Gary Kasparov raises a morally significant question: what responsibility do I bear for the one with whom I do business?
Early Thursday morning, Germany invaded Ukraine. So did the Netherlands, Italy, France, Great Britain and every other country that has supported Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war machine for the past decade. The missiles that slammed into Kharkiv, the helicopters attacking an airport near the capital Kyiv, every bullet in every Russian paratrooper’s gun — all were built or bought largely with money from the free world. That same free world now stands in shock that these weapons are being used to do what they were designed to do.
The ethics of doing business with another are complicated. I remember an essay written years ago by a man who had invested for his child’s college. As he looked through the investments in the fund and traced the companies down to individual operations, he began to conclude that his son’s future would be funded by the unjust treatment of others around the world.
Operating in the world comes with the impossibility of justice in all areas, because we human beings seem so very willing to treat our fellow humans with the utmost contempt and cruelty. President Biden gave these remarks on February 24,
When the history of this era is written, Putin’s choice to make a totally unjustifiable war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger.
Liberty, democracy, human dignity — these are the forces far more powerful than fear and oppression. They cannot be extinguished by tyrants like Putin and his armies. They cannot be erased by people — from people’s hearts and hopes by any amount of violence and intimidation. They endure.
Such words could only be written or spoken by someone unfamiliar with the planet or its history. The most common structure of life has been oppression and misuse. The evil of Russia’s invasion are not new or uncommon:
Amos 1:13–15 (ESV)
13 Thus says the Lord:
“For three transgressions of the Ammonites,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they have ripped open pregnant women in Gilead,
that they might enlarge their border.
14 So I will kindle a fire in the wall of Rabbah,
and it shall devour her strongholds,
with shouting on the day of battle,
with a tempest in the day of the whirlwind;
15 and their king shall go into exile,
he and his princes together,”
says the Lord.
Seeing that this is a world of oppression and too common violence. Just take a look at the Global Conflict Tracker: https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/?category=us
So then let’s return to Mr. Kasparov’s essay: Is he being fair? If this is a world which is filled with oppression and violence, and if we cannot track out all of the misuse of money, isn’t he just applying an unfair standard? I think not.
There are a few options (this is not exhaustive list nor a comprehensive discussion of the ethics). Here are some extremes: I operate a corner market. Someone I do not know comes in and buys a quart of milk and something to eat. The man says that he is exhausted and he needs this to be able to get back to work. We happily sell him the food and milk and wish him well. Later we realize that he is torturing someone and he has grown weak from the violence of his acts. Are we morally wrong? No. He had no way of knowing the immediate harm which was done. Our actions were actions which would normally be good.
Now consider another scenario: A man comes into my hardware store. He is covered in blood. He looks crazed and angry. He says, I need rope, a saw, and a shovel. I am busy murdering people and I needed some more tools. You think, well I am not actually murdering anyone myself, so I guess I’m not responsible.
Kasparov presents a third case: A man comes to you and says, I have a dream of murdering thousands maybe tens of thousands of people. I want to destroy the lives and happiness of millions more. But, as you can guess, it takes a lot of money to cause that sort of sorrow. I’m going to need weapons, I’ll need to hire soldiers, all sorts of expenses. So I’ll tell you what we’ll do, let’s do business. I have a lot of oil and I’ll keeping selling you oil until I get wealthy enough to make children weep for their dead parents, and mothers to hold ruined children, and thousands to flee in fear. Anyway, that’s my dream, and my dream takes a lot of money. So what you say, want to do business? You say, sure. You need cash, I need oil, sounds like a win-win.
Ten, 15 years later, you sociopathic neighbor sets on his reign of terror. He’s not attacking you, so while it is terrible to watch, it doesn’t actually cost you anything. When the victims start screaming, you say, Whoa, that’s terrible. But that’s not my fault.
Kasparov’s point is You didn’t have to give the murderer money. But you knowingly made a murderer very rich and he did what he promised, he spent it on weapons and soldiers and now he is causing sorrow. Again, read his essay.