There are several ways that BP could have chosen to respond, all of which were "open" to them (i.e. they had free will), yet those chose to take paths that were less moral. Kant's universal law would have them put their responsibility to humanity as the motivator, however, their motives have not proven to be driven by doing what is genuinely good for humanity.
Blackburn (2009) states that it is tricky to apply the categorical imperative and that the most persuasive examples of it being effective are in cases where there is an institution whose existence depends on sufficient performance by a sufficient number of individuals.
Suppose, as is plausible, that our ability to give and receive promises depends upon general compliance with the principle of keeping promises. Were we to break them sufficiently often, or were promise-breaking to become a 'law of nature,' then there would be no such thing as promise-giving or promise-breaking, because no words could any longer have the required force. So, Kant considers somebody whose principle of action is, 'Let me, when hard pressed, make a promise with the intention not to keep it.' Then, says Kant, I could will the lie, but I could not will the universal law to lie, for in accordance with such a law there would be no promises at all. It would be willing a kind of contradiction (Blackburn 2009).
Leaving the categorical imperative aside for a moment, if one is to look at BP from a Kantian perspective, one could perhaps see them as blameless since they were simply doing their job. Utilitarianism takes consequences of actions to be the judge of those actions and thus an individual or group's overall ethics. One's views on offshore drilling and big companies like BP and Exxon Valdez will also, undoubtedly, be a major factor in how BP's ethics are viewed. Looking at past disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska's Prince William Sound and how Exxon handled the disaster made many people across the world furious and not only did Exxon pay out major bucks to clean up the spill, but the company also paid fines, penalties, and settlements going into the billions of dollars. Yet, Exxon Valdez still continued to make money as a business even after the disaster, which is rather shocking when considering they fought and appealed every decision along the way, making a big statement about how they felt about their responsibility in the disaster.
A shocking article in Climate Progress (2010) states that during the early days of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, BP was making enough money (profit) in four days to cover the costs of the entire cleanup. Yet months later, clean up is still in progress. CEO Hayward went down as saying that the environmental impact would be "very, very modest" (Lyon 2010) -- a very disingenuous and ignorant statement when one considers that Exxon Valdez's spill affected the area negatively for decades after.
Kant's "kingdom of ends" is a metaphorical place where everyone acts in accordance with moral law and everyone is being acted upon with that same moral law (the universal law or categorical imperative). In looking at the BP oil spill, the kingdom of ends does not exist. BP is not acting in accordance with Kant's universal law as actions for clean up and money for those negatively affected would be forthcoming, which is exactly what happened with Exxon Valdez in 1989 as well. BP has put profits before humanity's safety. They have spent millions of dollars in order to create an image of the company being "green" while all the while neglecting the lives of their employees. Many now are questioning whether BP's business ethics (and ethics in general) had something to do with the disaster. Could better concern for safety prevented the explosion? Some of the factors that are thought to have led to the April 20 explosion were the result of really poor decisions in which a less expensive option -- run tests or use a particular type of casing pipe, for example, was constantly chosen over a decision that would have cost the company more money. Some might say that the BP spill isn't really all about BP's ethics, but rather, it's about our society and the way that saving money by using cheap products and making the most money are the values that are desired.
In ethics a moral agent is an individual who performs an action and the receiver is the individual who is affected by the agent's conduct. There is also the moral spectator, the person who observes and disapproves of the conduct. In looking at BP as the moral agent, we are able to see a company that constantly made bad decisions, always looking out for their own profits and ways to better their reputation. Because safety tests were not made and because cheap products were used for maximum profits, a disaster occurred. The conduct of BP has been harshly judged because of this. The receivers are, of course, the people who were killed, the families who are grieving, the employees who were injured and their families, people such as fisherman who have lost the source of their livelihood, tourism companies, and last but not least, people who merely liked to enjoy the beauty of the Gulf of Mexico. Then there are the spectators -- people all across the world who have seen the oil in the water and contemplated the lives lost and are appalled by BP's conduct.
In the agent/receiver test, one questions what the agent felt or thought when constantly making decisions that were not for the greater good of the people. Did BP not consider what happened in Alaska's Prince William Sound? Did they not remember not just the financial loss for Exxon Valdez, but the damage to the environment? Did they not think about safety? By asking these questions, one is perplexed by BP's conduct. The agent/receiver/spectator theory is a chain of events beginning with the agent's action, impacting the receiver, and is then observed by the spectator. The conduct of a moral agent is motivated by values and morals. Because the conduct of the moral agent -- BP -- caused so much harm to people and the environment, which is seen as thus by the spectator, one can pretty much decide that BP acted immorally. The three roles in this test are very different, psychologically speaking. BP is a good example of this, as they are the motivator and the spectator -- although, it wouldn't be crazy to suggest that they are also the receiver in some way.
Applying utilitarian or Kantian ethics to the BP fiasco can offer some enlightening theories on the nature of British Petroleum as a company, their business ethics, their personal ethics, and the responsibility that they have to humanity to do their very best to try to rectify the situation. Arguably, utilitarian ethics places a lot more blame on BP for what happened because of the horrendous consequences. It is probably the most beneficial way to look at the oil spill since it was clearly the result of bad choices. Kantian ethics is something the company should strive for in the future.
Blackburn, S. (2009). Ethics: A very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kant, I. (2010). Groundwork of the metaphysic morals. Trans H.J. Paton. Introduction philosophy: Classical and contemporary readings. Eds. John Perry, Michael Bratman,
and John Martin Fischer. (5th edition). New York: Oxford. 504-20.
Lyon, Susan. (2010). Climate Progress. Retrieved on August 24, 2010, from the Web site: