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PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: ethics, corporate responsibility

CHARACTERS: Chris Barrett, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Howard Zinn

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR MARK ACHBAR: Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1993)

SYNOPSIS: This documentary film is based on the nonfiction book by law professor Joel Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Like the book, the film maintains that modern Corporations are driven by the motive to generate profits for shareholders, regardless of how this affects the interests of workers, society, or the environment. The corporation, in fact, is so driven by self-interest and financial greed that it fits the personality profile of a psychopathic individual. The film focuses on a select number of areas in which corporations have cause damage, including child labor, low wages, manipulative advertising, unhealthy foods, and environmental damage. The film juxtaposes comments by politically liberal activists with those by morally cynical defenders of the corporate status quo.


1. According to the film, the standard metaphor for a corporation is that of an apple within a barrel where most apples are good and just a few bad. Several CEO’s offered alternative metaphors, such as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, a sports team, family unity, a telephone system, or an eagle. Less flattering metaphors are that of a devouring monster, a whale, or the Frankenstein monster. Are any of these metaphors more appropriate than others?

2. The movie opens indicating that the world dominance of corporations is a recent historical phenomenon, and in some ways has replaced the power of monarchies, the church, and other governing social institutions. If there will always be dominating, self-serving institutions, why is corporate rule today any worse than the alternatives?

3. Original 19th century corporations were limited in their tasks, shareholders were liable, and many had a finite lifespan. How would this limit the negative impact of corporations on society?

4. Constraints on corporations were lifted after the Civil War when the 14th amendment to the constitution extended the legal rights of persons to corporations. What if anything was so bad about this change?

5. One person stated that corporations “have no soul to save, no body to incarcerate.” What does this mean?

6. The notion of “externalities” is that corporations pass on problems and expenses to the public or taxpayers. What are some examples of this?

7. The film lists several features of psychopathic personality disorder and notes how they apply to corporations. These include the following: (1) callous unconcern for the feelings of others, (2) incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, (3) reckless disregard for the safety of others, (4) deceitfulness: repeated lying and conning others for profit, (5) incapacity to experience guilt, (6) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors. Are any of these exaggerations regarding the true nature of corporations?

8. A Monsanto product called Posilac (BST) is artificial hormone for factory farm cows that increase milk production. How does this product benefit the farmer?

9. One side effect of Prosilac is that it causes infection in cows, which results in pus getting into milk. It also requires giving cows antibiotics which cause strains of super viruses. Are these problems counterbalanced by the product’s economic benefits for farmers?

10. A commodities trader stated the following: “our information that we receive does not include anything about environmental conditions, because, until the environmental conditions become a commodity themselves, or are being traded, then obviously we will not have anything to do with that.” What does this imply about corporate concern for the environment?

11. One person in the film stated the following: “Whether you obey the law or not is a matter of whether its cost effective. If the chance of getting caught and the penalty are less than it costs to comply, people just think of it as being a business decision.” In other words, criminal fines are just another cost of doing business. Might there be a more effective form of punishment that would motivate corporations to follow the law?

12. The narrator asks “If the dominant institution of our time has been created in the image of a psychopath, who bears the moral responsibility for its actions?” How might we answer this question?

13. A former Goodyear CEO stated that “No job in my experience with Goodyear has been as frustrating as the CEO job. Because even though the perception is that you have absolute power to do whatever you want, the reality is that you don’t have that power.” Massive layoffs in particular, he explains, are driven by capitalism and not by the private sympathies of the CEO. Contrast this with the actions of Interface’s CEO Ray Anderson, who imposed an environmental moral agenda. What might account for the differing perspectives of these two CEO’s?

14. Noam Chomsky stated that individual slave owners may be kind people, but in their institutional role they are monsters. Is this an appropriate comparison to corporate CEO’s?

15. A woman from India describes “terminator bio-technology”, that is, seeds that are designed to grow crops for only one season. What is the profit motivation behind terminator technology and what if anything is morally wrong with it?

16. A corporate spy states the following: “It’s about competition, it’s about market shares. It’s about being aggressive. It’s about shareholder value: what is your stock at today. If you’re a CEO, do you think your shareholders really care if you’re Billy Buttercup or not? Do you think they’d prefer for you to be a nice guy over having money in their pocket? I don’t think so. I think people want money. That’s the bottom line.” Is this an accurate portrayal of shareholder’s interests?

17. Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface (the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer), describes a paradigm shift that he experienced when reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce and learning about impact of corporations on species extinction. This motivated him to seek ecological sustainability within his corporation. He states that the day must come when environmental plundering is not allowed and people like him will end up in jail. How far off is that day?

18. The narrator states the following: “The pursuit of profit is an old story, but there was a time when many things were regarded as either to sacred or to essential for the public good to be conspired business opportunities. They were protected by tradition and public regulation.” Today, common goods such as land and water have been turned into private property. How might capitalists defend such privatizing of the commons?

19. A person stated that 20%-40% of children’s products would not have been purchased without children nagging their parents. What is the moral problem with child advertising?

20. Noam Chomsky describes the concept of “creative wants” and how a person’s sense of value is based on how many creative wants he or she can satisfy. What are examples of creative wants, and what’s so bad about them?

21. The movie describes different advertising techniques such as students who became walking billboards for a corporation in exchange for college tuition; product branding (e.g., Disney and the concept of “family magic”), real life product placement. What if anything is wrong with these?

22. The movie discusses the issue of patenting the DNA and genes of living things; according to the Patent Office we can now patent anything that’s alive except a full birth human being. What if anything is so bad about this?

23. The film describes the efforts of the Bechtel corporation to privatize water in Bolivia, which made it illegal for people to collect rain water. Is there any situation in which this might be morally justified?

24. The film describes IBM punch card machines that Nazis used to record data on holocaust victims. The machines that were regularly serviced by IBM’s German subsidiary throughout the war, and the American IBM company profited from this. To what extent do companies have a moral responsibility to limit the use of their products?

25. The narrator states that “It should not surprise us that corporate allegiance to profits will trump their allegiance to any flag.” Assuming this is true, what is so bad about this?

26. The narrator states “for corporations to dominate government, a coup is no longer necessary.” Similarly, a former CEO of Goodyear states that, through corporate globalization, “Governments have become powerless compared to what they were before.” What makes it so difficult for governments to control the activities of corporations?

27. One person in the film stated the following: “If companies don’t do what they should be doing, they’ll be punished in the market place.” Is this sufficient motivation for businesses to behave morally?

28. Chomsky stated that the existence of corporations is not engraved in stone and that “most states have laws which require that they be dismantled.” Would routine dismantling of law-breaking corporations solve the problem?

29. Michael Moore states that “The curse for me has been the fact that in making these documentary films I’ve seen that they can actually impact change, so I’m compelled to just keep making them.” What kind of change is Moore talking about?

30. A spokesperson for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce criticized efforts in California to dissolve the Unical oil corporation. He stated that opposition to the company came primarily from people at “the left end of the spectrum who don’t produce anything but hot air.” Is his point valid?

31. One person in the film stated the following: “There are many tools for bringing back community; the importance of litigation, legislation, direct action, education, boycotts, social investment. There are many, many ways to address issues of corporate power. In the final analysis what’s really important is the vision. You have to have a better story.” What kind of story would motivate people to rise up against corporations?

32. Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, stated the following: “The first industrial revolution is flawed, it is not working, it is unsustainable. It is the mistake and we must move on to another and better industrial revolution, and get it right this time.” Anderson’s focus is on the ecological sustainability of manufacturing, which is only part of the problem. What else would be needed in the new industrial revolution?


This was an interesting examination of Corporations and their bizarre legal status. I forget the exact quote, but someone states that corporations have “no soul to redeem, no body to incarcerate”, which refers to the fact that they have all the legal rights of an individual, but they cannot be punished or held liable for their actions in the same way. It goes on to give a psychoanalysis of corporations and determines that they are, by and large, psychotic. It was fascinating to learn that corporations somehow gained their status from the amendment to the constitution meant to protect black ex slaves, and that in the year it passed, something like 300 corporations used the amendment for legal purposes, as opposed to about 15 black people. There comes a certain point where I envy the ethical system that corporations run on. It’s all numbers. You compare what you’ll make by doing something as compared to how much you’ll be fined, and this is how you make a decision. It’s like a utilitarian calculus, except the numbers aren’t all nebulous value assessments, they’re concrete dollar values. -- Reviewer from Hell

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