Contra Tim Bray and Co., Amazon Is a Paragon of Virtue - The Objective Standard

On May 1, 2020, Tim Bray, an executive-level engineer at Amazon, resigned—a decision that he says likely will cost him well over $1 million. On his blog, Bray also lamented leaving “the best job [he’s] ever had, working with awfully good people.” What could motivate him to leave all of that behind?1

One need only spend a few minutes reading Bray’s open letter to the public to learn the answer: principles. Despite his clearly positive view of certain aspects of Amazon’s mission and business model, he nonetheless takes issue with the company’s stance on “climate justice” and its treatment of some of its employees.

Bray isn’t the only Amazon employee to publicly condemn the tech giant in recent months. Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham were fired in April, allegedly for criticizing the working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses and its policies regarding climate change. Amazon also fired warehouse worker Bashir Mohamed, who had been involved in efforts to organize a labor union to force his employer to change its policies on personal protective equipment and social distancing for warehouse employees.

Bray mentions these colleagues and others in his letter and clearly sympathizes with them. However, his letter is rife with logical fallacies, unsupported accusations, and other critical-thinking errors that severely undermine the credibility of his complaints. For instance, he writes, “I’m sure it’s a coincidence that every one of [these six people whom Amazon fired] is a person of color, a woman, or both. Right?”

Racism and sexism are deeply immoral, and to accuse a person or company of such behavior is no trifling matter. Bray offers no evidence to prove (or even suggest) that race or sex were factors in any of the firings he references; his sarcastic quip seems to stem from an assumption that no reasonable person could believe that these firings were motivated by anything else. (Such an assumption, presented without evidence, is a form of the logical fallacy known as the “argument from intimidation.”)2 . . .

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For what it’s worth, none of the six employees whom Bray names in his letter—Gerald Bryson, Maren Costa, Emily Cunningham, Bashir Mohamed, Christian Smalls, and Courtney Bowden—have so much as insinuated that they were fired on the basis of their race or sex. However, at least five of them willfully and/or repeatedly violated reasonable, internal policies about which Amazon had been quite clear.

Costa and Cunningham both were warned about their repeated violations of such policies, including one prohibiting the solicitation of money from other employees, and they were fired only after they failed to heed those warnings. Both maintain that they were actually fired as a way of “silencing” their harsh, public criticisms of the company. Even if that were true, it would still be a perfectly valid reason to fire them. Everyone has the right to criticize a company publicly—but to expect carte blanche to do so while on its payroll, as though the job itself were a right, is patently absurd.3

Bryson was fired for repeated use of “vulgar language” and for “bullying and harassing” six other employees, all of whom signed written statements affirming the charges. Bryson admitted guilt in all six cases.4

Mohamed was fired after “progressive disciplinary action for inappropriate language, behavior, and violating social distancing guidelines.” He also admitted that, before he was fired, he was openly planning to stage a walkout—that is, to encourage other employees to leave their jobs during hours they’d previously agreed to work. It is every employer’s right to fire employees who leave their posts without authorization during work hours, or who express an intent to do so.5

Smalls was ordered to stay home for fourteen days—with pay—after coming into contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. He knowingly violated that directive and showed up at work—to lead a protest and to stage a walkout.6

At this time, it’s unclear why Bowden was fired.

Amazon spokeswoman Rachael Lighty admirably stood up for the company in a statement to CNET about Bryson:

[Amazon respects] the rights of employees to protest and recognizes their legal right to do so, but these rights do not provide blanket immunity against bad actions, including those that harass, discriminate against or intimidate another employee. Amazon has a strict, zero-tolerance policy on any kind of harassment, discrimination, intimidation or inappropriate language toward another employee.

To determine each employee’s guilt or innocence with certainty likely would require digging into their Amazon personnel files, which, of course, are not available to the public. Nonetheless, more than enough evidence is available publicly to strongly challenge Bray’s suggestion that they were fired on the basis of their sex or race—a suggestion for which he provides no evidence.

