Decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. When thinking about a choosing a career, for example, a person considers the education and aptitude needed for the field, and perhaps the income potential of the choice. But there’s more that should go into decision-making than personal benefit, particularly when injustice is in play. In his research, Brian Berkey, a Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics, takes a closer look at how morality and obligation intertwine.
An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
Personal Gain or the Greater Good?
I work on issues having to do with our individual obligations of justice, particularly in non-ideal and unjust conditions. Examples of issues that I’ve written about include our obligations to redirect a portion of our income to people who are victims of injustice, and obligations to take considerations of justice into account when we’re making decisions like what career we’re going to go into or how we’re going to operate our businesses.
“Our obligations in non-ideal conditions are more extensive than most people tend to think.”
One key theme of my research is thatour obligations in non-ideal conditions are more extensive than most people tend to think. We can be obligated to take considerations of justice into account when we’re deciding, for example, what career we’re going to pursue so that it’s not necessarily morally permissible to choose whatever career would most benefit you or the one that’s your most preferred of the available options. If one is a beneficiary of injustice, then he or she can have obligations to make choices that would better advance the aims of justice. This applies, I think, across a broad range of domains — how we spend our money, what careers we pursue, how we operate our businesses and other areas.
The applications in most cases are a little bit indirect. What I suggest is that people in their private lives, in their roles within companies and elsewhere, are obligated to take considerations of justice into account in deciding what they’re going to do with their resources, with the businesses that they’re running, if they have multiple options in terms of what kinds of practices to adopt or what areas to enter. My research is abstract enough that there are no kind of direct takeaways. I don’t say things like, “Person X is obligated to do this particular thing.” I try to argue that certain kinds of considerations are relevant and have to be taken into account by people who are making decisions.
“If we think that we can pursue some important justice-related aim through organizing some kind of collective boycott effort, what conditions do we have to meet in order for that sort of effort to be permissible…?”
Fulfilling Moral Obligations
One thing that I’ve been thinking about is the conditions in which private group actions within the economic sphere that are aimed at promoting justice are permissible or impermissible. Consumer boycotts are one example of this. If we think that we can pursue some important justice-related aim through organizing some kind of collective boycott effort, what conditions do we have to meet in order for that sort of effort to be permissible in, say, a liberal democratic society?
I’m also working on several papers about issues related to climate change. One issue that I’ve been thinking about is whether historical emissions make a difference with regard to what we’re obligated to do now. Who’s obligated to do what, for example, to mitigate the negative effects of climate change in the future? I’m also thinking more about the obligations of businesses to contribute to the effort to mitigate climate change.