More people today are thinking about different forms of business, including worker cooperatives. In Learning through Disagreement, I use the question of starting a worker cooperative to illustrate the workbook’s method of exploring reasons for different views and then evaluating them with an ethics of purpose, principle, and consequence. The key to the process is that participants learn more about the issue by engaging in a dialogue with alternative views. To demonstrate a possible result of doing this type of work, I am sharing the argumentative dialogue from the workbook.
An Argumentative Dialogue On Worker Cooperatives
From Learning Through Disagreement (Broadview Press, 2014)
TONI: When I expand my business, I plan on making it a worker cooperative.
RY: You want to do what?
TONI: As my business grows, I want to bring on new people as co-owners of the
RY: You mean you want to give away the business to others?
TONI: No, I want to build the business with others who share the risks and the rewards of
running a business.
RY: Well, I think that is a bad idea. I think you should maintain ownership of the business
and hire people when you need them, and be able to fire them when you don’t.
TONI: So you don’t think we should share ownership?
RY: Never, and I will tell you why. We should not because that would mean giving up
control of the business and we should maintain control.
TONI: Well, at least your argument is valid.
RY: What do you mean?
TONI: It’s a good syllogism, with an observation and value judgment supporting your
RY: OK, so do you agree with it?
TONI: No, I disagree with your value judgment. I think we should share control with those
whose fate is tied up in the direction of the business. I think we should design businesses as
worker cooperatives because then everyone working in the business will have some say in
the direction of the business and I think we all should have a say in decisions that can
seriously affect our lives.
RY: Good logical argument.
RY: Have you done any research on this?
TONI: Yes, there are over 300 worker coops in the United States, in various industries from
food to home care. The biggest worker coop is Mondragon in Spain, This cooperative
conglomerate owns $33.5 billion in assets and employs more than 92,000 workers, many of
whom are owners of the group. There are plenty of examples of successful worker
RY: Well, for me to agree with you, I would have to assume that I would get more
enjoyment working with others, as I would get from having others work for me. Don’t you
want to be a captain of your own ship? I see myself as an entrepreneur, and I hope a very
TONI: Yes, I guess I do assume that working on a team would be more satisfying for me.
We may be quite different on this score. But it’s not only about me. I assume that many
have similar aspirations as I do, and I really don’t want to put myself in a position of
controlling them or them controlling me. I assume that we don’t have to design a business
with a military command and control structure. We could be more like a soccer team.
RY: I don’t know of any soccer teams that are worker cooperatives.
TONI: True, I was referring to how they all contribute to the success of their team. When
you think about it, I don’t see why players should not own their teams. If you were a soccer
player would you like to have a say in decisions that affect you and your team?
RY: Sure, but that’s not how things are done, especially in professional sports. Players go to
the highest bidder. They go where someone will pay them to play.
TONI: I am not suggesting that we take on the powerful institutions of professional sports. I
simply wanted to use the players’ teamwork to illustrate what a worker coop could achieve,
and what I would like to try.
RY: OK, but you must realize that most players engage in cooperative teamwork because
they are motivated by money and fear of losing their position to the player waiting on the
TONI: Don’t you think lots of players really like playing the game and playing it well?
RY: That may be true of a few, but if they don’t watch their back, they will not be playing
TONI: We seem to have very different assumptions here. If I assumed that the only way
to get people to excel is through incentives or punishments, then I would agree that coownership
would be unwise. But I assume that many people are more or less like me. We
want to have some control over our work and we want to do well.
RY: Well, I think a lot of people just want a paycheck, and are happy to have a job.
TONI: We really do have different assumptions.
RY: So it seems. You appear to focus more on the importance of good relationships and
maybe I focus more on individual achievement, but both are important.
TONI: Yes, I agree, we need to find some balance between them. Perhaps we can do this by
evaluating the ethical strength of the different arguments we have developed.
RY: OK, where should we start?
