We should all just listen to our “gut”

“An American company going into Indonesia and working with regime that killed almost 200,000 people…I know that that’s got to bother you…I don’t know you personally, but I know you have a conscience” – Michael Moore to Phil Knight (Nike’s CEO) in his documentary, The Big One

Although Nike was not, and still isn’t, legally at fault for neglecting its responsibility towards its contractually employed overseas factory workers, every company has an ethical duty to avoid harming the stakeholders it directly influences. The fact that Americans began to protest against sweatshops and boycott Nike shoes in the first place, brings an interesting perspective to this logical analysis: why has Nike’s outsourcing, though legally sound, become an issue at all? It has become an issue because we, as humans, feel uneasy about the way Indonesian workers in overseas Nike factories are being treated; we have a gut feeling that the company’s actions are morally wrong. In my opening quote, Michael Moore suggests that the original outsourcing decision made by Nike’s founder and CEO, Phil Knight, has become unethical, arguing parallel to emotional ethics as he urges it “has got to bother you”; insisting further that the CEO listen to his conscience. In this same way, I will now turn away from a logically applied ethical argument, to instead investigate the emotional aspect of ethical decisions. I will apply my findings to the response that Phil Knight gave to the public’s outcry against his company’s business decisions in the 1990’s.

Imagine being offered a cheeseburger after not having eaten lunch. You can accept the meal for free; however, if you do, a painful electric shock will be administered to a coworker. Although hungry, you are far from starved. Aware of the consequences of accepting the cheeseburger, what decision do you make? I think it is safe to assume that, in place of consciously deciding to electrocute your coworker, you would reject the cheeseburger and wait for your next opportunity to buy some lunch. A version of this theoretical human experiment was performed on rhesus macaques. It was found that the majority (75%) of the monkeys avoided securing food if it subjected another monkey to electric shock (Wechkin, et al. 1964). The altruistic behavior of the monkeys shown in this study has only been confirmed through more experimentation and observation since the 1950’s. In fact, a recent study has shown that capuchins will choose a “prosocial” option to provide a reward to their peers as well as themselves, even without the use of an adversive stimulus (de Wall, et al. 2008). The following figure shows the results of this latter experiment:

These studies support the idea that non-human animals possess, to a certain extent, the desire to “give” or “help” a peer when the opportunity to do so presents itself. As empathy is defined as the “intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another” (dictionary.com), the data suggests that monkeys empathize with their vulnerable peers; understanding that other monkeys may want food just as much as they do, and acting in a manner so as to satisfy not only themselves. It has been theorized that this altruistic behavior in primates has evolved due to the indirect effect it may have on one’s own fitness: by helping another monkey, one’s chances of benefitting from reciprocated help in the future is increased. In any case, this data provides a convincing argument for the existence of empathy in non-human primates and in turn, having evolved from the great apes, an even more convincing argument for the existence of empathy in humans. This innate and evolved empathetic characteristic that we, as humans, are biologically hardwired with cannot be ignored in a business setting. Human beings comprise a business and even the complexity of such an entity does not strip an employee or CEO of his/her biologically empathetic nature. Therefore, if a decision does not parallel the empathetic nature of human beings, and alternatively makes a third party observer uneasy in any way, it must be unethical. The decision must have made by a man or woman that ignored his/her emotions and used skewed reasoning to justify the harmful consequences of the decision.

Phil Knight has done exactly that. As the CEO and founder of Nike, he is ultimately responsible for the company’s original decision to outsource as well as their continued exploitation practices. Michael Moore, a famous social critic and filmmaker, interviewed Phil Knight in his documentary, The Big One, to gain insight into the CEO’s thoughts regarding the company’s outsourcing and his reaction to the public’s protests. On a website Moore titled “Web pages Nike doesn’t want you to see” he revealed the transcript that Nike’s PR “person” asked Moore to remove from the film before releasing it to the public. This is the first clear sign of a fundamentally unethical decision. Phil Knight and his PR staff knew that the explanation provided for their company’s outsourcing decision would make Knight and Nike’s business practices look bad to the public. According to my previous discussion of empathy, if Phil Knight’s explanation of his outsourcing decision will so obviously upset the public, it cannot be ethically sound. The most critical aspect of the fact that Knight wished to remove lines from his interview (and asked his PR staff to make this happen) with Michael Moore is that this action in itself illuminates Knight’s own awareness of his unethical decisions and un-empathetic explanations for them.

