Are Christian Shareholders Morally Responsible?

Are Christian Shareholders Morally Responsible?

For many years, Microsoft has sold a video game called, Metropolis: Lux Obscura. In this game, comic book art is used to deliver graphic nudity and violence to children and adults. If Christian investors held shares in Microsoft (which many do through their ownership of the S&P 500 index fund), would they be morally responsible for the sale of this video game? And, if so, what should they do?

“Is a Christian shareholder morally responsible for the actions of a corporation?”

What does it mean to be morally responsible? One definition of moral responsibility: “the status of morally deserving praise, blame, reward, or punishment for an act or omission performed or neglected in accordance with one’s moral obligations.” (1)

Drawing from this definition, are Christian shareholders of Microsoft deserving of blame for Microsoft selling this pornographic video game? 

In order to respond to this complex question, let me share with you a family story where I was deserving of blame for a terrible crime.

Last year, after the five year drought in California ended, a beautiful natural phenomenon occurred known as the “poppy apocalypse.” My wife and I and our two kids went to see this amazing event where the hills, as far as the eye could see, were filled with bright, orange poppies. As we walked along the painted hills, my four year old daughter proudly plucked a handful of poppies and posed for a picture. I smiled big and reached for my camera. How darling, I thought. 

Suddenly, my wife came running over, “What are you doing!” she yelled. “It is illegal to pick poppies in California parks!” 

I know what you are thinking now: what kind of monster allows their daughter to break the law by picking protected poppies!

I am deserving of moral blame for her action even though she is the one that picked the flowers and committed the crime. I said nothing as my daughter smiled for the picture. It is my act of omission that makes me morally responsible.

“It is my act of omission that makes me morally responsible even though she picked the flowers and committed the crime.”

In many ways, this same “poppy scenario” plays out with shareholders. Just like my daughter looked up towards me right before she picked the flowers, a manager of a corporation looks up towards their shareholders right before they make important business decisions. Managers take seriously the interests of shareholders. Shareholders are given the voting power to determine the board of directors, who then have the power to fire them for not representing shareholder interests. 

Going back to the Microsoft example, the corporation represents the investor. Inasmuch as the corporation acts on the investor’s behalf, the investor is a co-author of the wrongful act, and therefore complicit or morally co-responsible for it.(2)

“Inasmuch as the corporation acts on the investor’s behalf, the investor is a co-author of the wrongful act, and therefore morally co-responsible for it.”

Built into the fabric of a limited liability corporation is an accountability system where management is meant to consistently look up at the face of their shareholders, whose interests they have been hired to represent. And, as managers look up to their investors, most Christians are silent. This makes Christian owners of Microsoft stock morally responsible for the production of the pornographic game, Metropolis: Lux Obscura through an act of omission.

To make matters worse, the label “Christian owner” is an oxymoron. 

A Christian can never be a true owner. God is the ultimate shareholder whose interests we are seeking to represent as vice-regent (Genesis 1). Just like managers of corporations are meant to look up at shareholders before they make decisions, Christian shareholders are managers who are meant to look up at the face of the ultimate Owner of all capital, and see whether they are representing His interests.

“We need to look up at the face of the ultimate Owner of all capital, and see if we are representing His interests.”

So, what is a Christian shareholder to do? 

It is important to be clear that Scripture does not give any explicit guidance about what to do. The Bible does not mention what a Christian minority shareholder should do when management acts in a way that is not consistent with Biblical truth. 

In general, Christian shareholders have responded in one of three ways:

  1. Do nothing.
  2. Stop investing in the stock market.
  3. Change the way they invest in the stock market.

It is important not to judge other Christians as they respond in one of these three ways. Responding requires wisdom, gaining wisdom is usually a long journey and everyone’s journey looks a little different. Our collective response must be full of grace and truth together. 

Regarding the third response, Biblically Responsible Investing (BRI) is how many Christian money managers, who sought the wisdom of God, have changed the way they invest in the stock market. While it is true that no investment product is truly “Biblically responsible,” the BRI title simply portrays an effort by Christian investors to be sensitive to Biblical truth in how they invest their money, a very good endeavor. 

In general, an investment product becomes “BRI” when it engages in any of the following activities (ideally all three):

  1. Corporate engagement
    • Making the Chrisitan voice known to management.
  2. Negative screening
    • Not owning certain companies that do not represent the interests of Christians.
  3. Positive screening
    • Finding companies to invest in that represent the interests of Christians particularly well.

As Christians use BRI products, they collectively form a voice that lets management know their interests and frees those shareholders from being responsible for immoral management decisions.

“Christians can create beautiful culture if they fully embrace their moral responsibility for how they invest and seek to proclaim the fragrant interests of Christ to the managers of this world’s capital.”

Microsoft’s game, Metropolis: Lux Obscura, creates culture – a bad type of culture. Investments, in general, are culture-makers since certain services and products are fed with Christian savings. 

A gardener brings to life either flowers or weeds in his garden, depending on where he waters. In the same way, Christian investors bring to life either weeds or flowers in their neighborhood, depending on how they invest. Christians can bring to life beautiful culture if they fully embrace their moral responsibility for how they invest and seek to proclaim the fragrant interests of Christ to the managers of this world’s capital.


REFERENCES

(1) Honderich, T. (2005). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. In The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press. 

(2)  Sandbu, M. E. (2012). Stakeholder Duties: On the Moral Responsibility of Corporate Investors. Journal of Business Ethics, 109(1), 97–107. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-012-1382-7

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