On the ethics of doing business with tyrants

This is a spin-off of the thread in the Game Room about the LIV golf league, but I think there’s a bigger issue here, which goes beyond sports.

Not infrequently (such as with the golf league), there’s a controversy about someone doing business with a tyrannical government, oppressive regime, or the like (for simplicity, I’ll refer to all of these as just “tyrants”). And every time, it seems like the consensus is that it’s unethical or immoral to accept a tyrant’s money. And yet, there’s almost no attention at all to the other sort of business dealings with tyrants, where others pay money to the tyrant, which is a sort of business dealing that almost all of us engage in.

I think this is exactly backwards. When I buy gasoline, I’m putting money into the tyrants’ pockets, and it’s that money that they’re using to do all of the oppressive things they do. By paying the tyrants, I’m enabling tyranny, which is something I shouldn’t want to do.

On the other hand, if the tyrant is paying me, and it’s to do something that is not in itself immoral (like playing a sport, or performing music, or whatever), what harm am I causing? Indeed, you could argue that, to the extent that such work has moral value at all, it’s morally positive, since any money that the tyrants spend on entertainment is money they’re not spending on death squads or the like, and so by accepting payment from the tyrant, one is diminishing their capacity to do evil.

One sometimes sees the argument that, by doing business with tyrants, folks like these golfers are normalizing the notion of doing business with tyrants. But that begs the question, because it already assumes that doing business with tyrants is something evil. And as I said, some forms of business with tyrants are evil, but those forms of business are unlike what the golfer are doing, and are already thoroughly normalized.

So, is it wrong to accept money from tyrants? Is it more wrong than paying money to tyrants? And if so, why and how?

They are not completely separate activities. They do not hand you a briefcase full of cash and say, “enjoy!”. What happens is that you are offered, for example, a ludicrously high salary for teaching a class, or a multi-year contract to teach, in a Saudi university. (Or for playing a concert, mutatis mutandis, if you want to discuss entertainment.) But if enough people accept, they have the foundations of a world-class university and can charge people tuition, or send graduates into industry, or otherwise enrich themselves, even though you personally made money from the deal. And funding tyrannical activities is bad.

It’s always a good point, and it’s always good to remind ourselves of this issue, maybe in the same way that it’s good to periodically review and get competitive quotes for your homeowners insurance.

And it’s probably done with similar frequency.

If a regime has basically anything that the US wants, we will find a way to do business with them. As to Saudi Arabia:

Greg Norman didn’t ‘go where no man has gone before.’ More like Nixon, he appears to have gotten caught.

Like so many issues that – looked at closely enough – the USA has gone very, very far down some paths that don’t align with our stated values as much as they align with our fundamental value$.

We want what we want and we don’t want to hear, think, or talk about consequences.

This puts us comfortably, solidly, and repeatedly in bed with some pretty heinous actors.

I’m often reminded of a bit by Bill Maher:

How much does it really matter whether we act as buyer or seller in these transactions ? I would argue not too much. Commerce is commerce and it really doesn’t work without both sides of the transaction.

Thus the expression, “pragmatism is the first refuge of the scoundrel.” What behaviour could not be excused if we hold “commerce is commerce” as our first principle?
Does the OP ignore the advertising value of tyrants sponsoring things and thus normalizing their tyranny? It is often more subtle than, “hey, how bad can they be if they sponsored a cool activity?” But such sponsorships divert attention from their nefarious activities.
Also, Maher’s diamond riff strikes me as pretty sexist and rooted in 1950s “take my wife…please!” notions. Most humour is about establishing in and out groups, and drawing that line around men and women is just weird in this day and age.

The vast majority of the income for most tyrannical regimes in the world today is oil, not education. And hosting world-class universities is exactly the sort of thing that tends to make tyrannies less tyrannical, or lead to their downfall. Sure, if the services I’m selling are for prospecting for oil, or developing new ways to extract it, or the like, I can see the argument against that. But that’s not what the discussion is usually about.