TONI: We can start with my first argument about what kind of business I want to run. One
ethical question that relates to this argument is the question of what a good business would
look like. What is its purpose?
RY: And what would you say?
TONI: Well I think a good business meets some needs and wants of the people in its
community. I see businesses as providers of goods and services, and a good business would
do that well.
RY: OK, but I don’t think you have to be a worker-owned cooperative to provide excellent
goods and services.
TONI: I agree, but I also want to create an excellent community of people who together
provide these goods and services: This is really a business’s internal purpose. I think the
work community should be one of mutual respect and responsibility, and a worker
cooperative is a good way to become that kind of business.
RY: Well, I can see that in an ideal world, but you may not realize your external purpose if
you focus too much on your internal purpose. You know what I mean?
TONI: Yes, I know we have to make it in the market, but as I have said before, worker
coops have been quite successful.
RY: Let’s look at my argument from an ethics of principle.
TONI: Great. What is your implicit principle? It is probably the same as your argument’s
value judgment? Can you make that into a universal moral law?
RY: The value judgment was: “Owners should maintain control of their business.” I guess I
can re-word it to say something like “People should not give up control of things they own.”
TONI: OK, this is a bit complicated, since we are thinking about whether or not to share
ownership. It doesn’t seem like it is morally wrong to share ownership, but then at the same
time, it doesn’t seem like we have a moral obligation to share something we own. I guess we
need to know what you actually own when you own a business.
RY: Well, you own the assets, and you own the income it generates. You own the profit.
TONI: You may own the financial capital and the material capital, but you do not own the
social or cultural capital—the human capital. You might pay for them, but you do not own
them. If there are parts of every business that you do not own, then why should you control
RY: OK. You know, it doesn’t seem that the ethics of principle really helps us evaluate the
merit of my argument.
TONI: I think you are right. Not all three ethical approaches are equally helpful in every
case. That may true in this case in terms of trying to universalize the implicit principle, but
what about the second question we ask when using this approach: “Does your proposal
respect the moral agency of others?”
RY: Good question. As much as I hate to admit it, you position that people should have a
say in decisions that affects them shows more respect for others than mine does. I think we
need to move on to an ethics of consequence.
TONI: Fine with me. Who will be affected by our decision?
RY: You will be, or whoever is sharing ownership with those who join the business. Let’s
call them workers. Then we have your family and the other worker’s families. We should
include the other relevant stakeholders as well, such as the consumers, investors, the
community, and suppliers.
TONI: And what do you see as the impact on these different groups? And do you think it
will be positive or negative?
RY: For you, or whoever wants to share ownership of a business, the positive consequence
would be you that would have company (no pun intended), but the negative is that you, from
my perspective, you increase the risk of failure. The workers might gain, if the business goes
well, or lose, if it does not. I don’t think the other stakeholders would be affected much.
TONI: What about the community? If the business is owned by a group of people who live
in the community, isn’t it more likely that the business will be responsive to its community?
Furthermore, I think that since worker cooperatives promote active involvement at work,
they will also promote more active involvement in other communities, such as public
RY: Could be. Once I think more about this, the real issue seems to be the competitors. If
your worker-cooperative is not competitive, the whole business will fail. That would be a
negative consequence for everyone, including the community.
TONI: Right, I think we are dealing with risk and safety here, and if we take care on adding
co-owners as we grow, I think the consequences can be quite positive for most of us.
RY: OK, if you are willing to take the risk. Also, if we look at our application of the three
ethical approaches, it certainly does not rule out moving toward worker-cooperatives, so I
would have to say it seems like a sound decision.
TONI: Yes, but I think I need to be careful in adding new owners, so maybe you would like
to give me some feedback when the time times. Hay, would you like to be the first coowner?
RY: I don’t think I am ready right now. Working with someone like you, however, would
not be a bad idea.
TONI: Let’s keep in touch.
The essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates on reparations in The Atlantic (June, 2014) may be more important for thinking about addressing the issue of inequality than Thomas Piketty’s book on capital. What we learn from Coates, or are reminded of since many of us knew this even as we denied it, is that the inequality in America is largely due to white people taking from black people. There is probably no more convincing evidence of the existence of white privilege today than the idea that we can create a just economy without dealing with this issue.
Coates’ argument is not about what white people should pay to black people, but rather that we should study the issue. We need a national conversation on race and capitalism. The issue is not just about money, but also about dignity. It is also about honesty:
To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying.
Actually the statistics don’t lie:
Black families, regardless of income, are significantly less wealthy than white families. The Pew Research Center estimates that white household are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households, and that whereas only 15 percent of whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of blacks do.
But what do these statistics mean? Coates makes a compelling case that this difference is not merely the result of social conditions, but of actual plundering of black resources by whites. So it is a good question: “What about Reparations?”
When we think in Indo-European languages, we usually think in triads. It’s embedded in its structure. So if you are thinking in English in terms of “either-or,” you have some more thinking to do. At the same time, if you are thinking in triads, you have gone about as far as you can go. The question is whether we need to go further.
True, one finds other structures in Western thinking. The Greek four elements of air, water, wind, and earth is a good example. Still, triadic thinking, from Plato’s triadic structure of society—ruler, military, and peasants—to the Christian trinity—Father, Son and Spirit—dominates Western thought.
The Christian trinity is an especially interesting case, since the content actually belongs to Semitic languages—Hebrew and Aramaic. The members of the Jewish Christian community believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and even though they had the concepts of Father, Son, and Spirit, they never formulated a complex theory of “Three in One.” For Greek theologians, on the other hand, this probably seemed quite logical.
In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics triads dominate the text. There are three kinds of lives—lives of gratification, of political activity, and of study. There are three kinds of justice: distributive, retributive, and reciprocal, and there are three kinds of friendship: pleasure, utility, and virtue. And there are three terms in a syllogism. Still, Aristotle is famous for his four, not three, causes: material, efficient, formal, and final. Kenneth Burke took Aristotle’s four causes and expanded them into a pentad for understanding human action: scene, agent, act, agency, and purpose. Years ago, I used Burke’s pentad for human action to justify using three ethical approaches: purpose, principle and consequence—as a way of covering all the essential aspects of action.
In my book, Corporate Integrity, I proposed five dimensions of organizational life: cultural, relational, organizational, social, and environmental. My colleague, Georges Enderle, argues that any adequate framework for business ethics must consider the micro, meso, and macro dimensions of business systems. Corporations themselves are fond of the triad of economic, social, and environment as areas of responsibility. In Civilizing the Economy, I proposed that all human communities must do three things: provide for one another, protect one another, and find social meaning. This triad actually has its origin in Kenneth Boulding’s triad of three powers: integrity, exchange, and threat. I later proposed that we see these as three ways of transforming society, through persuasion, incentives, and regulation.
Perhaps the master of triadic thinking was the German philosopher, Hegel. He had various triads, but perhaps the most influential was the triad of family, civil society, and the state. His use of these categories requires more space to explain than we have here, but his importance is that he was one of the first to use the concept of civil society as a sphere alongside other spheres. What we see most often today, in this tradition, is the triad of market, state, and civil society.
I have argued for a different view that is more contextual. Instead of spheres that overlap each other, like Venn diagrams, I have suggested that we think contextually, with one “sphere” inside another or the context for another. Almost like Russian dolls, I place the economy in the context of government, which is in the context of the civic, which itself exists in the context of nature, or the planet.
Now I am thinking about a new triad (new at least for me). It is more Hegelian than Aristotelian, which may be neither here nor there. Anyway, my triadic image is that between our common humanity and our social differences there exists a civic space where we can deliberate about how we should live together. This civic exists in conflict and disagreement, and yet it also invites us to participate—to become members of this civic: to become citizens. My thought is that this civic is the foundation for all human institutions. So we can think about the economy and the State, and even “civil society, as belonging to the social—to our social differences. We never escape the social, but we can change it, if we are invited to join in that space between our social differences and our common humanity: the civic. Is this triad the trap we want, or should we create another?