In addition to levying unsupported accusations of racism and sexism against Amazon, Bray signed a petition (as did 8,701 other employees, including Costa and Cunningham) imploring CEO Jeff Bezos and Amazon’s board of directors to step up and be “climate leaders.” In other words, the company should betray its customers, employees, and shareholders by abdicating its mission and instead should implement unfathomably expensive changes to its business model that, in all likelihood, would become financially unsustainable in short order. Moreover, the petition cites questionable science and misidentifies the essential question at the heart of the climate change debate, which is: Even if the planet is warming, and even if that’s a bad thing, and even if humans are partly responsible, should the solution involve measures that are massively destructive to human life? (When the question is framed this way, it should be obvious that the answer is “no.”)7

In his open letter, Bray goes on to criticize Amazon’s leadership for “brutally insensitive” comments that the company’s CLO, David Zapolsky, made about Christian Smalls during a private meeting at which Bezos and other top executives were present. Leaked notes written by Zapolsky read, “[Christian Smalls is] not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers.”8

To describe someone as “not smart or articulate” may not be tactful, although in the context of a private meeting, that’s debatable. But “brutally insensitive” is flat-out hyperbolic, especially in light of Smalls’s careless, irresponsible, and unjust actions. Zapolsky later apologized for the remark, saying, “I was frustrated and upset that an Amazon employee would endanger the health and safety of other Amazonians by repeatedly returning to the premises after having been warned to quarantine himself after exposure to . . . COVID-19. I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.”9

Note, in particular, that Zapolsky said, “to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus [Smalls].” By and large, that’s exactly what the press has done: pit Amazon against its former employees in a nasty, public, “racist company versus innocent victims” battle aimed at increasing clicks and subscriptions. (For examples of this, see the articles referenced throughout this one.) Bray, Costa, and others have attacked Amazon relentlessly in recent months, and relatively few journalists have stepped up to ask whether the company is being given a fair trial in the court of public opinion—much less to defend it.10

Further, Zapolsky’s frustration with “explaining for the umpteenth time” how Amazon is trying to protect workers is legitimate and understandable. It’s ridiculous to allege—as Smalls, Mohamed, and others have done—that the company doesn’t care about the welfare of its employees. Since March, Amazon has increased pay for all of its hourly workers by $2 or a comparable amount in their country of residence; doubled their base overtime rate; spent $800 million on masks, disinfectants, and COVID-19 testing supplies; invested heavily in COVID-19 research; offered two extra weeks of paid time off to any employee diagnosed with the virus; established a $25 million relief fund for employees facing financial hardship; made more than 150 updates to its internal policies on cleaning and social distancing, etcetera. The list of things Amazon has done and is doing for its employees goes on and on, and the fact that it doesn’t match some of its employees’ ideas on what the company ought to do in no way warrants the harsh attacks that some of those employees have committed.11

Bezos also noted on May 12:

Under normal circumstances, in this coming Q2, we’d expect to make some $4 billion or more in operating profit. But these aren’t normal circumstances. Instead, we expect to spend the entirety of that $4 billion, and perhaps a bit more, on COVID-related expenses, getting products to customers, and keeping employees safe.12

Four billion dollars in three months is nothing to sneeze at. If certain Amazon employees are dissatisfied with the company’s response to COVID-19 or to the allegedly “impending climate crisis,” they are free to quit and to seek jobs with employers whose ideological positions are more in line with their own. Such employees even are free to unfairly demonize Amazon—but they aren’t free to evade the consequences of their actions in the context of an employer-employee relationship.13

Admittedly—and as is the case with any group of people numbering in the hundreds of thousands—some individuals at Amazon occasionally have done questionable and even immoral things.14 But to say that the company is evil or immoral is a massive injustice.

Bray and his ilk claim that Amazon is immoral in part because it’s not concerned with “saving the planet,” but this claim is null and void because it’s not Amazon’s responsibility to do so—especially not when by “save the planet,” such people really mean “sacrifice human life on the altar of nature.” On the contrary, in order to exist and to provide the innumerable, life-sustaining values that it showers upon nearly every human being on the planet, Amazon must exploit the Earth’s resources, as must every person who wants to live.15

As for Amazon’s treatment of its workers, to my knowledge the company has yet to violate anyone’s rights, and it certainly hasn’t violated the rights of anyone named in Bray’s letter. Indeed, we’ve already seen some of the ways in which Amazon appreciates its employees and treats them well, and these examples only scratch the surface. Unless and until Amazon does violate someone’s rights, any employer-employee disputes concern only personal values and so are not properly subject to government intervention, including and especially the “rigorously enforced” combination of “antitrust and living-wage and worker-empowerment legislation” that Bray and his allies so irrationally advocate.16

Far from being immoral, Amazon is, in fact, a tremendous force for good. Its products, services, and business practices overwhelmingly support and enhance human life and flourishing. The company employs 750,000 people worldwide (more than the five next biggest tech companies combined), has completely revolutionized the way we shop, and has massively improved the quality of life of almost everyone on the planet. Even those who don’t shop or work at Amazon have benefited enormously from its investments in research, infrastructure, and technology, and from its positive effect on the economy in general. In order to compete with Amazon, countless other businesses have lowered their prices and increased the quality of the products and services they offer.17

