Four Reasons Why We Need Boycotts

In 1880, a number of Irish land tenants were evicted from lands held by the Right Honorable John Crichton, third Earl Erne, after failing to meet the demands of the agent employed by the absentee landlord. The land vacated by those former tenants then became available for other renters who were willing to accept the demands of the land agent. The community, which considered the evictions as well as the hard-bargaining that preceded them to be unjust, was not willing to accept the developing situation lying down. When respected statesman Charles Stewart Parnell asked the audience of a public meeting for recommendations as to what should be done with the offenders, some suggested that they be shot. Parnell recommended an alternative that was a bit less rash, though still had teeth. It was his advice that those who continued to do business with Lord Erne should “be left severely alone, put into a moral Coventry, isolated from his kind as if he was a leper of old.” The unfortunate land agent who so badly bungled the properties in his charge? A man by the name of Captain Charles Boycott.

The practice of boycotting has developed something of a negative reputation in modern times, largely due to widespread and widely known abuses in recent history. To evaluate the concept of a boycott, apart from contemporary negative associations with it, we need to discuss what a boycott ought to be, not what it most often is. The reason for the first initiative bearing the name of boycott, for example, was specifically that people were being treated unfairly—in ways that did more than ruffle their feathers. People were losing their livelihood. More than a distasteful product or public statement was at stake. It was an activity of the community, for the direct protection of the community. People organized in defense of compatriots, coreligionists. It was for people, not publicity.

According to this perspective, boycotts should not be used for moral offenses that less directly impact the community. For Catholics, the analogy of excommunication might be helpful. An excommunication is not primarily for the punishment of the offender, but rather for the protection of the rest of the community, which might suffer harm through his offensive action. The Church doesn’t issue public excommunications of those whose sins are private. While we believe that, in some real sense, the entire community does suffer from the private sins of individuals, we also recognize that their impact is different, less immediate and tangible if you will, than those committed more directly against the corporate body of Christ.

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It is important to note that, in its original intention, the demands of the boycott were not only economic; they were also social. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains that boycotting “means a complete ostracism. It operates by leaving the obnoxious party severely alone and its effectiveness is increased enormously by the threat that anyone who violates its terms will be regarded as sharing in the offence and will be made to share also in the ostracism of the prime offender.” Solidarity required not only a severance of working relationships, but also demanded a tangible personal response from community members. It didn’t much matter if you stopped renting from the violator if you kept rubbing elbows with him at social functions. Furthermore, the boycott was aimed originally at the wrongdoer and those who continue to support him in his wrongdoing. Not only was the offender to be shunned, but likewise all those who continued to do business or associate in any way with him. The justification and objectives for this original boycott were clear, and it was carried out swiftly, firmly, and successfully. With this precedent in mind, I offer four reasons that well qualified boycotts may be legitimate and praiseworthy for Catholics:

1 – Personal Moral Culpability
We are held morally responsible for our personal exercise of purchasing power. As Pope Benedict XVI said, “purchasing is always a moral—and not simply economic—act. Hence the consumer has a specific social responsibility, which goes hand-in-hand with the social responsibility of the enterprise” (Caritas in Veritate, para. 66). Economic prudence, then, does not mean simply the ability to discern and accomplish efficient ways to acquire wealth and be thrifty in our spending. To be prudent in economics means to develop the habit of discerning and carrying out economic practices that are truly good, not merely advantageous, both for ourselves and our communities.

Most prefer an easier, morally neutral outlook on commerce.  Wal-mart, for example, tells us to “Save Money, Live Better.”  This makes sense, and resonates with us because saving money allows us to extend our purchasing power.  But is that all it means?  Does saving money always make us live better?  The concept of “better” needs some qualification.  For Catholics, what is “better” ought always to be considered through the lenses of piety, morality, stewardship, etc.  The better life, in a religious sense, is always the life of greater virtue.  What if our saving money comes through purchasing goods that were produced and sold in an unethical manner?  What if our saving money, and supposed “living better,” causes others to live worse? What if the money saved is spent, in turn, on unethical goods or services? Of course, such culpability is the fault of the consumer and his choices, not Wal-mart. How we live is ultimately our responsibility. Does spending less at the market automatically result in better living?  This may be true, if those purchases are not morally blameworthy, and if they truly result in a higher overall standard of living for the customer and his household (which would also have to take into consideration the real quality of products, which in turn affect the standard of living).  However, I would argue that better living more often comes from spending a little more (money, time, care, attention) on the right things, rather than taking whatever you can find on the cheap.  This goes for the market as for the rest of life.

