Even after the economic slowdown of the last eight years, the high standard of living in the United States remains the envy of much of the world. That standard of living depends upon the spirit of entrepreneurship, a broad commitment to free markets, and a vast number of business corporations.

But what happens when corporations make money by undermining crucial elements of public morality in the United States? We have substantial evidence that more and more corporations are doing just that.

What Is “Public Morality”?

Public morality can be understood alongside the concepts of public health and public safety. Two scholars have provided particularly lucid accounts of public morality. For Robert P. George, it is a public good, involving principles of right and wrong and the regulation of individual behavior as it pertains to the common good. In Harry Clor’s account, public morality is an ethic of “decency or civility” that is widely understood to be necessary to the well-being of the community as such. Clor describes it as an “ethic of restraint,” distinguishing it from a competing public ethic of rights and liberties. The ethic of restraint is a “countervailing ethic” meant to restrain “excesses of individualism and sensualism” in contemporary liberal society. Clor notes that policies on public morality have typically dealt with matters such as prostitution, gambling, pornography, and standards of public decency.

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Clor is sensitive to the tension between public morality and the lure of profit. Still, he notes that considerations of public morality can occasionally be used for commercial gain, citing the example of New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his campaign to “clean up” Times Square in the 1990s. The motive for that campaign was to attract more tourists to midtown Manhattan. But as Clor knows, that campaign was the exception, not the rule.

Corporate America and the “Ethic of Restraint”

The decade in which the transformation of Times Square started to take place shows how unusual Giuliani’s achievement was. More often, large corporations—typically in the fashion, entertainment, or “lifestyle” industries—mock basic tenets of public morality for commercial gain. Calvin Klein, for example, launched an advertising campaign in 1995 featuring photographs of eighteen-year-old models who looked considerably younger. The ads were regarded by many as child pornography. After widespread public outrage and an initial inquiry from the Justice Department, the company ended the campaign.

In the summer of the same year, Time magazine featured cover stories on the proliferation of internet pornography and the debased character of so much popular music and cinema. Later in the 1990s, the long-running controversy about Abercrombie & Fitch and its ubiquitous “soft” pornographic advertisements began.

In our current social circumstances, we have little reason to expect corporations to promote any “ethic of restraint.” Since the 1990s, the nation has become more secular, and among many Americans a “proudly pagan” mentality has taken root. As Clor reminds us, our “ethic of restraint” mainly derives from religious sources, especially Christianity. And because being anti-Christian—or at least disdainful of Christianity—is de rigueur in progressive circles today, the political influence of traditional Catholics and Protestants in the United States has waned.

Of course, small corporations can also do their fair share of damage to public morality. And small corporations can grow, sometimes spectacularly. The pornography industry, now a multibillion-dollar industry, is illustrative. So, too, casino gambling and state-sponsored lotteries—promoters of the “get rich quick” mentality—were once illegal in most jurisdictions in the United States for most of the twentieth century and now are blossoming.

Four Theses

The preceding considerations lead to four theses on the relationship between the principles and practices that constitute our public morality and what I am calling “the lure of profit.”

  1. To increase profits, large corporations may try to influence the thinking of consumers, politicians, and the general public on questions of public morality.

Begin with an uncomplicated scenario. If the main business of a corporation is illegal in many or most jurisdictions, the corporation must devise a strategy to change attitudes so that this activity will be decriminalized. This seems to have been precisely the situation facing those who favored the expansion of casino gambling a few decades ago. But a corporation may take a stand on a contested question of public morality for other reasons. It may, for example, try to reach out to a segment of the population and create a new market or solidify a pre-existing “niche” market.

Writing for the New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni recently praised certain large companies for helping to promote “progressive” policies, including same-sex marriage in Washington State, the defeat of religious-liberty bills in Arizona and Indiana, and the retirement of the Confederate flag in South Carolina. But it is not clear from Bruni’s piece what ultimately motivated these decisions. Were the leaders of these companies making projections about future profits? Or were they making projections about things that would affect profits, such as the desires of their employees?

Leaders of large companies have some discretion in these matters, but the discretion is not unlimited, because they are responsible for making a profit. Perhaps the easiest way for a corporation to take a stand on a contested question of public morality would be to cite a universally esteemed political value in the United States, such as equality (e.g., in the case of same-sex marriage) or personal liberty (e.g., in the case of casino gambling). The corporation could then aggressively champion that value and argue for a connection between its position and the promise of higher profits in the future.

  1. Social circumstances and public opinion sometimes prevent corporations from initiating something that could be profitable.

Abraham Lincoln and Alexis de Tocqueville remind us that public opinion in the United States is a formidable social and political force. In other words, there are limits to what corporations can attempt to sell. Will any American corporation be promoting prostitution as a legitimate business tomorrow? It doesn’t seem likely, and an initiative or overture in this direction might provoke a public backlash. But the same could have once been said about casino gambling and pornography.