The National Basketball Association Commissioner, Adam Sliver, did a couple of important things when he banned the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers from the Association for his taped racist remarks. Silver clearly stated that he was there for the players (and for the rest of us) by protecting human dignity from financial power. He also reminded us that ownership has it limits. More than that, he demonstrated that the rights of membership sometimes should override the rights of ownership. In the current conversation about the role of ownership in a viable economy, this may be a learning moment we should not pass by.
In Civilizing the Economy, I proposed that we switch from an economy based on property ownership to one based on civic membership. If I understand the Commissioner’s position correctly, he actually implemented this proposal. The Association told the owner that his ownership did not give him control of the Clippers, or the Association. This is not something we hear often in our society.
There is a deeper question. Let me put the question this way? What community do you belong to that will protect your dignity? I think NBA basketball players and coaches now have an answer for that question. Do we? Is that even a good question for property owners? Isn’t our answer that all we need is for the government to protect our property, and we can take care of our own dignity? Or is this only the voice of white privilege? Since we are white and privileged, no one would threaten our dignity, unless someone revealed that our assumed dignity is based on the undignified treatment of others.
As Emmanuel Kant said, there is one thing that does not have a price: human dignity. In fact, some of the NBA players have enough money to buy dignity if it were for sale. This isn’t about the distribution of income, but abut mutual respect. In the aftermath of this event, we will see if membership retains its control over ownership. If it does, we might learn more about the difference between an economics of property and a civic economics of provision.
As you know the majority of judges sitting on the US Supreme Court have granted the rights of persons to corporations. I wonder if they will soon grant similar rights to chimpanzees and other highly cognizant primates. Charles Siebert’s article in the New York Times Magazine (April 27) provides us with some resources to think about this question.
Siebert’s article focuses on the work of Stephen Wise. Wise has worked with animal rights groups, such as the Nonhuman Rights Project, to have courts recognize highly cognizant primates as “autonomous beings.” Such a status could mean that they should be treated as legal persons—persons with the right to sue their owners for illegal confinement.
“Like humans,” the legal memo reads, “chimpanzees have a concept of their personal past and future . . . they suffer the pain of not being able to fulfill their needs or move around as they wish; [and] they suffer the pain of anticipating never-ending confinement.”
So far, courts have not granted chimps the legal status of persons with rights, and maybe they will not, but one wonders why it has been so easy for the courts to grant such status to corporations, especially when you consider that these judges themselves are much more like chimpanzees than corporations.
Wise’s intention to establish legal personhood for chimps is to give them the right of Habeas Corpus: the right to bring before the courts a claim of false imprisonment. Legal persons, in other words, have the right, and therefore the capacity, to claim false imprisonment. But do corporations have this right. Can you imagine a corporation suing its owners for its freedom? Do corporations even come close to the status of “autonomous beings”?
So what are some of the similarities and differences between corporations and chimpanzees? They have different origins. Corporations are legal creations. Chimps are natural beings. Both are treated as properties that one can buy and sell, but they are not the same kind of properties. Corporations do not have any of the characteristics of higher primates. Corporations can be understood as constructions of verbal and non-verbal patterns of communication (see my book Corporate Integrity, 2005). Chimpanzees are fundamentally relational animals, like humans, and live in relationships of trust and fear, of joy and anger. Corporations are also constituted by human relations; relationships that have the capacity of promoting trust or fear.
One more significant difference is that corporations are legitimate in terms of their usefulness or benefits. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, are living beings, part of the animal world–on the planet before we were. Instead of invaders of their homeland, we could have been their guests. For us to allow corporations to destroy the planet and to put chimpanzees in prison might be a good indication of how far we are from where we should be.
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