.

  1. Availability vs. Special Promotion. One important distinction is that between making a company’s product available in one’s organization as opposed to specially promoting it, such as by using it exclusively or uniquely endorsing it within the organization. To uniquely promote a company’s product is a much stronger form of endorsement than simply making it available among competing products.
  2. Avoidable vs. Unavoidable Use of Products. In today’s economy, an organization’s use of the services of certain companies, such as Google or Amazon, is essentially unavoidable, given the ubiquity of these companies on the Internet. However, the use of some other companies’ products — such as particular brands of clothes or notebooks — is avoidable.  And where the product brand is avoidable, there is freedom to avoid a business partnership, if cause warrants.
  3. Activist vs. Non-activist Companies. Among companies which endorse or actively support immoral causes, there are significant differences in terms of how actively they do so. Some companies simply state their position on a given issue. Others aggressively endorse their position with public pronouncements or significant financial support of certain causes, thus more closely associating their product with particular moral and social values.
  4. Using a Product vs. Hosting a Store.  An especially vivid distinction can be made between cases where an organization merely uses a given product, as opposed to actually hosting that company’s store on its property.  The latter is obviously a more significant legal partnership as well as a far stronger public statement of alliance.

Such distinctions as these are helpful for leaders of any Christian organization as they seek to discern whether to or how partnering with a given company is morally appropriate. And depending on the nature of an organization’s use of a product in light of these four distinctions, there will be a range of degrees of moral acceptability of using products made by companies which endorse values conflicting with Christian values. Thus, on the moral spectrum, an obviously acceptable case would be that of merely making available a product when its use is unavoidable anyway and the company which manufactures it is not publicly active in opposing Christian values. On the other end of the spectrum would be a case where use of the product is avoidable, the company is very active in opposing basic Christian values, and the product is specially promoted by the Christian organization, particularly if that special promotion takes the form of actually hosting a store on its property. Such a partnership would be unwise for any Christian institution.

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