For a long time, ethics has been seen as the study of what comprises good and bad conduct which includes the values that influence the conduct. Generally, contemporary culture has given humans unprecedented liberty and prosperity which has necessitated the growth of the concept of ethics.
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Business ethics on the other hand has existed in the form of reflection on the ethical dimensions of business exchanges and institutions whereby the concept has been understood in two distinctive ways, where one group views it from the background of philosophy while the other group views it from the background of business community (Brenkert and Beauchamp 3).
These two approaches are not exclusive, but the philosophical approach appears to be the broader of the two. In all cases, it becomes important to appreciate the fact that moral problems and the process of analyzing them invites different forms of useful analysis.
Water forms an essential commodity that ensures continuity of life, though for a long time no systematic way has been elaborated in appreciating its value (Brown and Schmidt 3). For long, people have regarded water as a renewable commodity that has potential to develop without limit. With the larger society utilizing water in different ways such as irrigation, energy and burgeoning urban centers, the reality is now clearer that like just other renewable commodities, water is a finite resource.
However, providing answers to modern water problems requires giving answers to questions of value: how should society capture, store or distribute water; at what cost; for whom; and for how long (Brown and Schmidt 4). All these questions are regarded as ethical because just like any other essential resource, determining a fair and just distribution of water has direct effects on human and nonhuman lives and also the systems that sustain them.
Commodification of water
Borgmann argues that the driving force of the contemporary society is the aspect of commodification which is described as, that vital structure of modern society of the market which conveys a sense of moral censure (Borgmann 143).
The author, in reference to Viviana Zelizer, states that, “economic prophets have frequently warned us against global commodification and the loss of the moral-emotional fiber it brings” (Borgmann 144). Using the Marx’s concept of commodification, Borgmann first sees the concept to possess the verb to commodify, which to him is “to draw something from outside the market into the market so that it becomes available for sale and purchase” (Borgmann 144).
Marx looked at the various ways in which capitalism perceived the production of things such as wheat, shoes and clothing out of the hands and circumstances of the farmers, artisan and householders, stripped them of their context of skills and persons, of exchanges and uses and made them into commodities (goods) whose importance was reduced to their price.
Moreover, Marx became critical of how labor was being converted into something that could be purchased and sold under conditions that only favored the capitalists and made the workers beggars (Borgmann 144); thus, commodification became purely and totally exploitation.
The contemporary discussions continue to see the concept of commodification as contested. In such discussions, the broader agreement has remained that, certain goods such as justice should never be for sale (Borgmann 145). But other goods have continued to draw divided opinions.
For a long time, goods at issue in this discussion have generally constituted those in Michael Walzer’s list of items which are subject to ‘blocked exchanges’: 1) Human beings; 2) political power and influence; 3) criminal justice; 4) freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly; 5) marriage and procreation; 6) the right to leave the political community; 7) exemptions from military service, from jury duty, and from any other form of communally imposed work; 8) political offices; 9) basic welfare services like police protection or primary and secondary schooling; 10) desperate exchanges; 11) prizes and honors of many sorts; 12) divine grace; 13) love and friendship; and 14) a long series of criminal sales (Borgmann p.145).
The above list can be complete if addition of certain public goods is made. These public goods are; clean air and clean water, safety from crime, basic health care and public lands. The main argument in disfavor of commodification of public goods is that commodification may leads to social injustice, for instance, if education is totally commodified, the children of the poor will get no education or for them, inferior education will be enough (Borgmann p.145).
Commodification of water: Public vs. Private debate
There exist two debates that continue to dominate the lives of many people concerning the issue of water. For instance, there are arguments whether water services should remain public or go private. One of the arguments “is concerned with practical issues of efficiency and economics, and the other is about principle” (Snitow, Kaufman and Fox p.10).
Privatizing water in a country like USA has been a hard venture to undertake. Those opposed to such move include personalities such as Barlow of the Council of Canadians and Tony Clarke of Canada’s Polaris Institute (Snitow, Kaufman and Fox 10). The two have opposed the move to privatize water in principle and they are convinced that private companies should only get involved in narrow areas of infrastructure development but not allowed to have ownership, control or delivery of the basic service.
