August 29, 2009
Torture and Corporate Social Responsibility
Posted by Gordon Smith

According to WaPo, the torture debate just got a lot more complicated:

After enduring the CIA's harshest interrogation methods and spending more than a year in the agency's secret prisons, Khalid Sheik Mohammed stood before U.S. intelligence officers in a makeshift lecture hall, leading what they called "terrorist tutorials." ...

Speaking in English, Mohammed "seemed to relish the opportunity, sometimes for hours on end, to discuss the inner workings of al-Qaeda and the group's plans, ideology and operatives," said one of two sources who described the sessions, speaking on the condition of anonymity because much information about detainee confinement remains classified. "He'd even use a chalkboard at times."

These scenes provide previously unpublicized details about the transformation of the man known to U.S. officials as KSM from an avowed and truculent enemy of the United States into what the CIA called its "preeminent source" on al-Qaeda. This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques.

The case against "harsh interrogation techniques" is easy if they don't work. But as Ann Althouse rightly observes, this story (if true) removes that easy path, "forc[ing] the moralists to get by on moral ideals alone!"

Arguments about corporate social responsibility often follow the same trajectory. Naive commentators often attempt to win points by portraying corporate managers as unenlightened and backward. If they would just act responsibly, the argument often goes, the world would be a better place and corporations would be more profitable to boot! To be sure:

When boards of directors are able to enhance employee welfare, make the environment cleaner, or improve human rights throughout the world without impairing shareholder value, they often do it. This is not “corporate social responsibility,” but good management.

The tough issue isn't whether managers should be "responsible" when responsibility pays, but whether managers should forfeit profits to pursue a "responsible" path. Tellingly, corporate law doesn't have much to say on that issue. Legislatures ban many forms of irresponsible behavior, but the marginal cases -- the morally complex cases -- are left to managerial discretion.

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