  1. The lure of profit may lead corporations to engage in subtle (or not so subtle) forms of propaganda as a way of changing the minds of Americans on disputed questions of public morality.

Anyone who studies rhetoric knows that commercial advertising typically involves the embellishment of certain facts. So when hugely successful corporations take a position on a contested question of public morality, the corporations’ public statements are likely to be as skillfully rendered as an advertising campaign. That is, we should expect rhetorical sophistication.

Propaganda is distinguishable from advertising in that the former is based on so much falsehood that it distorts reality. The falsehoods can rest on outright lies, outrageous omissions, or fantastic statements about human capacities.

For roughly two decades, news corporations such as the New York Times have shown no interest in presenting the debate on same-sex marriage in an objective manner. One piece of propaganda consisted in the paper’s attempts to convince readers that the most important moral norms of marriage—especially the norm of sexual exclusivity—are as widely accepted among cohabitating same-sex couples as among husbands and wives. But substantial evidence to the contrary was not hard to find, as seen in the writings of various “queer theorists” and gay and lesbian scholars and journalists, such as Gretchen Stiers, Michelangelo Signorile, and others.

  1. Recent American history suggests that there is a “point of no return” regarding economic enterprises that challenge or contest certain precepts of public morality. At some point, a social norm may change and the economic activity becomes so well-established that most people see nothing morally objectionable about it and regard it as just another part of the economy.

Anyone who wonders what this might mean should reflect on two momentous changes in American history. In the early 1960s, most states had some regulations on the use or distribution of contraceptives, with even more restrictions placed on their sale or distribution to the unmarried. The Supreme Court soon declared all of these regulations unconstitutional, and within two generations, advertisements for contraceptives became ubiquitous. The reasons for regulating contraceptives now seem unintelligible to most Americans, including conservatives.

Another example is more recent. In a Los Angeles Times article published in 2014, economists estimated that in the preceding decade the pornography industry employed 10,000 to 20,000 persons in southern California and generated four billion dollars in sales. Beginning in 2012, however, the region lost many jobs because of the passage of “Measure B,” an ordinance in Los Angeles County that required all men appearing in pornographic films to wear condoms. Fear of HIV lay behind Measure B, and that fear and the ordinance led to an exodus of pornographers from southern California. And when lots of pornography started to be made in Nevada and Eastern Europe, economists and other public officials in California openly lamented the increase in the state’s unemployment rate.

Questions for Citizens and Corporations about the Common Good

These four theses lead to a several important questions. As a nation, are we willing to forgo some prosperity to preserve certain moral principles? And what can we reasonably expect of corporations? That is, when should they be willing to sacrifice profit or profitability to advance the common good?

We may tell ourselves that inspired political leadership can preserve crucial elements of public morality that have been codified into law. But this may not be easy. Put aside the difficulty that elected officials have in checking the Supreme Court, which periodically shows itself to be the Great Usurper of the people’s constitutional authority to promote public morality. In the economically precarious environment of the last eight years, elected officials might be reluctant to criticize any company that is providing jobs, especially jobs to their constituents.

Nonetheless, we cannot despair, because we have some evidence that some corporations—at least some of the time—will respond to issues relating to public morality. Some corporations even abandon certain pursuits, seemingly because they are deemed detrimental to the common good. In 2013, for example, Nordic Choice Hotels in Scandinavia announced that it was no longer offering “pay-per-view” pornography to its guests because of its work with UNICEF against sexual exploitation and trafficking. In 1999, Omni Hotels of Dallas did the same thing, citing its support of “pro-family issues.”

These may be modest victories, but they are still victories.

A New Strategy

If a national campaign to legalize polygamy or polyamory soon begins, some prominent corporations are apt to support it. For some companies, the prospect of new profits will be hard to resist, especially today, where the risk of a strong public backlash is less than before. It might therefore be easy for campaigners to say that this is just another aspect of “equality.”

How might such a campaign be resisted? A new strategy of resistance is warranted, one that focuses on rhetoric as much as attempts to defend certain principles. The national discussion over marriage fundamentally changed when a slogan—“marriage equality”—was coined. We must learn from that example, even if that slogan turns out to be less effective in a campaign for polygamy and polyamory.

The new strategy should also look to corporations, and investigate their role in debates about public morality. Consider the policies adopted by Nordic Choice and Omni Hotels. How do those who run a corporation explain and justify the abandonment of a profitable activity to board members or employees? If we knew how this was done, we might be able to promote an “ethic of restraint” for the nation. We need to take more seriously the relationship of corporations to public morality.