"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Apple’s CEO Manufactures a Human Right

People with disabilities represented 19% of the U.S. population in 2015—exactly 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became a federal law.[1] With computer technology being by then integral to daily life, the matter of accessibility came to the fore under the normative principle of equal, or universal, access. With major tech companies getting behind this banner, one question is whether they did so simply to sell more computers and software—better access translating into more customers. I contend that the stronger the normative claim being made, the greater the exploitation of the underlying conflict of interest.

In 2015, the American computer sector still suffered from “a lack of industry-wide expertise in accessibility development.”[2] So companies including Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo put together the Teaching Accessibility program to teach engineers, designers, and researchers how to include accessibility development in their skill-sets. "Increasing awareness and accessibility learning through core education, academic leadership, learning tools, industry initiatives, and partnerships with disability organizations will further enable graduates in relevant disciplines to enter the workforce and begin creating future technologies that are truly inclusive," Eva LaManna, policy manager for AAPD, said in a statement.[3] The premise, according to Larry Goldberg at Yahoo, is that making tech products accessible “is simply the right thing to do.”[4] Of course, doing so would not hurt sales either. This point undercuts the credibility of Goldberg’s normative claim, for it would be naïve to suppose that he and his colleagues would be motivated by “the right thing to do” were it not in the company’s financial interest. In other words, I contend that the normative claim is sheer marketing designed to garner the company reputational capital and at the same time advertise to the disabled.

Although Apple was conspicuously absent, the company had been training its engineers in the development of accessibility features. Indeed, the CEO, Tim Cook, wrote on July 24, 2015, went further than Goldberg in asserting the value of accessibility for everyone. “Accessibility rights are human rights. Celebrating 25yrs of the ADA, we’re humbled to improve lives with our products.”[5] To claim that a right is a human right is of course easy; the assertion may simply be a way of saying that something is very important. That is to say, if you value something highly, one way of expressing this is by asserting that it is a right—in fact, a human right. This implies that the thing that you value should be valued by everyone. He is essentially universalizing his maxim, making it a universal normative law. Obviously, we can wind up with loads of human rights going well beyond sustainability this way. Cook was indeed making a claim that human rights extend beyond needs, and thus are potentially limitless, unless access to computer technology was at the time essential to survival in the interdependent society.

If accessibility was at the time vital to survival, then government may have had an obligation to see to it that every person has access to a computer regardless of wherewithal to pay. This point presupposes that survival itself is a human right. Interestingly, Cook’s assertion that the right to accessibility is a human right can be interpreted as a claim obligating Apple to see to it that every person has access to a computer regardless of ability to pay. Faced with the implication that the company must hand out free computers (and accessibility software) to the poor, Cook might have sought to walk back his statement to something like, “At Apple, we believe it is important that computers be accessible to people with disabilities.” In retrospect, the man’s human-right claim may seem over the top. His conflict of interest may explain why he went so far without taking into consideration the implications.

For one thing, he may have been seeking to tout Apple’s record on accessibility. This is, after all, why Apple had not joined the training initiative. At the time, the iOS operating system included features like voice over, “speak screen,” dictation, zoom, and support for Braille displays.[6] To the extent that Apple had a sustainable competitive edge in accessibility, Cook had a huge financial incentive to make as bold a claim as possible. In business terms, a strategic competitive advantage should be highlighted in marketing so the potentially high profitability is more likely to be realized.

Interestingly, the marketing dimension itself undercuts the message in more than one way. First, the self-interest belies the claim of humility, and possibly even the claim of wanting foremost to improve lives. Given the manager’s fiduciary duty to the stockholders, his primary motive is to increase profits. Second, readers of Cook’s claim that accessibility is a human right can justifiably doubt the validity of the claim itself because Cook had a vested commercial interest in making the claim. That is, greater accessibility means more people are using computers, and thus are potential new customers of Apple products. Cook had the motive, therefore, to make the claim even if doesn’t believe it to be true, and to beg off any inconvenient implications such as the obligation to give away computers to people unable to afford them. In terms of Kant’s ethics, that Cook’s maxim cannot be universalized without internal contradiction (i.e., everyone should have a computer, but only if they can afford it) renders the claim unethical. In other words, it would unethical for Cook to have made the claim then refuse to give away computers.

In short, public statements by CEOs should not be taken at face value because more is probably behind the assertions than meets the eye. I suspect that the general public is naïve concerning such statements; we are too willing to assume that persons of high stature societally—and this includes CEOs of large companies—are good natured, for we don’t have access to the discussions that go on inside corporations. We are not familiar with how business managers think, and what motivates them. We suppose them to be like us, and we do not tend to carefully craft our utterances to manipulate other people in a self-aggrandizing way. So we take a statement such as Cook’s at face value. He claimed that computer-accessibility rights are human rights, and thus every person has a just claim regardless of ability to pay, and yet he clearly did not mean to suggest that, for Apple would then be obligated, and that would not be in line with the bottom line.  



[1] “IOD Report Finds Significant Health Disparities for People with Disabilities,” Institute on Disability/UCED, August 25, 2011.
[2] Lorenzo Litato, “Silicon Valley Vows to Improve Tech for People with Disabilities,” The Huffington Post, July 24, 2015.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Larry Goldberg, “Teaching Accessibility: A Call to Action from the Tech Industry,” Yahoo (accessed July 25, 2015).
[5] Alexander Howard, “Apple CEO Tim Cook: ‘Accessibility Rights Are Human Rights, The Huffington Post, July 24, 2015.
[6] Ibid.