Blogs & Comment

The social responsibilities of truckers

Business ethics aren't just for the office-worker set, and it's no less complex.

Trucks line up while arriving at the United States border in Surrey, B.C. (Photo: Andy Clark/Reuters/Corbis)

If you want to learn about the social responsibilities of business, don’t start by looking at Walmart, Apple and GM. Companies with hundreds of thousands of employees and millions of customers make an enormous number of decisions every day. Their impacts are many and varied. Their relationships are complex. They’re worth considering, but they are a lousy place to start.

Much better to start small, with a more tractable set of problems. We should look, for example, at the world of small, independent businesses. In that vein, a recent story from the Detroit Free Press raises interesting, fundamental questions not only about safety and ethics in trucking, but also about social responsibility beyond the trucking industry itself.

Last week I wrote about the social responsibilities of lawyers. Today I’ll move the discussion of social responsibility in a decidedly blue-collar direction. Let’s look at the social responsibilities of truckers, the men and women who drive the Big Rigs on which a significant proportion of North American goods are transported.

Like lawyers, truckers, too, are all either independent business-people or employed by businesses. So the relevance of trucker ethics to business ethics is clear. But unlike lawyers, truckers are not commonly spoken of as having specifically social obligations. But of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t have any.

Before asking about specifically social obligations, let’s look at a trucker’s obligations more generally.

A trucker’s most obvious obligations as a trucker are to her employer (if she has one) or to her customers. She’s got a job to do, and she ought to do it diligently, doing her best to deliver the shipment on time and intact. She also has obligations to suppliers, including an obligation to pay invoices on time, and so on. If she happens to have employees (e.g., an assistant who helps load and unload) then there are clear obligations there, too.

The other obvious obligation is to drive carefully—an obligation owed to others with whom the trucker shares the road. An 18-wheeler is pretty much the biggest thing on the road. That implies a significant responsibility not to drive recklessly and impose risks on others, including an obligation to be sober and alert while at the wheel. Are those social obligations? I don’t know. I tend to take words seriously. “Social,” to me, implies an obligation to society as a whole, to society at large, rather than just to people who happen to be directly in harm’s way.

So let’s put it this way: does a trucker—by dint of being a trucker—have obligations to make society, as a whole, better-off? But wait, we can’t really mean society “as a whole.” No one can do that. It’s too big a project. Social responsibilities must be responsibilities to do what one can to help some relevant bit of society, to contribute in some meaningful way to the overall project of making society better-off.

But if we’re thinking specifically about truckers, we should of course also exclude obligations that you might think all of us have: obligations to donate to good causes if we are financially able, and to help lost children find their way home. And so on.

So, then: does the trucker have trucker-specific social obligations, obligations that she should carry out in the course of driving her truck?

I have to admit, I’m having trouble thinking of very many. But the story cited above suggests one good example, since it is in part about efforts by the trucking industry to lobby government regarding the legal weight limits imposed on trucks. So one key social responsibility of truckers, we might say, is to lobby government in ways that are in the public interest, rather than only in their own interest. Of course, just what is in the public interest, here, is open to debate. But the notion of social responsibility at least sets the terms for that debate. So there’s one clearly social responsibility.

Now, with regard to lawyers, I argued that social responsibility has to do with the force of, and limits on, the individual’s role in a larger, socially-important system. If that is true beyond the special case of the legal profession, then role-related social obligations have something to do with the obligations involved in being part of a team effort. All that remains, then, is to figure out what socially-valuable team effort the trucker is part of, and what obligations are necessary to the achievement of that team’s goals.

At this point, I’ll open up for discussion.