Phil Knight: I think that it’s…I think it’s, I don’t wanna say stupid, but I’ll say stupid because essentially what it is it’s that somebody –

Michael Moore: What’s stupid?

Phil Knight: The idea of raising the minimum age from 14 to 18.

At Nike’s request, Moore reluctantly removed the above exchange from his documentary. Nike was rightfully worried that Phil Knight’s reaction to being pressured to raise the minimum age of its Indonesian factory workers would not be warmly accepted by outsiders. He uses the word “stupid” to describe not having children employed full-time in the strenuous conditions of a factory. Knight goes on to suggest that the economical situation of Indonesia would benefit from having more jobs available, and that before a country is more developed, just as in the case of the United States, the minimum age of workers is always lower than 18. The fact that Knight is not uncomfortable with the idea of a full-time factory worker under 14 years of age shows that he is ignoring his emotions, creating a logical explanation to justify his un-empathetic actions.

Michael Moore: Do you have kids?

Phil Knight: Yes

Michael Moore: Would you want your kid working full time at 14 years old?

Phil Knight: Well, but –

Michael Moore: In a manufacturing facility?

Phil Knight: But you’re trying to impose, and this is where the problem always comes. You’re trying to impose US standards in a different part of the world, which is terribly different than what it is in the United States.

Michael Moore: But a kid is a kid is a kid. A 14 year old here is a 14 year old there in terms of body development, their growing up. They shouldn’t be working full-time in a manufacturing facility.

Phil Knight: Well, I mean, tell it to the United Nations. **(Nike decided to enforce the United Nations standards in Pakistan after Nike’s employment of 8 year olds to make soccer balls in that country was exposed in the press)**

Michael Moore: No, I’m telling you. See you, you’re actually bigger than the United Nations in this case, because you own the factories and could actually make this decision. As we sit here. (Moore)

Michael Moore attempted to show Knight that his employment of child workers was wrong because he would not want the same for his own kids; however, Knight used the economic situation of Indonesia to justify his immoral actions, yet again. Knight is attempting to suggest that because the US’s economy was stronger than Indonesia’s (at the time of this interview), that different ethical standards could be set for the two countries. Michael Moore then highlights that human beings are human beings across the globe. Ethically, we deserve the same treatment, and biologically, we have evolved the same empathetic nature. In this way, Knight’s argument does not stand ground against the application of ethics from an emotional perspective. Knight tries to circumvent this truth by removing himself from the situation and suggesting the United Nations take care of it. He is attempting to reduce the apparent power he has as CEO, to conceal that instead of taking responsibility for his decisions, he is neglecting his duties as a person. One could go on to argue that he is aware of the immorality of employing child workers, but is justifying this immorality by telling himself, and Michael Moore, that he cannot change the circumstances, that only the UN can. Phil Knight, however, at the time of this interview, had never been to Indonesia or stepped foot in one of his own manufacturing facilities (The Big One). Although Knight was attempting to explain to Michael Moore why his decision to outsource the company’s manufacturing was ethically sound, he only managed to show his detachment from the situation and superficial justification for his unethical choices.

Later on in the portion of Michael Moore and Phil Knight’s interview that was removed from the documentary, the two individuals discuss the timeline of Nike’s outsourcing practices. Knight brought 15% of the company’s manufacturing to America during the recession in 1975 (Moore), when labor was cheap and abundant. However, when a law was passed in Maine that protected employee rights, several employees filed claims for compensation for the carpal tunnel syndrome they developed while working in the factories. These claims, which as Knight put it (below) were mainly false allegations, were too expensive for Nike so the US factories were shut down.

Phil Knight: Yeah, sure, tunnel carpal syndrome can be a problem, no question.

Michael Moore: But you think a lot of people were just faking it to get a claim?

