Why doesn't Apple pay Chinese contract workers more? Will negative attention hurt Apple's reputation?
FORTUNE — I had a really interesting conversation Monday with Madeline Brand, host of a program on an NPR affiliate in Los Angeles, KPCC-FM. (You can listen to the interview here.)
She asked me on to her program to discuss the Apple AAPL dividend announcement, but as is often the case lately, the conversation quickly turned to Apple’s image, its labor issues, and its future. We chatted about the allegations of abuse at the factories belonging to Apple’s contract manufacturer in China, Foxconn, including the episode of the radio program This American Life retracting an episode featuring theater performer Mike Daisey. (Daisey, who plans to continue performing his one-man show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” wasn’t straight with This American Life over which aspects of his performance are based on fact and which parts he made up.)
Brand then asked me an interesting question: Why doesn’t Apple just pay its workers, including the Chinese works — whom, it should be noted, Apple doesn’t pay — more money? My response: of the many reasons a company might want to use the shareholders’ money to pay more to its workers, the fact that it has too much money sitting around isn’t one of them. (I don’t think Brand liked that answer.)
We also discussed if this attention would hurt Apple’s image. I responded that I think consumers, especially but not exclusively in the U.S., are perfectly capable of practicing cognitive dissonance when it comes to their toys. Even if they perceive Apple to be a bad actor from a human-rights perspective, they’ll keep buying iPhones because they love iPhones.
A thoughtful friend of mine, tooling around in his car in LA when the show aired, sent the following response:
In my view, we already are making these decisions as a society. We want perfection: Great toys, fat profits, clear consciences. We settle for the first two and/or satisfy ourselves that the we’ve tried our very best on the third.
In his book, Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired–and Secretive–Company Really Works, Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky deals with another moral issue: Apple’s adherence to the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.