I know some people who assiduously avoid buying Nike shoes. The moral logic of this position, however, is tricky. For purposes of this post, I will stipulate that Nike is a bad apple and that the world would be a better place if people in third world countries lived lives of Rousseauian purity and fraternity based on localized economies. Why then avoid buying Nike?
It seems to me that there are two possibilities. First, it might be that boycotting Nike has some effect on the world. By not buying a pair of shoes, I have in some measure loosened Nike’s evil grip and helped to restore the golden pre-globalization, pre-imperialism age (or perhaps I have taken a step toward the post-globalization millennium). The problem with this argument is that as an empirical matter it is almost certainly nonsense. The fact of the matter is that Nike is really big, as is the third world, and my decision not to buy a pair of shoes has basically no impact on events. No matter how fervent and pure my convictions and how earnestly I desire to change the world, the world is going to be — for all practical purposes — precisely the same as it would have been had I bought the shoes.
Which brings me to the second possible reason for not buying Nike. Perhaps if I buy the shoes I become complicit in Nike’s crime. Remember, I stipulate that what Nike is doing is really bad. My boycott thus becomes a way of avoiding participation in Nike’s wickedness, and thus preserving my own moral integrity. This, it seems to me, is a much more plausible basis for the boycott. It does not require that I hold illusory beliefs about the practical effect of my actions on the state of affairs in the world nor does it push me toward the absurd position of endowing miniscule and functionally irrelevant effects on the world with moral significance.
Complicity, however, is itself a tricky concept. How do I become complicit in evil? By actively choosing particular goals that are evil? By actively participating in some activity, regardless of my beliefs as to its goals? By accepting some benefit conferred by an activity? Furthermore, how do I deal with a certain kind of moral selfishness implicit in the argument from complicity? Consider the case of Oskar Schindler. In one sense, he was thoroughly complicit in Nazi war crimes, taking possession of stolen property, profiting from slave labor, currying personal favor with the SS, etc. By withdrawing from Nazi occupied Poland and he could, presumably, have avoided or at anyrate reduced his complicity in Nazi crimes. And yet it was precisely because of Schindler’s complicity that he was able to save the lives of hundreds of people. Does this mean that he wasn’t really complicit? Why? Does Schindler’s case suggest that in the end it really is our effect on the world that matters? After all, we remember Schindler precisely because he did have a morally significant effect on the world itself.