Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Right to Terminate Executives

A part of recent discussion where I suggested demanding that the executives of these companies getting government assistance join the unemployed generated the following response:

By what right should they be removed from their jobs? The government has no right to remove them--they have committed no crime (it should also be noted that the government should not be bailing them out either. We the people don't have that right--the company does not belong to us, so how it is run and who is allowed to work there is none of our legal or moral concern. The only people with the right to fire the CEO are the people on the board (as well as anyone else the CEO answers too, depending on the company charter).

These "rights" that people allegedly have or do not have are supposed to provide reasons for action for doing or not doing particular types of actions. The question then comes up: What are these rights? Are they real or are they just made up? If they are real, how can they possibly exist as "reasons for action"?

I have discussed the issue of rights in the abstract recently. However, I thought it would e useful to look at a specific case.

The problem that I have with rights is that, on one sense in which they are widely used, they do not exist. This is the form that says that a "right" is a reason to engage in or forbear in some action that is built directly into that action. This property is at least as mysterious as any God. When I look for a right I want to see something real. Either that, or the person who claims that some “right” provides a reason for me to perform or refrain from performing some activity is simply making a false statement.

Then one confronts a dichotomy – if rights do not exist, then people may do anything without moral constraints. Nothing a person can do can violate a right if there are no rights to violate.

It is the same as the argument that nothing one can do can offend a God if there is no God to offend.

Yet, the claim that rights in this sense do not exist . . . just like the claim that God does not exist . . . is not the same as the claim that reasons to engage in or refrain from certain actions do not exist. Reasons to engage in or refrain from actions certainly do exist. They are very real. Consider the reasons that exist for keeping one’s hand out of a hot flame, or reasons for action to eat, or reasons for action to turn up the heat on a cold winter night.

The argument that people too often make, "Either this moral entity exists or reasons for action do not exist," is absurd on its face. It is a ploy, really, to manipulate people into accepting the claim 'this moral entity exists' because the opposite is too absurd to accept.

If we look at reasons for action that exist, then what reasons for action exist for keeping the executives who have driven their companies into the ground in power – or for refraining from actions that will remove such people and replace them with a better track record for running companies well?

This, ultimately, is the question to be asked or answered.

Now, we do, in fact, have good reason to promote an aversion to governments hiring or firing business executives at will. The main argument for such an aversion is that politicians will then award lucrative positions to their political supporters and terminate their political rivals. We can well imagine what politics would be like if Presidential candidates not only got to appoint cabinet secretaries and judges, but also gets to appoint the executives in Fortune 500 companies.

Imagine if Bush had such power.

It makes perfectly good sense to speak of this prohibition on - this promotion of an aversion to - governments dictating the leadership of major companies in terms of "rights". It makes perfectly good sense to say that government has no right to dictate who will lead private companies, and that the companies themselves retain this right.

Only, when we look at the reasons for action that back these rights we find them not in God's will or an intrinsic property of "ought to be doneness". We find the reasons for action in desires - in the many and strong desire-based reasons for action people have not to create a society where political figures have this power.

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