Cognitive dissonance: human rights and Apple

March 22, 2012: 9:25 AM ET

Why doesn't Apple pay Chinese contract workers more? Will negative attention hurt Apple's reputation?

iphone-4s-apple-store1FORTUNE -- I had a really interesting conversation Monday with Madeline Brand, host of a program on an NPR affiliate in Los Angeles, KPCC-FM. (You can listen to the interview here.)

She asked me on to her program to discuss the Apple (AAPL) dividend announcement, but as is often the case lately, the conversation quickly turned to Apple's image, its labor issues, and its future. We chatted about the allegations of abuse at the factories belonging to Apple's contract manufacturer in China, Foxconn, including the episode of the radio program This American Life retracting an episode featuring theater performer Mike Daisey. (Daisey, who plans to continue performing his one-man show, "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," wasn't straight with This American Life over which aspects of his performance are based on fact and which parts he made up.)

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Brand then asked me an interesting question: Why doesn't Apple just pay its workers, including the Chinese works -- whom, it should be noted, Apple doesn't pay -- more money? My response: of the many reasons a company might want to use the shareholders' money to pay more to its workers, the fact that it has too much money sitting around isn't one of them. (I don't think Brand liked that answer.)

We also discussed if this attention would hurt Apple's image. I responded that I think consumers, especially but not exclusively in the U.S., are perfectly capable of practicing cognitive dissonance when it comes to their toys. Even if they perceive Apple to be a bad actor from a human-rights perspective, they'll keep buying iPhones because they love iPhones.

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A thoughtful friend of mine, tooling around in his car in LA when the show aired, sent the following response:

Loved the reference to the cognitive dissonance of the American consumer on NPR this morning. One could see it either as a very artful dodge (as in, "hey, don't ask me -- ask the people who are buying those iPods!"), or as the perfect response to the question put before you ("We happen to have a jury with the capability to render verdict on this matter, and that jury is the American public.")

However (and here comes my comment), if one is going to interject the dynamics of social psychology to this discussion, one cannot consider the discussion complete unless we also consider the diffusion of responsibility that occurs when a large group of people is posed with the task of making individual decisions on what is essentially a moral question. The role of those human rights "special interest" groups you referred to (though you didn't actually use those words…) is simply to fight this diffusion of responsibility by coalescing public opinion sufficiently so as to "call the question" in a larger forum than the forum of one that is the consumer purchase decision.

In other words, nice dodge, buddy!

That said, I do think the end result was that the interview effectively made the point that these are questions that we must consider as a society (how to strike an appropriate balance between shareholder and other stakeholders – i.e. employees – interests).

In my view, we already are making these decisions as a society. We want perfection: Great toys, fat profits, clear consciences. We settle for the first two and/or satisfy ourselves that the we've tried our very best on the third.

Your thoughts?

In his book, Inside Apple: How America's Most Admired--and Secretive--Company Really Works, Fortune's Adam Lashinsky deals with another moral issue: Apple's adherence to the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

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About This Author
Adam Lashinsky
Adam Lashinsky
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune

Adam Lashinsky is a San Francisco-based editor-at-large for FORTUNE, covering Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Lashinsky joined FORTUNE in 2001, after two years as a contributing columnist. Prior to joining FORTUNE, Lashinsky covered Silicon Valley for TheStreet.com and The San Jose Mercury News. A Chicago native, Lashinsky holds a B.A. in history and political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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