coca-cola and the banality of evil

Awhile ago, Joseph Orosco asked on his blog, How responsible are people, qua consumers, for the crimes committed by corporations operating in a globalized world?

This is an interesting question, one I’ve thought about quite often over the last 10 years (since I started boycotting Dominoe’s because the owner supposedly supported anti-choice groups — I have no clue if this is true any longer).

Joseph’s question was in response to the practices of companies like Chiquita, Coca-Cola, and Nestle, who have supported paramilitary forces in Latin America, some of which have been used to kill union organizers or to protect the companies, with human rights violations as the result.

I used to not support Coca-Cola because of these practices — not consuming any of their products, only have mixed drinks with Pepsi (which isn’t much better), and so forth. Then, I got lazy. Coca-Cola was so ubiquitous. There were some events where I couldn’t drink anything but water if I didn’t have Coke or Sprite. There were times where I really wanted a rum and coke, so I had “no option” but to drink Coke. This was laziness. It was also motivated by a desire to not seem self-righteous around others and because of the matter of selection — so many corporations do awful things. Shouldn’t I be avoiding them all…

It seems to me that we as consumers are responsible for the actions/results of the companies we support. I would construct a philosophical argument for this, but Coca-Cola themselves has done the work for me (via sociological images):

If supporting Coca-Cola means we are supporting Olympic Athletes, it also means we are supporting the murders of union organizers in Columbia, sanctioned and supported by Coca-Cola.

I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil. Discussing Eichmann, she noted that he could only speak in clichés during his trial and gives up his own autonomy, his ability to judge. As philosopher Arne Johan Vetlesen puts it: “Arendt puts forward the claim that Eichmann failed to judge, because he was incapable of representing others in his own mind. […] It is in the refusal to judge that Arendt locates the greatest evils in the political realm; the evil of totalitarianism epitomized in Eichmann was manifest in his lack of imagination, ‘of having present before your eyes and taking into the consideration the others whom you represent'” (98, qting. Arendt).

Vetlesen’s concern in his book Perception, Empathy, and Judgment is with “what the role of emotions is in providing us with an entry into the moral realm” (5). Arguing against Arendt (among others), Vetlesen argues that emotions are necessary “in providing us with an access to the domain of the moral” (6) because before we can judge, we must perceive, and for Vetlesen, empathy is the necessary emotion for facilitating our moral perception (5-6).

For me, the facts of the matter (Coca-Cola’s crimes against humanity) were merely facts; was it empathy that for a while helped me to avoid Coca-Cola? Was it a waning of empathy — a cynicism? — that facilitated giving in and purchasing Coca-Cola? Did I begin to fail to see this a morally relevant situation? Was the banality of my thinking solely a lack of reason, as Arendt would argue, or was empathy (or a lack thereof) involved?

Vetlesen, Arne Johan. Perception, Empathy, and Judgment: An Inquiry into the Preconditions of Moral Performance. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State UP, 1994.

This entry was posted in Empathy, Ethics. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *