On the Border

As mentioned last week, this is the second of two follow-up posts that arose from the question about the ethical standards germane to artificial intelligence companies. Last week’s applied to the ethics of algorithms, in all of their black box splendor. This week’s post asks questions about which standards are applicable when a company operates in multiple countries.

To start, this may be especially timely given a recent European Union decision to force Ireland to collect corporate taxes on Apple. More generally, this is symptomatic of a larger problem of tax inversion – companies obtaining legal addresses in a separate national jurisdiction in order to fall under a more favorable tax code. The general principle follows something like: Company B wants to minimize its burden of Standard C (e.g. taxes, labor standards, minimum wages). In order accomplish this object, Company B relocates from Country X to Country Y. Ultimately, through a combination of paperwork, a series of financial transactions, and many hours of brainpower dedicated to identifying circumvention techniques, voila, Company B has moved from Country X to Country Y and enjoys the less stringent standards enabled by such a move.Where does that leave us?

So far, we have an example of tax inversion and an abstraction of international corporate strategy, neither of which directly leads to codes of ethics. The question, however, is whether a company might do something similar to minimize its ethical responsibility. For example, take the difference between the precautionary principle as it is enacted in Europe versus the a more hands-off approach that other countries adopt. If a company wants to adhere to less onerous standards, is it beyond the realm of possibility to imagine them pursuing alternative jurisdictions that allow for the bare minimum in terms of ethical responsibility? It certainly seems possible, if not plausible, to believe such action may occur. If true, then, should we consider a canon centered around holding companies – or more generally, moral agents – to the highest standard, rather than the lowest one available? For the tax example, this would mean paying the higher tax rate. For companies operating in a jurisdiction where the precautionary principles obtains along with a separate location with minimal safety regulations, this would entail adhering to the more protective precautionary principle. Is it time to institute these international contingencies in codes of ethics?

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