Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Of Drones, Free Speech, and Corporate Contracting



Top Issues - Week of 2/06/17

Kirk O. Hanson

After dedicating my first blogpost last week to several issues that emerged from the Trump administration’s first week, my comments this week begin to branch out to the broader set of ethics issues which demand our attention daily. 

Contracting as a Corporate Strategy.  In recent years, the use of contractors to replace regular employees has accelerated dramatically.  A Wall Street Journal article last week entitled “The End of Employees” tracked the trend and its effects.  The core ethical concern raised by this trend is how the workers are treated and whether the trend makes worse the growing divide between the 1 percent and the 99 percent.  Contractors typically have less job security and lower wages and benefits; the remaining employees are the highly educated and creative force that reserve more stable employment, higher salaries, and potential stock options for themselves.  Contracting obviously makes sense in some situations, but the trend is troubling.

Use of Drone Weapons.  The death of a U.S. Navy SEAL last week in a Yemen raid dramatized the costs of fighting terrorists worldwide.  But one of the most difficult ethical questions of warfare is once again on a president’s desk – the use of drone weapons.  Drones, often controlled from thousands of miles away, protect American lives that would be lost in direct actions like the one in Yemen, yet civilians can be at much greater risks from drones.  Should these weapons be used?  How frequently?  On what targets?  If we don’t have to put our soldiers at risk, will we be more apt to go to war?  What does widespread use of drones do to the country using them, to their sense of right and wrong?   President Obama embraced extensive use of drone weapons.  Will President Trump?

Free Speech on Campuses.  With the cancellation of a speech by an alt-right editor at U.C. Berkeley on Thursday for security reasons, President Trump and others took to social media to criticize campuses for “banning” free speech.  Milo Yiannopoulos, the editor, had already spoken at several campuses.   The core ethical issue, however, is whether some views are so abhorrent (e.g. ban all Muslims permanently, roll back civil rights, send women back to the kitchen) that they can be denied a platform.  I would contend that we need to permit the maximum amount of free speech—and that includes Yiannopoulos—but I also believe the leaders of all colleges should have the right to ban the most extreme speech.  This is not political correctness; this is defending your core values.

Political Speech by Corporations.   The Super Bowl ad last night by 84 Lumber, a privately held Pennsylvania company, was striking in its advocacy for immigrants.  The ad chronicled the journey of a young girl and her mother from Central America or Mexico to the U.S. border.  In the sequel, rejected by the NFL for broadcast, the girl and her mother discover a huge door in the wall (likely built with 84 Lumber).  As they enter the US, the words “The Will to Succeed Is Always Welcome Here” appears on the screen.   A similarly themed ad by Budweiser chronicles the journey and arrival of its cofounder as an immigrant in St. Louis where he goes into business.  I believe it is a legitimate expression of free speech, corporate values, and corporate identity to engage in such political speech.

Bullying as a Negotiating Tactic.  This is the one specifically Trump issue I will address this week.   When is extreme language a valid negotiating tactic?  It has become clear that President Trump relies on confrontational, denigrating, and bullying behavior when his policies are thwarted or he believes it will give him more power in dealing with those who oppose him.  His tweet this week criticizing what he termed the “so-called judge” who issues a stay of his ban on travelers from seven Moslem-majority countries is the latest example.  To me, the damage done to the integrity of the judiciary and others attacked, and the encouragement it gives to others to engage in bullying, make the routine use of the tactic simply wrong. 

Feb 6, 2017


Kirk Hanson

Your Weekly Ethics Fix​ is a nonpartisan summary of the most important developments in ethics and American society, by Kirk O. Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own, not those of the Center. 

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