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To them, the process or actions of commodifying water is generally wrong in terms of ethics, environmental and social (Snitow, Kaufman and Fox p.10). They are on the view that the process will, “insure that decisions regarding the allocation of water would center on commercial, not environmental or social justice considerations; privatization means that management of water resources is based on principles of scarcity and profit maximization rather than long-term sustainability” (Snitow, Kaufman and Fox 10).
Contrary to this position, there is a divergent view which has been adopted by Peter Cook of the National Association of Water Companies who is convinced that if market principles are applicable to other products in the market, then water as a commodity cannot be exceptional.
Cook sees nothing wrong or unethical in making profits from water since the money which has been pumped into the business by the investors is used to benefit customers and provide them with services. Cook sums up his position by quoting the bible by stating that, the bible and especially the Ten Commandments have no provision that prohibits people from making profits, and utilities need to be operated as enterprises (Snitow, Kaufman and Fox pp.10-11).
To this extent, “the practical debate over who can provide water better focuses on the issues of transparency, efficiency, rates, and sustainability” (Snitow, Kaufman and Fox pp.11).. Indeed, most of these values are possible in public controlled enterprises but far more difficult in private owned enterprises or corporations.
The essence of water being a commodity that sustains life has drawn conflicting debates and reactions on whether it is ethical to commodify and therefore subject it to market competition principles.
This particular confusion has been precipitated by the actions of United Nations to declare that water is a human right that should be accessible to everyone. The question that arises is; are their moral consequences that arise as a result of commodifying water and hence its availability and accessibility largely become determined by market mechanisms?
In most cases, ethical lapse can be categorized into three groups: deception, stealing and harming (Howard and Korver 13). There exists many variants to these but the mentioned three have come out as the most wrongdoings which people commit.
Lying has been described in many ways that include: doctor, cover up, overstate, understate, misinform, misguide or stretch the truth (Howard and Korver p.14). additionally, the act of lying has psychological costs, for example, when individuals lie there is always a clash between their values and who they are; lying also creates barriers in relationships and soils self-image of an individual (Howard and Korver p.15).
The contemporary society is faced with a situation where people are facing dilemma on various ethical decisions and as a result there have been numerous methods of moral reasoning.
Moral reasoning has taken center stage in various social issues as people continue to debate on what is right and what is wrong or what ought to be or not be done. In most cases many people are convinced that it is not necessary the principles which determine what is right or wrong, but the consequences produced by the actions in question (Rae p.81). When a particular course of action or decision produces the best set of consequences, then to majority such actions need to be allowed and accepted.
In other words the action(s) that produces the greatest balance of benefits over harms is the one that is considered as the most moral. Generally actions considered right or wrong (morality) should depend on the situation and also on what the cultural consensus of right and wrong is at that time. In the case of commodifying water, if the society and hence culture reaches consensus that water commodification is wrong then it would be morally wrong to commodify or privatize water.
Utilitarianism ethics postulate that morality of an act is determined by the end result. From this observation, utilitarianism conviction is that the moral choice is the one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people or at the same time the moral choice is the course of action that produces more good consequences than harmful ones.
Utilitarianism sometimes is regarded as consequentialism ethics due to its emphasis on the consequences of an action. Jeremy Bentham, one of the philosophers credited to utilitarianism believed in hedonistic utilitarianism which postulates that “the most moral acts are those that maximize pleasure and minimize pain” (Rae p.85).
On the other hand John Mill, another believer of utilitarianism ethics established his approach which differed from that of Bentham which was general concept of maximizing the general happiness, or what he termed as the greatest good for the greatest number. Hence ethics can be seen as the art of directing the actions of people so as to bring about the greatest possible happiness to all those who are concerned with these actions.
As a result, Bentham observed that the interests of the community are simply the sum of the interests of its members. In sum the utilitarianism principle hold that, “an action is right from an ethical point of view if and only if the sum total of utilities produced by that act is greater than the sum total of utilities produced by any other act the agent could have performed in its place” (Fernando p.34).
Water commodification can be analyzed within the precepts of utilitarianism ethics where business principles can take a backseat to consequences, if on balance, commodification of water provides more beneficial consequences for more people then utilitarianism ethics consider it to be the most moral choice.
Evaluation of actions needs to be made on the basis of benefits or harms the action(s) will bring upon human beings. The morality of the theory is that, individual or an organization performing particular actions need to impartially take into account interests of everyone on equal basis.