Moral theologians talk about several levels of responsibility, separately classifying acts in terms of the nature of our participation (formal—when we directly take part in an activity, or material—when we are not carrying out the action ourselves but are helping provide the means or incentive for others to carry it out) and in how close we are to the situation (proximate or remote). To varying degrees based on our level of complicity, we can incur guilt by purchasing from producers who have abused their social responsibility, therefore as individuals we are obliged to shun them. Even the postal carrier refused to deliver mail to the house of Captain Boycott—the Irish no doubt took considerations of “remote material cooperation” seriously. To the degree that we are able, it is our responsibility to encourage public faithfulness as the natural and necessary extension of private faithfulness.

What products, then, can we purchase in good conscience if it is our intention not to support companies with whom we disagree on social, political, economic, or moral issues? A minute’s consideration reveals that strict criteria for consumer support will mean a very short list of things which are fair game for consuming. Of course, the virtue of prudence, common sense, and a degree of practicality will be needed. While I am not suggesting that we have to be in full support of every agenda of every company with whom we do business, the thought should at least give us pause. It would do us good to at least consider that when we purchase products from someone, we are, to some degree, showing our support of their business and giving them more power and incentive to continue in that business. Thinking about our spending in this way sheds light on one of the many moral issues associated with an economy dominated by corporations: we buy things without knowing where they came from, from people we don’t know, and we have no idea what they might be doing with our money.

2 – Protection of the Community
Our leverage as consumers gives us the opportunity, and responsibility, to support and promote those businesses that add to the common good, and counteract those that degrade the common good. Our purchasing power ought to be used to protect the physical and spiritual livelihood of the whole of society, particularly those most vulnerable. When it comes to social sins, silence, to a certain extent, means approval. Boycotts can and should be used to encourage businesses to abandon products and practices that are detrimental to the health of the community.

3 – Fraternal Correction
Sometimes, as was the case in the original Irish boycott, words alone are not loud enough to capture the attention of those who need to hear. Money talks, as the saying goes. When we complain about something with our lips, but continue to participate in it with our pocketbooks, our complaint loses its volume and clarity. Commerce is the vulgar tongue, and the man who violates the laws of justice may only hear, and respond, when the community begins to speak his language. According to the papal encyclical Laudato Si, “When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently. This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers” (para. 206).

4 – Effectiveness
The toughest selling point of moral movements such as boycotts comes after the question, “Is this really going to do any good?” Perhaps not, on a material level. A boycott may never result in a major temporal victory—the primary motivation must be to do our part in obedience to God, which may or may not be visibly rewarded in this life. But in theory, at least, a successful boycott will result in a society of greater justice and virtue.

Dangers in Boycotts
In considering the warrant for boycotts, it is also essential to discuss some of its inherent dangers. The risk of the boycott mentality is that it will become overblown, clouded, and inconsistent. Boycotts become ineffective in all four areas when our understanding of them is lacking, and our estimation of them is bloated. They become overused. We try to boycott everyone with whom we disagree, and everything which is not perfectly in line with our beliefs. We apply them to minor offenses of taste and preference, rather than the major issues of human dignity for which the practice originated. In its authentic sense, a boycott is only valid if it deals with a matter serious enough that you believe not only to have a moral obligation to abstain from purchasing products from a company, but also to disassociate from those who continue purchasing products from that company.

Boycotts are most dangerous in the hands of the uninformed. Like any social action fueled by popular passion and a sense of moral righteousness, we must be careful that they not be launched against those undeserving of them. Even the faithful have the tendency to follow, rather than lead, and many would get in line behind a boycott without taking the time to understand its motivations and objectives. Boycotters often jump on the bandwagon first and ask questions later or not at all. Just as purchasing power is accompanied by a moral obligation, the power to boycott creates a serious responsibility to avoid denouncing a person or corporation without due cause. The Catechism reminds us that:

[R]espect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty: of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor; of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them; of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them” (CCC 2477).

For this reason, boycotts should only be organized after a full understanding of the situation has been ascertained, and those suspected of offense have been confronted and given the opportunity to defend themselves and/or make amends.

Not every disagreeable product or business practice warrants a boycott. They aren’t going to solve all the injustices of our economic system. But we, like the Irish of the late nineteenth century, ought to be prepared to carry them out in full measure when called upon by our consciences and the cries of our brethren.

Editor’s note: The image above is a poster for the motion picture Captain Boycott released in 1947. 


  • Dusty Gates

    Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

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