Cloud computing—largely developed and popularized by Amazon—has made incredibly powerful supercomputers widely and cheaply available to businesses and individuals around the world. Pharmaceutical and biotech companies, for instance, use cloud computing technology to dramatically increase the speed and efficiency with which they can develop and produce life-saving drugs.18

Amazon also has two large jets and an entire team of people dedicated to providing pro bono disaster relief around the world—presumably because the company recognizes the irreplaceable value of human life. From 2017 to 2019, the company responded to thirty-seven natural disasters in ten countries. During that time, Amazon and its employees and customers benevolently donated more than seven million items, $17 million in cash, and hundreds of thousands of man-hours helping people recover from earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and snowstorms. (Although these acts of charity are praiseworthy, they don’t morally justify Amazon’s existence—its life-enhancing, profit-motivated products and services do.)19

On a smaller (but nonetheless huge) scale, Amazon’s platform generated $160 billion in revenue for small-business owners in 2018 alone—revenue that provided food, medical care, housing, vacations, entertainment, and myriad other values for countless individuals and families. Those business owners also have invested a significant portion of that $160 billion toward still greater innovation and production of the wonderful goods and services we all enjoy.20

The list of other ways in which Amazon advances human flourishing—like the list of ways in which it’s working tirelessly to protect its workers from COVID-19—goes on and on. People may rationally take issue with some of Amazon’s practices, but no one may legitimately smear the entire company as immoral, as Bray and his kind are doing. To be immoral is to deliberately and either consistently or significantly act in a manner that damages or destroys human life or the things on which it depends—and Amazon unequivocally is not guilty of that. To be moral is to deliberately and either consistently or significantly act in a manner that promotes or sustains human life and flourishing—and Amazon does this, in spades, every day.

Jeff Bezos is a hero, and the company he’s built unquestionably is among the greatest and most life-enhancing in all of human history. Claims to the contrary are untrue and unjust. Thank you, Jeff Bezos and Amazon, for offering incalculable value to the whole of humanity.

Jeff Bezos is a hero, and the company he’s built unquestionably is among the greatest and most life-enhancing in all of human history. Claims to the contrary are untrue and unjust.
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Endnotes

1. Tim Bray, “Bye, Amazon,” TBray.org, May 4, 2020, https://www.tbray.org/ongoing/When/202x/2020/04/29/Leaving-Amazon.

2. Craig Biddle, “The Argument from Intimidation: A Confession of Intellectual Impotence,” The Objective Standard, 14, no. 3, Fall 2019, https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/2019/06/the-argument-from-intimidation-a-confession-of-intellectual-impotence/.

3. “Amazon Employee Who Advocated for Warehouse Workers Says She Was Fired in a 30-Second Phone Call,” CBS, May 13, 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/amazon-worker-fired-coronavirus-maren-costa-emily-cunningham/.

4. Ben Fox Rubin, “Fired Amazon Worker Says Termination Was Retaliation for Speaking Out,” CNET, April 23, 2020, https://www.cnet.com/news/fired-amazon-worker-says-termination-was-retaliation-for-speaking-out/.

5. Sara Ashley O’Brien, “Fear and a Firing Inside an Amazon Warehouse,” CNN, April 22, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/22/tech/amazon-warehouse-bashir-mohamed/index.html; Sebastian Herrera, “Fired Amazon Warehouse Workers Accuse Company of Retaliation, Which It Denies,” Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/fired-amazon-warehouse-workers-accuse-company-of-retaliation-which-it-denies-11586891334; Jay Greene, “Amazon Fires Two Tech Workers Who Criticized the Company’s Warehouse Workplace Conditions,” Washington Post, April 14, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/04/13/amazon-workers-fired/.

6. Brian Fung, “Amazon Fires Warehouse Worker Who Led Staten Island Warehouse Walkout,” CNN, March 31, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/30/tech/amazon-worker-fired-staten-island-warehouse/index.html.

7. “Open Letter to Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Board of Directors,” Medium, April 10, 2019, https://medium.com/@amazonemployeesclimatejustice/public-letter-to-jeff-bezos-and-the-amazon-board-of-directors-82a8405f5e38; Craig Biddle, “Alex Epstein Gives U.S. Senate a Humanist Perspective on Fossil Fuels and Climate,” The Objective Standard, April 12, 2016, https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/2016/04/alex-epstein-gives-us-senate-humanist-perspective-on-fossil-fuels-and-climate/.

