In a recent piece in The New Yorker Sheelah Kolhatkar tells the story of a new company called Juno that aimed to compete with Uber in the ride-hailing business.
Juno sought to “treat its drivers better than its competitors,” but when it was recently bought out, all that changed. Under new ownership, the drivers’ compensation will now be largely in line with that of its competitors.
Kolhatkar explains that Juno’s philosophy and the resulting outcome is a result of two contrasting views of business and how it should function.
The first view we might call stakeholder capitalism and the second shareholder capitalism.
The first takes an expansive view of compensation, seeing all employees (even drivers) as deserving of a share in the profits of the company. The second perspective sees delivering maximal returns to company investors as the key responsibility of the company.
As Kolhatkar goes on to explain, these views are in tension.
One way of attempting to make some headway on this dilemma is to reframe the terms of the debate. This is where a subject such as ethics—the subject I teach at UCW—can help.
The first step is to realize that the question Kolhkatar’s piece raises is in fact an ethical one. It is asking what is the right thing to do under these circumstances.
Whichever conclusion we arrive at on the compensation question, we would then take that result as the “right” or morally-correct answer in this case.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant is best known for a philosophy called deontology.
Deontology comes from an ancient Greek work “deon” meaning “duty”. Kant’s ethical philosophy provides a way of attempting to answer ethical questions by evaluating them according to a rule of duty.
We can apply this rule much the way we would apply a formula to a mathematical problem or an algorithm to a problem in computer science.
Kant’s rules of duty are presented as three different variations on what he calls the Categorical Imperative.
The Categorical Imperative is Kant’s way of applying his universalist ideas about duty. In essence, he argues that everyone has duties and that these duties should apply universally to all people without exception, although the case for children is different.
The second formulation—the one that seems most relevant to this case—runs like this: “Always act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”
Note that Kant’s formulation does not give us an answer to Kolhatkar’s problem—it does not tell us whether we should prefer shareholder or stakeholder capitalism.
Rather, what it provides us with is a way of reframing the dilemma so that we can make an argument about the problem.
At first glance it may appear that Juno failed because it applied Kant’s rule—treating drivers as ends in themselves was precisely the problem. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that higher compensation, for example, would be the only way to interpret the ends-in-themselves formulation.
Kant’s rule only specifies that we have a duty to find some means to treat drivers better.
What we are left with then, is a principle that still needs to be interpreted by making an argument. Ethical analysis, when properly done, does not give us answers to ethical questions.
Instead, it provides us with a framework, a method of approach. By allowing us to use principles to make arguments, philosophy brings us to the possibility of agreement.
Professor Charles Carroll teaches ethics at University Canada West, which is located in the heart of Vancouver, British Columbia. The university offers both online and on-campus Bachelor of Commerce, Bachelor of Arts in Business Communication and MBA programs.