Tax avoidance – How cynical to deny the legitimacy of moral judgement

14 Dec

You don’t have to be a professor of moral philosophy to know that there’s something wrong with Starbucks arranging their affairs so that they pay zero tax in the UK. It’s very difficult to argue to the contrary. But David Giamaulo and Geoffrey Wood, writing in the Guardian on Saturday, have a novel strategy for doing so: they deny the legitimacy of moral judgement itself! ‘There are some universally agree moral principles – do not kill is pretty widely accepted – but does this really fall into the same category?…Some will say one thing, some another. Universal moral principles are of the greatest importance, but are not a guide to every detail of life.’

They remind me of certain first year moral philosophy students, who assure you in seminars early in their degree that ethical discussions are a waste time, as it’s all just ‘a matter of opinion.’ The response is obvious. Whilst Aristotle was right in saying that ethics is not as precise a science as physics or mathematics, nor is it just a matter of personal preferences, like whether one prefers sweet or savoury. Ethics is a matter of informed, careful, rational judgement, not arbitrary preference. And society is best when citizens engage thoughtfully and actively in the moral concerns of the day. This is what happened on Saturday when hundreds engaged in civil disobedience as an expression of their deep concern over the way Starbucks and others have chosen to arrange their tax affairs.

Presumably Giamaulo and Wood would also like citizens to shut up about equal rights for women and minorities, the harm multinational cause to the environment, and the effect of transfer pricing on the developing world (a loss of more than the global aid budget according to Christian Aid). After all, there are no ‘universally agreed moral principles’ in these areas, so we might as well just sit back and let lobbyists decide government policy. What cynical men they are.

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