On the Morality of: Investing

I haven’t written a post on morality in a while, and this one’s a little different than past entries. This is an issue where I haven’t made up my mind, and I’m hoping that people’s comments can illuminate the issues and help me reach a final decision.

Through the economic chaos of the past two years, I have to admit I’ve been more fortunate than a lot of Americans. I have a high-yield savings account with ING Direct – that is to say, I had one. I still have the account, but since the subprime market crash and economic depression, the interest rate has dropped so low that it’s scarcely worth bothering with. I’d have transferred the money elsewhere, but all the other high-yield savings accounts have done the same. Even the rates on CDs are pathetically low, to the point where I think I’d be better off not buying one because there’s a reasonable chance of the economy recovering and interest rates rising again before they mature.

Money should work for its owner, and the money in my savings account wasn’t doing that, so I decided to take it elsewhere. Since my 401(k) has done fairly well through the downturn, it was a natural step to put some of this money into the market as well. I’m not confident of my own ability as a trader, and I don’t believe that anyone can consistently beat the market, since that would imply an ability to predict the future. (Granted, I could be wrong – there’s an ongoing million-dollar wager between Warren Buffett and a group of hedge fund managers over this question.) So I decided to do the next best thing and invest in an index fund, a basket of stocks chosen to track the performance of a major market index. In my case, I went with the Vanguard 500 Index Fund, which tracks the S&P 500. The fees are minimal, since there’s very little active management required.

However, it wasn’t long before I had an unsettling realization. The fund that I invested in includes stock in oil companies like Exxon Mobil, whose activities I consider unethical and destructive to the planet, financial companies like Goldman Sachs which promote the ever-greater accumulation of wealth at the very top, and defense companies like Lockheed Martin, which have profited massively from America’s swollen defense budget and sprawling military-industrial complex. Am I doing wrong by investing in a fund that includes these companies?

I haven’t fully made up my mind about this, and I’m open to persuasion. However, I see one consideration to counterbalance the obvious argument against: Buying or selling stock is different from boycotting the company, since it doesn’t directly either aid or impede that company’s ability to operate.

In fact, buying stock in a company whose actions I disagree with is arguably a good thing. I see two main reasons for thinking this: First, if I buy a company’s stock, I become one of its owners, and I gain a voice in how it operates. (Even if it’s only a small voice – a few shares of stock out of millions.) It makes me more influential, not less, when I exert pressure on that company to cease environmentally destructive practices, clean up its carbon emissions, respect the rights of local people, or behave in more socially responsible ways.

Second, if the stock pays dividends, I gain a share of that company’s profits, which I can redirect to better ends. Rather than further enriching the already wealthy, I can donate it to advocacy groups, reinvest it in needy communities, or otherwise use it for good. That said, I have to acknowledge that owning a dividend-paying stock would also give me an incentive to do the wrong thing: to encourage the company I own to do whatever makes the most profit, rather than what’s the most ethical.

Despite that, does investing in a company also make me complicit in the harm they do? An honest answer surely would have to be yes. Granted, the degree of complicity is small, but the degree of influence it gives me is also small. Which one outweighs the other?

Other posts in this series:

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