Analysis, Vol. 49, No. 3
(Jun., 1989), pp. 153-155. Published by Oxford University Press on
behalf of the Analysis Committee. Dr. Gordon and Fr. Sadowsky are listed
as affiliated with, respectively, “Bowling Green State University,
Bowling Green, OH 43403, U.S.A. and Fordham University Bronx, NY 10458,
September 11, 2012
Morally Principled Divestiture?
James A. Sadowsky, S.J.
Both Daniel H. Cohen (“A Reply to Cahn,”
Analysis 48.2, March 1988, pp.
109-10) and Kerry S. Walters (“Morally Acceptable Divestiture,”
48.4, October 1988, pp. 216-18) have attempted to show, in our view
unsuccessfully, that a problem that Steven Cahn proposed (Analysis 47.3, June 1987, pp.
175-6) for certain advocates of divestiture can be solved.
Cahn’s argument is the following:
(1) It is immoral to own stock issued by companies that, for example,
invest in South Africa.
(2) To “entangle” someone in an immoral action is itself immoral.
(3) Selling stock entails someone’s buying the stock.
(4) Selling one’s stock in a company that invests in South Africa
entangles someone in an immoral policy;
Therefore (5) selling stock in a company that invests in South Africa is
Cahn did not claim that (1) is true: his argument, rather, is a problem
for those who hold (1). This point is ignored by Cohen, who contends
that the purpose of divestiture is, for instance, to bring pressure to
bear on the South African government to end apartheid. Selling one’s
stock has no moral value in itself: “it is a means, not an end.” (Cohen,
If Cohen intends to construct an alternative argument for divestiture
which does not depend on (1), he has left Cahn’s problem untouched.
Cahn’s argument does not address the issue of whether one should, all
things considered, divest: it poses a problem only to those who accept
(1). That Cohen can take a position on divestiture without assuming (1)
is, for the purpose of refuting Cahn, without significance.
Cohen may, however, wish his comments to be taken as an argument against
adopting (1): if so, they do not succeed. If he is right that
divestiture is a means, rather than an end, this does not remove
divestiture from moral evaluation. To say that something is a means to
an end does not entail that it is to be evaluated solely for its
effectiveness in bringing about the end. Someone who holds that one
ought not to use bad means to achieve good ends can consistently hold
both (1) and (2) while agreeing with Cohen on the goal of divestiture.
He need not hold that the purpose of divestiture is only to rid oneself
of one’s immoral holdings. Further, Cohen gives no argument that someone
who does take the latter view of divestiture is self-righteous. Why
isn’t he simply trying to avoid immorality?
Walters devotes his principal attention to an attack on (2). He draws an
analogy between (2) and a case of someone who is bound by a promise not
to resign from an immoral job until a replacement can be found. If a
consequence of accepting (2) were that on analogous grounds one must
hold that “principled resignation” is not morally possible, this indeed
would throw (2) into question. But Walters has not shown this. His case
depends on the existence of a promise not to resign until a replacement
can be found. Since it is usually not held that promises bind
unconditionally, one might argue that someone in a sufficiently immoral
job need not abide by his promise. To the extent that the job involves
one in evil, the strength of the promise, other things being equal,
weighs less in the balance. If, however, the force of the promise counts
for more than the evil of remaining in the job, then there are some
situations in which one is required to continue in a morally bad job.
This hardly seems very damaging to (2).
And without a promise, Walters’s case involves no violation of (2) at
all. The issue here is neither entailment of the replacement nor its
probability, but causation. If you resign from the job, you do not bring
about your replacement, even if you know your employer will hire someone
else. He makes an independent decision. But in the case of selling the
stock, it is your action that directly entangles the buyer.
Walters’s own solution to the divestiture problem suffers from a similar
failing to Cohen’s. He contends that although not morally perfect,
divestiture may be doing the best one can in a bad situation. But
neither divestiture nor his supererogatory solution avoids Cahn’s
problem, since each violates (1). Walters, rather than responding to
Cahn, has instead presented an alternative view of the morality of
divestiture, in this context an irrelevant enterprise.
Is Cahn’s problem capable of solution? One approach might start from the
premise that if one cannot avoid acting badly, the usual prohibition on
the use of bad means to achieve good ends does not apply. If one must
either retain or sell the stock, will not the chooser of necessity have
to put to one side the (presumably equal) immorality of each alternative
and decide on consequentialist grounds? But this argument assumes that
holding and selling are the only alternatives. Perhaps they are not: one
might be able, e.g., to renounce one’s stock ownership without selling
it.1 If so, Cahn’s problem remains unsolved; we have not
shown there exists a way of morally selling the stock.
We owe this suggestion to Mr D. R. Steele.