I was recently listening to the soundtrack from Wicked, when a few lines from the song “Wonderful” struck me. The lines were these:

“A man’s called a traitor – or liberator
A rich man’s a thief – or philanthropist
Is one a crusader – or ruthless invader?
It’s all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don’t exist”

Working in the field of world hunger, it’s not unusual to have conversations with people who are reflexively negative about large corporations. From profit motives, to workers’ rights, to enviornmental exploitation, most of the world’s ills and many of the causes of hunger can be laid in the headquarters of corporations. And without question, some of the criticism is completely deserved and must be called out.

But for all the outrage that is justified, some of it is not. Some of the outrage is applied beyond what is deserved, and I don’t know that it’s helpful. Yes, companies do bad things. But they do good things, too. Standard Oil serves as an iconic historical example. On the one hand, it was a ruthless organization, using boldly smarmy tactics that are now illegal to drive competitors out of business and acquire their assets cheaply.  I don’t know how many people lost their jobs as a result, but I’m sure it’s a large number. On the other hand, they also hired a lot of people. And according to Wikipedia, they did some things that the general population found very helpful, like cutting the price of kerosene in half,  and developing many other useful products including tar, paint, and chewing gum. Then, too, Rockefeller used his (ill-got?) gains to do some extremely good things, like funding research that led to a vaccine for yellow fever and founding the University of Chicago. So what of Standard Oil? Good or evil? And what is gained or lost by declaring it one to the exclusion of the other?

There are, of course, many modern-day examples of corporations doing both good and bad things. Kind of like people. I don’t write this blog to defend the bad; only to acknowledge that corporations are complex and deserving of more careful consideration in our judgements. Ending hunger is a big, complex job. Personally, I think corporations have a role to play in it. Calling them out on the bad is necessary and important. But so is praising and encouraging the good, which requires acknowledging it – and often acknowledging moral ambiguities, too.

-Nancy Michaelis