Elon. That is all you need to say, and it evokes emotions across the board. Once a hero, Elon Musk has shown the side of himself that few aspire to. His missteps with Twitter and other power plays have eroded his reputation. So much so, that the board at Tesla is considering replacement due to reputational damage. Historically, reputational damage has impacted sales negatively and that is happening at Tesla.
But should YOU buy a Tesla? Are you being hypocritical or complicit if you do?
You care about the environment, and Tesla makes some of the best electric vehicles.
Tesla has been a market leader in electric cars since the Roadster debuted in 2006. With the Model 3, electric cars entered the mainstream and proved that electric cars can indeed be affordable, practical and can reduce our dependency on the oil economy while improving the air quality around our cities. They beat their competitors handily and have been rewarded with the highest stock valuation of any other automaker – even after dropping more than 70% from its high. So why hesitate to support American business, a clean future, safe cars, and the promise of high resale values?
As Elon is still the largest shareholder of Tesla – who claims 13% of the profit from your purchase – perhaps you don’t want to support someone with such radically different values from your own.
You think: based on what the board may do, he might be gone from the operations of the company shortly. Even though he still owns a good portion of it, many companies we buy from have owners that we don’t know, and we may not like. On the other hand, we DO know Elon and he is constantly in the media so he’s hard to ignore. We can’t claim ignorance, that is, “motivated blindness” in ethics jargon, since we aren’t blind in this case.
Ah! If you buy a used Tesla, does that resolve it? Buying that used car has the effect of keeping Tesla prices high and increasing the demand for new ones. And does driving around in an “Elon” car still mark you as a supporter?
And so goes your internal fight in your head. An ethical dilemma: no right answer.
Does it make a difference if the item was less consequential? If you’re not a Jeff Bezos fan, do you still buy from Amazon? Or a chicken sandwich from conservative Chick-fil-A? What about putting money in ETF leader BlackRock while liberal Larry Fink speaks out for the environment? Even the soda you drink might reveal a political bias: Coke for liberals, Pepsi for conservatives (Forbes 2016). With these mostly private and minimal purchases, do you think twice?
Companies are now expected to take positions on social issues as Edelman Trust surveys have pointed out. “Silence Is Not An Option” (Forbes 2021) is the watchword for corporations, so our alignment with companies is also a values statement. The Guardian reports that “Millennials want Purpose over Paychecks,” (2016) pointing out that values loom large in minds of job seekers.
To wrestle the ethical solution to the mat, we need to return to our values. And, as uncomfortable as it may seem, we need to weigh them. Now about that Tesla:
If your values are, for example: Integrity; Fairness; the Environment; Technology; Well Being; Being a role model.
And the stakeholders: You; Tesla Shareholders (Elon); Workers; the Environment; the Community; your friends and family
Most of these are easy –the stakeholders above, except for you, your friends and family – benefit. But YOU are the complicated one. Your values drive you to purchase the vehicle if the environment and technology dominate. Your Well Being of the workers and suppliers are also satisfied. But integrity and being a Role Model may give you pause. What message are you telegraphing? And what is being heard?
If you think you will be embarrassed driving the Tesla around, then the answer is: Don’t buy it because your Well Being, Integrity, and Being a Role Model will be sacrificed. If, on the other hand you are proud because of the greater good, then buy it. Philosophically, in the former, you are demonstrating Virtue Ethics, while the latter, Utilitarian Ethics. This doesn’t mean you have to rely on those frameworks all the time but naming them might give you comfort to know that your choice is explainable, and you can sleep better. After all, the way to stop fretting about your choice is to explain it to yourself and not feel that it is just rationalization but rather a considered and weighed choice.
Don’t worry about Elon. He will not suffer. Buy it or not for your own peace of mind.