November 26, 2022

Are executives guilty of murder if their products kill?

Oxford philosopher calls for criminal penalties

What is the difference between corporate executives selling dangerous projects like weapons, sugar, tobacco, asbestos, and fossil fuels and common murderers? According to Jeff McMahan, an Oxford University moral philosopher, not much. In a recent issue of the New Statesman (UK), he calls for criminal penalties.

The difference lies in the fact that a murderer is responsible for the death of one or more people – a handful at most. A manager does not intend the deaths of his victims, but he raises the probability of harm to a vast number.

the scale of their action ensures that it will cause a vast amount of suffering and many deaths – far more than ordinary murderers cause. While other people, including the victims themselves, share responsibility for these deaths, that does not diminish the responsibility of the executives. What is more, the executives’ action is not merely premeditated but is dictated by years of meticulous planning, usually with careful attention to the law, which provides ample opportunity for moral reflection.

While civil penalties do have some deterrent value, corporations often treat them as operating costs. They know that it will be less costly to fight a legal battle than to reengineer a product to ensure safety.

Threatening executives with criminal punishment would provide much more effective deterrence and defence. It could save thousands or possibly even millions of lives. This would of course require modifications of the criminal law that are now almost inconceivable, when corporate executives have unprecedented political power. Yet with so much at stake, it is imperative to criminalize the predatory forms of deception and manipulation I have described.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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