OK, then, argue it. How does acting as a seller contribute to these problems?

In the case of Saudi Arabia, from the article I linked:

The top export categories (2-digit HS) in 2019 were: aircraft ($2.6 billion), vehicles ($2.0 billion), machinery ($2.0 billion), arms and ammunition ($1.6 billion), and electrical machinery ($835 million).

The very simple answer, then, is this:

The war in Yemen is America’s war. Saudi Arabia has spent a fortune buying arms from America to prosecute a war that has killed almost a quarter of a million people — the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe in our lifetime. Two American administrations have enabled the war. It’s long past time to stop.

We are taking their money. Sure. But their money is currently almost inexhaustible.

If we could starve the beast by ‘selling them into extinction,’ that would be one situation. As it stands, though, we are – without even a soupçon of plausible deniability – selling them weapons that are being used to slaughter their rather powerless neighbor.

If more agrarian parts of the world sell the Saudis fruits, vegetables, grains, and meat – particularly where the Saudis can’t practicably produce these items for themselves – then we feed a machine that commits atrocities. We also allow them the luxury of not being overly concerned with how they will feed themselves, increasing their capacity to wage war on a neighbor and/or commit other atrocities (ETA see: guns vs. butter).

Ditto selling them goods that are not directly military in nature. Anything we sell them that contributes to their GDP enhances their ability to allocate those dollars to things that we find repugnant.

If LIV Golf allows them to create a Disney-esque public relations campaign that burnishes their image and attracts further global investment (including tourism), then what we’re selling them is still funding their unseemly activities at least as much as the money that we give them for petroleum.

Yes. No.

To me it’s not as simple as whether you’re paying or receiving money. The morality of a decision relies on how directly you are supporting the tyranny, and what alternatives you have to the action in question.

Sportswashing their regimes is very important to these tyrants, so joining the LIV golf league is pretty much direct support. It also doesn’t have much purpose other than enriching you and promoting them, there would be plenty golf in the world without it, which also makes it direct support. And the golfers in question wouldn’t be anywhere close to starving if they didn’t join this league, which means, from a moral standpoint, they have very easy alternatives.

That this also applies to a lot of other businesses doesn’t make it more moral, it just means there are a lot of immoral decisions in the world.

Eh, it may be immoral, but there are a number of morals I’d be very tempted to forget about when you are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars.

I am not an expert in ethics. But I would say:

  1. Tyrant is a label sometimes given out of political expediency. Some abuse their people. Some take advantage of them. Some deny some political rights or freedoms. Some might merely have stated a desire for independence or local economical control against the wishes of a more powerful country or group. Not every tyrant is a tyrant. Some leaders are tyrants but evade responsibility for that.

  2. When you fill up your car, where did the fuel come from? It is not easy to know. It is not always easy to choose, even if it were possible, except when a nationwide position exists.

  3. If you accept you are dealing with a tyrant, know this with certainty, do you have better options? Substitutes? Different locations? Would advocacy or education or limits be more beneficial to these oppressed? Are they better off if the tyrant is denied? Are they being helped in other ways or is this more performative?

This is the marketing angle preferred by Canadian oil companies — Canada is not yet a kakistocracy, but it seems most people make most decisions based on economics.

With limited knowledge of doing business with tyrants, studies suggest that the more valued the product, the less information people actually want. iPhone? Diamonds?

Few countries will stop doing business with powerful countries even if they persecute certain groups. Concerns for these issues seem cyclical, but presumably attitudes change with successive generations even when mindsets do not. Realpolitik will always be with us.

(Not defending tyrants in the above post, but the definition depends definitively on da dudes doing the defining.)

Agree. Money and corruption go hand in hand. There is not a single industry that deals with billions of dollars that doesn’t ooze with corruption.

I don’t think the human psyche (as a whole) is capable of separating the two. And even if we could, it’s not practical to do so with the current system we have.