Kant was convinced that morality should be derived from recognition that people share a common human condition and what makes humans valuable and special is their ability to reason and that moral rules based on reason should govern human behavior.
To Kant moral rules need to be based on tradition, intuition, desire, conscience, emotion and sympathy and that free will among humans comes from their ability to reason and prompts them to develop rules for moral behavior which in turn can be applicable universally disregarding utilitarianism consequences.
The moral rules established needs to recognize the fact that all people have a certain human dignity and therefore they should be accorded respect as autonomous beings (Fernando p.35). According to Kant moral ethics, an action is only moral for an individual in a certain situation if, and only if, the individual’s reason for carrying out the action is one that he or she would be willing to have every person act on in any similar situation.
At the same time moral worth would not be attached to an action motivated singularly to promote individual interests or for pleasure and that if an action is wrong for other people, it is wrong for any one person. For Kant an action is regarded morally worth if it reflects a good will and it is only when individuals act from duty that their actions are regarded to be moral worth. As a result Kant believes that ethics should be grounded in reason alone and not on human nature (Fernando p.35).
Ethicality in commodifying water
On November 27 2002, United Nation declared water to be a human right for the first time and went a head to require states to adopt key legal mechanisms that would ensure this fundamental right is achieved (Sierra Club par. 1). From UN observation, the conviction was that privatizing water could not be achieved since it is impossible to marry the profit motive of a private enterprise and the necessity and importance of a commodity like water which many people require in order to survive (utilitarianism).
The conclusion is that the issue of rendering water as a private thing should be done away from the market place since water belongs to earth, to all species, to the future generation and in this regard no one has the right to commodify water for personal (deontological) or corporate gain (Sierra Club par. 1).
On advancing this claim, the Cochabamba Declaration of December 8, 2000, which brought together interested parties aimed at ensuring the privatization of water, was not achieved (welfare concern). To cement and solidify their claim the group came up with key points to be observed which turned out to constitute the Cochabamba Declaration (Sierra Club par. 4).
To the group access to water is the fundamental right of every human and all humans are required to respect nature as they use water given by the earth. The three main points formulated were:
- Water was described to belong to the earth and also to all species of the world and that water need to be regarded as sacred to life, and from this view the water of the world needs to be conserved, reclaimed and put under adequate protection in order to ensure the future generation is safe;
- Water was described as fundamental human right and also as a public trust that needs to be guarded by all structures of the government and as a result it should not be commodified, privatized or commercially traded; lastly
- Water can be best protected by local communities and people and who must be given equal respect as partners of various governments in the process of protecting and regulating water (Sierra Club par. 5).
Water ethic has developed in many societies as a result of continued efforts by enterprises and corporation to commodifying water. As a result, in most societies specifically the developed ones, water ethics commodification and privatization with marginalized access to water continue to raise key questions such as:
Can water be sustainably managed while the global financial institutions and transnational corporations possess the means to do so? How can the empowerment of public and rights of people over water be restored? How can global skills, capital and user practices are reconciled with the need and desire for control over water of local people? Such questions give an impression of how fundamental ethics has become essential in addressing the issue of water commodification. Ethical reasoning in regards to water will ensure proper, efficient and sustainable use of water despite its scarcity in nature.
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Brenkert, George G. and Beauchamp, Tom L. The Oxford Handbook of Business Ethics. NY, Oxford University Press US. 2009. Web.
Brown, Peter G. and Schmidt, Jeremy J. Water Ethics: Foundational Readings for Students and Professionals. NW, Island Press. 2010. Web.
Fernando, A. C. Business Ethics: An Indian Perspective. New Delhi, Pearson Education India, 2009. Web.
Howard, Ronald A. and Korver, Clinton D. Ethics for the real world: creating a personal code to guide decisions in work and life. MA, Harvard Business Press. 2008. Web.
Rae, Scott B. Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics. MI, Zondervan, 2000. Web.
Sierra Club. Corporate Water Privatization: Water is a Human Right not a Commodity. 2008. Web.
Snitow, Allan, Kaufman, Deborah and Fox, Michael. Thirst: fighting the corporate theft of our water. C. A., John Wiley and Sons. 2007. Web.