Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others


David Gordon

Analysis, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Jun., 1989), pp. 153-155. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Analysis Committee. Dr. Gordon and Fr. Sadowsky are listed as affiliated with, respectively, “Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH 43403, U.S.A. and Fordham University Bronx, NY 10458, U.S.A.”

Posted September 11, 2012


Morally Principled Divestiture?


David Gordon and 

James A. Sadowsky, S.J.



Both Daniel H. Cohen (“A Reply to Cahn,” Analysis 48.2, March 1988, pp. 109-10) and Kerry S. Walters (“Morally Acceptable Divestiture,” Analysis 48.4, October 1988, pp. 216-18) have attempted to show, in our view unsuccessfully, that a problem that Steven Cahn proposed (Analysis 47.3, June 1987, pp. 175-6) for certain advocates of divestiture can be solved.

Cahn’s argument is the following:

(1) It is immoral to own stock issued by companies that, for example, invest in South Africa.

(2) To “entangle” someone in an immoral action is itself immoral.

(3) Selling stock entails someone’s buying the stock.

(4) Selling one’s stock in a company that invests in South Africa entangles someone in an immoral policy;

Therefore (5) selling stock in a company that invests in South Africa is immoral.

Cahn did not claim that (1) is true: his argument, rather, is a problem for those who hold (1). This point is ignored by Cohen, who contends that the purpose of divestiture is, for instance, to bring pressure to bear on the South African government to end apartheid. Selling one’s stock has no moral value in itself: “it is a means, not an end.” (Cohen, p. 110).

If Cohen intends to construct an alternative argument for divestiture which does not depend on (1), he has left Cahn’s problem untouched. Cahn’s argument does not address the issue of whether one should, all things considered, divest: it poses a problem only to those who accept (1). That Cohen can take a position on divestiture without assuming (1) is, for the purpose of refuting Cahn, without significance.

Cohen may, however, wish his comments to be taken as an argument against adopting (1): if so, they do not succeed. If he is right that divestiture is a means, rather than an end, this does not remove divestiture from moral evaluation. To say that something is a means to an end does not entail that it is to be evaluated solely for its effectiveness in bringing about the end. Someone who holds that one ought not to use bad means to achieve good ends can consistently hold both (1) and (2) while agreeing with Cohen on the goal of divestiture. He need not hold that the purpose of divestiture is only to rid oneself of one’s immoral holdings. Further, Cohen gives no argument that someone who does take the latter view of divestiture is self-righteous. Why isn’t he simply trying to avoid immorality?

Walters devotes his principal attention to an attack on (2). He draws an analogy between (2) and a case of someone who is bound by a promise not to resign from an immoral job until a replacement can be found. If a consequence of accepting (2) were that on analogous grounds one must hold that “principled resignation” is not morally possible, this indeed would throw (2) into question. But Walters has not shown this. His case depends on the existence of a promise not to resign until a replacement can be found. Since it is usually not held that promises bind unconditionally, one might argue that someone in a sufficiently immoral job need not abide by his promise. To the extent that the job involves one in evil, the strength of the promise, other things being equal, weighs less in the balance. If, however, the force of the promise counts for more than the evil of remaining in the job, then there are some situations in which one is required to continue in a morally bad job. This hardly seems very damaging to (2).

And without a promise, Walters’s case involves no violation of (2) at all. The issue here is neither entailment of the replacement nor its probability, but causation. If you resign from the job, you do not bring about your replacement, even if you know your employer will hire someone else. He makes an independent decision. But in the case of selling the stock, it is your action that directly entangles the buyer.

Walters’s own solution to the divestiture problem suffers from a similar failing to Cohen’s. He contends that although not morally perfect, divestiture may be doing the best one can in a bad situation. But neither divestiture nor his supererogatory solution avoids Cahn’s problem, since each violates (1). Walters, rather than responding to Cahn, has instead presented an alternative view of the morality of divestiture, in this context an irrelevant enterprise.

Is Cahn’s problem capable of solution? One approach might start from the premise that if one cannot avoid acting badly, the usual prohibition on the use of bad means to achieve good ends does not apply. If one must either retain or sell the stock, will not the chooser of necessity have to put to one side the (presumably equal) immorality of each alternative and decide on consequentialist grounds? But this argument assumes that holding and selling are the only alternatives. Perhaps they are not: one might be able, e.g., to renounce one’s stock ownership without selling it.1 If so, Cahn’s problem remains unsolved; we have not shown there exists a way of morally selling the stock.



1 We owe this suggestion to Mr D. R. Steele.

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