Now Wal-Mart has pledged to make its food much healthier and reduce the price of fresh fruits and vegetables over the next five years. Furthermore, the company says it is covering those costs itself. It says it is doing so essentially because it is moved by the appeal of Michelle Obama's public-interest campaign against obesity. It hopes to recoup the costs over the longer term in increased sales. Presumably, this means attracting more educated health-conscious consumers to its shelves.
This is a perfect example of enlightened self-interest. But I would go further to argue that it is also a moral obligation. For as the article above aptly states:
"Some say the company has almost as much power as federal regulators to shape the marketplace.
“A number of companies have said they are going to make voluntary reductions in sodium over the next several years, and numerous companies have said they are going to try to get trans fat out of their food,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science and the Public Interest. “But Wal-Mart is in a position almost like the Food and Drug Administration. I think it really pushes the food industry in the right direction.”With great power comes great responsibility. And just as we frown on bad samaritans who do nothing but the barest moral minimum in their everyday lives, we should frown on bad corporate citizens that do the same, especially on those who possess great power yet flout much of their corresponding greater social responsibilities.
Particularly, persons have a moral obligation to come to the rescue of persons in distress, if they can do so relatively easily, by say, wading into a pool where a child is drowning. For example, a young man in France (which has the strictest duty to rescue laws of up to 5 years in prison) is now serving time for fleeing the scene of a car accident in which the driver ended up dying for lack of timely medical assistance. Similarly, corporations--especially those with great power and influence--have a moral obligation to counteract major social ills such as those befalling public health (obesity) and the environment (global warming).
For to stand idly by is to exhibit a shocking disregard for others' interests, and ultimately even to one's own longer-term interest. For a society in which no one looks out for anyone but him or herself is not a society much worth living in, or defending. Ultimately, we are social beings and our happiness is bound together with that of others. And the degree to which we are all concretely dependent on what major multinational corporations do (or fail to do) now to avert great harms currently befalling the global climate and public health, is embarrassingly evident.
Michelle Obama justly praises Wal-Mart for this initiative. The company has also done a great deal lately to lower its carbon footprint. But the point I want to underscore here is that such actions are not merely altruistic and optional good deeds. They are basic moral obligations. And governments are within their rights to force them to do such deeds if they do not do them voluntarily. And there has been some of this here as well. For it is surely the threat of impending regulations limiting trans fats and sodium that has helped bring Wal-Mart to this point. ConAgra has also pledged to reduce the sodium content of its foods by 25% by 2015.
Research shows that we often rise to the ethical occasion through a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic reasons. Social and governmental forces can offer helpful extrinsic pressures. But ultimately, these should mostly serve to strengthen our moral hearts within.