8. Paul Blest, “Leaked Amazon Memo Details Plan to Smear Fired Warehouse Organizer: ‘He’s Not Smart or Articulate,’” Vice, April 2, 2020, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/5dm8bx/leaked-amazon-memo-details-plan-to-smear-fired-warehouse-organizer-hes-not-smart-or-articulate.

9. Blest, “Leaked Amazon Memo.”

10. Patrick Moorhead, “CBS 60 Minutes Segment about Amazon Only Tells Part of the Story,” Forbes, May 11, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/moorinsights/2020/05/11/cbs-60-minutes-segment-about-amazon-only-tells-part-of-the-story/#c4b9ae347d45.

11. “Amazon’s COVID-19 Blog: Daily Updates on How We’re Responding to the Crisis,” Amazon Blog, May 13, 2020, https://blog.aboutamazon.com/company-news/amazons-actions-to-help-employees-communities-and-customers-affected-by-covid-19.

12. Becca Savransky, “A Seattle-Based Amazon Employee Spoke Up for Workers’ Rights. Then, She Was Fired,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 12, 2020, https://www.seattlepi.com/coronavirus/article/amazon-employee-maren-costa-fired-workers-rights-15254473.php.

13. Craig Biddle, “Alex Epstein on How Fossil Fuels Make the Environment Cleaner and Safer,” The Objective Standard, April 21, 2016, https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/2016/04/alex-epstein-fossil-fuels-make-environment-cleaner-safer/.

14. Matthew Feeney, “Yes, Amazon Is Tracking People,” Washington Examiner, May 31, 2018, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/yes-amazon-is-tracking-people-and-sending-their-data-to-police; Daniel Sanchez, “One Out of Every Four CDs Sold on Amazon is Counterfeit,” Digital Music News, October 31, 2016, https://www.digitalmusicnews.com/2016/10/31/amazon-counterfeit-cds/; Dana Wollman, “Amazon Sells Book Offering Advice to Pedophiles,” Seattle Times, November 10, 2010, https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/amazon-sells-book-offering-advice-to-pedophiles//. When hundreds of thousands of people work for a single company, some inevitably will use company resources to do shady things. No evidence suggests that these isolated examples of questionable behavior (which are the most “egregious” I could find) are indicative of anything approaching widespread, consistent, or large-scale immorality.

15. Craig Biddle, “Environmentalists’ Marching Orders for Human Extinction,” The Objective Standard, 14, no. 1, Spring 2019, https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/2018/12/environmentalists-marching-orders-for-human-extinction/; Craig Biddle, “Exploit-the-Earth Day,” The Objective Standard, April 18, 2011, https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/2011/04/exploit-the-earth-day/.

16. Bray, “Bye, Amazon.”

17. Venkatesh Shankar, “Amazon is Turning 25—Here’s a Look Back at How it Changed the World,” The Conversation, July 3, 2019, https://theconversation.com/amazon-is-turning-25-heres-a-look-back-at-how-it-changed-the-world-118307; Mrinalini Krishna, “The Amazon Effect on the U.S. Economy,” Investopedia, March 31, 2020, https://www.investopedia.com/insights/amazon-effect-us-economy/; Alex Epstein, “Vindicating Capitalism: The Real History of the Standard Oil Company,” The Objective Standard, 3, no. 2, Summer 2008, https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/issues/2008-summer/.

18. Ron Miller, “How AWS Came to Be,” TechCrunch, July 2, 2016, https://techcrunch.com/2016/07/02/andy-jassys-brief-history-of-the-genesis-of-aws/.

19. Amazon Staff, “By the Numbers: Amazon’s Disaster Relief and Response,” 2019, https://www.aboutamazon.com/our-communities/by-the-numbers-disaster-relief-by-amazon; “This Navy Fighter Pilot Found a New Mission with Amazon,” Amazon Blog, https://www.aboutamazon.com/working-at-amazon/veterans/this-navy-fighter-pilot-found-a-new-mission-with-amazon (accessed May 26, 2020); Craig Biddle, “Egoism, Benevolence, and Generosity,” The Objective Standard, 12, no. 2, Summer 2017, https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/2017/05/egoism-benevolence-and-generosity/.

20. 2019 Amazon Small Business impact report, https://d39w7f4ix9f5s9.cloudfront.net/61/3b/1f0c2cd24f37bd0e3794c284cd2f/2019-amazon-smb-impact-report.pdf.

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