Corporate Vigilantism vs Russia? | The Business Ethics Blog



Is a corporate boycott of Russia an act of vigilantism?

Some people reading this will assume that “vigilantism” equals “bad,” and so they’ll think that I’m asking whether boycotting Russia is bad or not. Both parts of that are wrong: I don’t presume that that “vigilantism” always equals “bad.” There have always, historically, been situations in which individuals took action, or in which communities rose up, to act in the name of law and order when formal law enforcement mechanisms were either weak or lacking entirely. Surely many such efforts have been misguided, or overzealous, or self-serving, but not all of them. Vigilantism can be morally bad, or morally good.

And make no mistake: I am firmly in favour of just about any and all forms of sanction against Russia in light of its attack on Ukraine. This includes both individuals engaging in boycotts of Russian products by as well as major companies pulling out of the country. The latter is a kind of boycott, too, so let’s just use that one word for both, for present purposes.

So, when I ask whether boycotting Russia a kind of vigilantism, I’m not asking a morally-loaded question. I’m asking whether participating in such a boycott puts a person, or a company, into the sociological category of “vigilante.”

Let’s start with definitions. For present purposes, let’s define vigilantism this way: “Vigilantism is the attempt by those who lack formal authority to impose punishment for violation of social norms.” Breaking it down, that definition includes three key criteria:

  • The agents acting must lack formal authority;
  • The agents must be imposing punishment;
  • The punishment must be in light of some violation of social norms.

Next, let’s apply that definition to the case at hand.

First, do the companies involved in boycotting Russia lack formal authority? Arguably, yes. Companies like Apple and McDonalds – as private organizations, not governmental agencies – have no legal authority to impose punishment on anyone external to their own organizations. Of course, just what counts as “legal authority” in international contexts is somewhat unclear, and I’m not a lawyer. Even were an organization to be deputized, in some sense, by the government of the country in which they are based, it’s not clear that that would constitute legal authority in the relevant sense. And as far as I know, there’s nothing in international law (or “law”) that authorizes private actors to impose penalties. So whatever legal authority would look like, private corporations in this case pretty clearly don’t have it.

Second, are the companies involved imposing punishment? Again, arguably, yes. Of course, some might suggest that they are not inflicting harm in the traditional sense. They aren’t actively imposing harm or damage: they are simply refraining, quite suddenly, from doing business in Russia. But that doesn’t hold water. The companies are a) doing things that they know will do harm, and b) the imposition of such harm is in response to Russia’s actions. It is a form of punishment.

Finally, are the companies pulling out of Russia doing so in reaction to perceived violation of a social rule. Note that this last criterion is important, and is what distinguishes vigilantism from vendettas. Vigilantism occurs in response not (primarily) to a wrong against those taking action, but in response to a violation of some broader rule. Again, clearly the situation at hand fits the bill. The social rule in question, here, is the rule against unilateral military aggression a nation state against a peaceful, non-aggressive neighbour. It is one agreed to across the globe, notwithstanding the opinion of a few dictators and oligarchs.

Taken together, this all seems to suggest that a company pulling out of Russia is indeed engaging in vigilantism.

Now, it’s worth making a brief note about violence. When most people think of vigilantism, they think of the private use of violence to punish wrongdoers. They think of frontier towns and six-shooters; they think of mob violence against child molesters, and so on. And indeed, most traditional scholarly definitions of vigilantism stipulate that violence must be part of the equation. And the classical vigilante, certainly, uses violence, taking the law quite literally into their own hands. But as I’ve argued elsewhere,* insisting that violence be part of the definition of vigilantism makes little sense in the modern context. “Once upon a time,” violent means were the most obvious way of imposing punishment. But today, thinking that way makes little sense. Today, vigilantes have a wider range of options at their disposal, including the imposition of financial harms, harms to privacy, and so on. And such methods can amount to very serious punishments. Many people would consider being fired, for instance, and the resulting loss of ability to support one’s family, as a more grievous punishment than, say, a moderate physical beating by a vigilante crowd. Vigilantes use, and have always used, the tools they found at hand, and today that includes more than violence. So, the fact that companies engaging in the boycott aren’t using violence should not distract us here.

So, the corporate boycott of Russia is a form of vigilantism. But I’ve said that vigilantism isn’t always wrong. So, what’s the point of doing the work to figure out whether the boycott is vigilantism, if that’s not going to tell us about the rightness or wrongness of the boycott?

In some cases, we ask whether a particular behaviour is a case of a particular category of behaviours (“Was that really murder?” or “Did he really steal the car?” or “Was that really a lie?”) as a way of illuminating the morality of the behaviour in question. If the behaviour is in that category, and if that category is immoral, then (other things equal) the behaviour in question is immoral. Now I said above that that’s not quite what I’m doing here – instances of vigilantism may be either immoral or moral, so by asking whether boycotting Russia is an act of vigilantism, I’m not thereby immediately clarifying the moral status of boycotting Russia.

But I am, however, doing something related. Because while I don’t think that vigilantism is by definition immoral, I do think that it’s a morally interesting category of behaviour.

If our intuition says (as mine does) that a particular activity is morally good, then we need to be able to say – if the issue at hand is of any real importance – why we think it is good. As part of that, we need to ask whether our intuitions about this behaviour line up with our best thinking about the behavioural category or categories into which this behaviour fits. So if you tend to think vigilantism is sometimes OK, what is it that makes it OK, and do those reasons fit the present situation? And if you think vigilantism is generally bad, what makes the present situation an exception?

* MacDonald, Chris. “Corporate leadership versus the Twitter mob.” Ethical Business Leadership in Troubling Times. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2019. [Link]


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