Phil Knight: Yeah, I’m quite sure, I mean basically it’s like whiplash of the wrist.

Michael Moore: In our society, there are always going to be a couple of bad apples that are gonna to do this sort of thing. But was it that many people do really require-

Phil Knight: Yeah it impacted the price of shoes to the extent that I told you.

Michael Moore: Wow. (Moore)

Although Phil Knight has publically announced that he is not “concerned with the money at this point” (The Big One) the above passage illuminates his statement as a falsehood: Phil Knight’s every decision, including bringing a small portion of production to America during the recession when cheap labor is abundant, is made with money, not the welfare of people, in mind. With Maine’s passage of an employee protection law, the harmful effects of Nike’s factories became known. Knight acknowledges that people do get Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, but then goes on to announce his disbelief in employees that filed claims. Without having suffered the condition himself, Knight describes it as “basically whiplash of the wrist”, without any empathy for victims of the syndrome. Knight’s sole consideration of the lawsuits was that they were expensive, not that they actually could be true and that the conditions of his factories could be harmful. Instead of altering his factories’ standards, Knight decided to move to a cheaper location; a location where Nike could exploit its workers because it didn’t enforce worker protection laws. “Wow”, Michael Moore, speechless, concludes his interview with Knight, disheartened and shocked by the lack of emotion in his reasoning.

How do we confirm whether or not a decision is ethical? The answer is simple, we just know. Empathetic nature has been evolved over thousands of years and is now hard wired into our biological system. Thus, just as Michael Moore suggested to Phil Knight in their one-on-one interview, the criteria to determine whether or not a decision is ethical, at the most basic level, should consider the human conscience. The definition of ethical, “of or relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these” (dictionary.com), takes this innate feeling into consideration. So, if the consequences of a decision are appalling to a by-stander, or even generate an uneasy feeling in a third-party observer, the decision cannot be ethical. Many of the lines that Phil Knight had removed from Moore’s documentary are obviously horrific; they lack empathy for the workers that his company exploits. Phil Knight was morally wrong.


de Waal, F. B. M., Leimgruber, K., & Greenberg, A. R. (2008). Giving is self-rewarding   for monkeys. PNAS, 105, 13685-13689.

Dictionary.com | Find the Meanings and Definitions of Words at Dictionary.com. Web. 01 Nov. 2011. <http://www.dictionary.com&gt;.

Moore, Michael. “Mike & Nike.” Dog Eat Dog Films. Web. 28 Oct. 2011. <http://www.dogeatdogfilms.com/mikenike.html&gt;.

The Big One. Dir. Michael Moore. By Michael Moore, Meg Reticker, Brian Danitz, and Chris Smith. Prod. Kathleen R. Glynn, David Mortimer, and Jeremy Gibson. Miramax Films, 1997.

Wechkin, Stanley; Masserman, Jules H.; Terris, William, Jr. Psychonomic Science, Vol 1(2), 1964, 47-48.*

*Although not MLA formatted as the first four citations are, the authors requested their work be cited in this way.

** The blog, Shell: Guilty or Not Guilty? was the initial inspiration for this paper, although the connection between these two pieces is now far from obvious.

This entry was posted in Business, Equality, Ethics, For Fun and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to We should all just listen to our “gut”

  1. MDHarbin says:

    What a great read! I like the behind the scenes stuff.
    1. In light of the airing of the World Series of Poker Final Table – http://www.pokerhandvalues.com/how-reliable-are-gut.html
    2. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell – http://www.amazon.com/Blink-Power-Thinking-Without/dp/0316172324
    3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7AWnfFRc7g

  2. ALXLIONS says:

    I think the interview with Knight is unbelievable. How can a man of his status say such ignorant things in a documentary? I cant believe he is alright with the current health of the factory workers and the only thing that bothers him is the price of his shoes. Like Moore said, Wow.

  3. Jordi says:

    Can I chose which colleague gets shocked? Would affect my answer. 🙂 Kidding.

  4. Jordi says:

    In the experiments, does it matter if primates see harmed others as part of their social unit? DO we have to be the same tribe to get empathy?

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