While it’s both easy and right to decry and despise a multitude of other regimes around the world, I’m increasingly uneasy with the smug assumption that Americans can look down on what other countries do from a moral high point.

America has many friends in many countries; it remains the country to which huge numbers of immigrants want to flee to. People gambling their lives to come here is for me the most important token of American goodness.

But many others in many other countries have come to despise America for its hypocrisy and the positions and policies it has taken since we became an imperialist empire in 1898. While watching the recent History Channel documentary on Theodore Roosevelt I was appalled at their blithe approval of Roosevelt’s seizure of the Panama Canal (there is no lesser word) for no better reason than it was in America’s economic interest to do so. That has led to 100 years of propping up banana republics, vicious dictators, economic monopolies, drug cartels, and the oppression of the very sort of working people that Roosevelt pretended to champion. The U.S. is hated in much of Latin America for excellent reasons. I would support a general boycott of us for our behavior there alone.

But it’s not alone. We’ve tried to rule the entire world since WWII, and in doing so we’ve committed so many moral atrocities that whole libraries are needed to discuss them. All we can say in our defense is… but, but, but, others are worse. True, but should that be at all relevant?

At what point do we need to distinguish between “Americans” and “American companies and governments”?

We were also sending our ‘best and brightest’ down South well before 1898, if a bit less formally:

If anything, it was kicked off by the Monroe Doctrine:

I’ll note that right on the heels of “Hey them Russian Football oligarchs is bad!! Let’s seize all their shit!!”

Not a single team has withdrawn from the Winter World Cup that was outright bought by that noted humanitarian leader Qatar.

The pathway to salvation is as narrow and as difficult to walk as a razor’s edge.

Actually, it is pretty easy to know. Oil is fungible, so unless you’re paying extra to get oil exclusively from known-nice sources, your gasoline can be treated as being proportionally from the same sources as all petroleum products worldwide. Even if those molecules didn’t literally come from all of those places, the economical effect is exactly the same. Which means a significant chunk of your tankful comes from the Middle East and other not-nice places.

Others have said that the mere fact that the Saudis want this golf league means that the existence of the golf league supports them. I disagree. There are probably also some Saudis who want, say, wildlife conservation measures: Does the mere fact that they want that mean we’re morally obliged to oppose wildlife conservation? Of course not.

And I’m also seeing the argument that their sponsorship of this league helps to rehabilitate their public image, and I don’t see that, either: The only place Saudi sponsorship of this league comes up is in discussions like this, where people are reminded of the evils of the regime.

I’m not sure that it’s as much about ‘discussions like this,’ or discussions in general, as it is about people’s actions.

Somebody that switches from Minute Maid orange juice to Tropicana may do it without a moment’s conscious thought, and without having a conversation about the issue with a single person.

But something in the marketing or press about Tropicana may have unconsciously swayed them.

Marketers are aware that there is often a vast gulf [NPI] between what people say (they will do) and what they actually do.

The image that the Saudis present to the rest of the world has a tremendous potential to influence things as seemingly pedestrian as where people spend their tourism dollars.

If the LIV golf thing can put “Saudi Arabia” into conversations, or consideration, where it has never been before, that’s a win for the Saudis. If it can distract from the atrocities that they are committing, better still.

These efforts are often bolstered by well-funded lobbying efforts and public relations firms.

This, to me, sounds like the distinction between the mobster and the mob wife who is simply appalled at all the violence and degeneracy out in the world but sure doesn’t mind being kept in fine furs and fancy vacations as long as she studiously has zero curiosity about why her garbage truck driving husband has a private jet.

I think most Americans know down in their deepest darkest parts of their heart that if America was put on a truly level playing field with the rest of the planet, the vast majority of people could in no way compete and thus the primacy of American and general Western foreign policy should be to ensure that such a level playing field never comes.

Since Biden is normalizing political relations with Saudi Arabia, it could be said that regardless of golf tournaments realpolitik has been stronger than reminiscence.