Skip to main content

The Business of Boycotting: Having Your Chicken and Eating It Too


We assume that there are certain causes that are morally wrong, worth speaking out against, and working to overcome, e.g., opposition to same sex marriage. This seems to suggest that we should also be boycotting certain businesses; particularly those whose owners advocate such views. Ideally, for the boycotter, this will end up silencing certain views (political or otherwise), but this seems to cause two basic problems. First, it appears initially to be coercive, because it threatens the existence of the business. Second, it runs counter to the intuition that we should not force unpopular opinions out of the marketplace of ideas. Boycotting is by its very nature a coercive act, and thus we have to carefully consider what types of actions may warrant this type of coercive action. In this paper, we will argue that an organized boycott is justified if and only if the actions taken by the company have negative consequences that outweigh the negative outcome of the boycott.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 'Guilty as charged,' Cathy says of Chick-fil-A's stand on biblical & family values” by K. Allan Blume/Biblical Recorder, posted Monday, July 16, 2012 Last accessed 2016-5-9.

  2. “Mike Huckabee Calls for Chick-Fil-A Day” July 23, 2012. JILIAN FAMA; Jim Henson Company breaks ties with Chick-fil-A over gay marriage stance. Eric Pfeiffer July 23, 2012.

  3. See for example “Colleges Rally to Kick Chick-fil-A Off Campus” 08/17/2012 05:45 pm ET|Updated Feb 02, 2016.; and “Gay rights advocate to boycott Chick-fil-A” Felicity Lawrence, Thursday 21 November 2002 20.48 EST. November 28, 2013 7:38 PM. Both sites last accessed 2016-5-9.

  4. In the cases of Gap and Nike, both companies responded to the negative press by changing its practices in its factories. Disney was boycotted by religious groups because of its provision of benefits for same-sex couples. Disney did not alter its policies as a result of the boycott. See “Sweatshop campaigners demand Gap boycott: Union appeals to shoppers as evidence from factory workers alleges exploitative conditions”; “How activism forced Nike to change its ethical game” Simon Birch, Friday 6 July 2012 11.04 EDT.; “Southern Baptists vote for Disney boycott” June 18, 1997 Web posted at: 5:50 p.m. EDT (2150 GMT) All sites last accessed 2016-5-9

  5. Indiana Governor Signs Anti-Gay ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill At Private Ceremony” 03/26/2015 12:23 pm ET. Updated Mar 27, 2015 Amanda Terkel accessed 2016-5-9.

  6. We recognize that the ontological status of corporations is philosophically up for debate. However, in law and standard practice we accept both beliefs and actions on the part of corporations.

  7. While it is possible that some boycotts may not end up coercing, the intention to coerce is part of all organized boycotts. Individual boycotts may or may not be intentionally coercive.

  8. It should be readily apparent that such a distinction is muddled at best. Many expressive acts have a consequential impact. We will return to the muddled nature of this distinction later in the paper.

  9. It is worth commenting on the language here. Strictly speaking, all organized boycotts are coercive, while not all organized boycotts result in coercion. This is because while all organized boycotts exert coercive pressure or force, not all are successful. The target of an organized boycott may resist the coercive pressure of the boycott, thereby preventing a case of coercion. In what follows, we sometimes use the word “coercive,” but at other times it is more natural to use the word “coercion.” We could replace “coercion” with the clunkier “make use of coercive force.” We have opted for the more elegant “coercion.”

  10. We qualify this example as “simply” espousing or defending a libertarian view because there may be other examples where further details are relevant (e.g., a job with an agreement to defend only anti-libertarian views) and would cause a change in the analysis presented here. We thank an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.

  11. As the fictional President Andrew Shepard states in The American President: “America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad,’ cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’”

  12. In fact, these concerns might prompt us to posit a “Just Boycott Theory,” analogous to Just War Theory.

  13. I can of course attempt to change their views by some other means. I may attempt to engage in a dialogue or write a letter to the editor. Such actions would respect the right of the individual to hold whatever views they want, so long as they do not act on views that harm others. See the Petrol X and Beef-gril-r examples earlier in the paper.


  • Asad, T. (2008). Reflections on blasphemy and secular criticism. In H. de Vries (Ed.), Religion: Beyond a concept (pp. 580–609). New York: Fordham University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cuomo, C. (2007). Dignity and the right to be lesbian or gay. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, 132(1), 75–85.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Friedman, M. (1999). Consumer boycotts: Effecting change through the marketplace and media. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mill, J. S. (1859). On liberty. Retrieved from Project Gutenberg:

  • Mills, C. (1996). Should we boycott boycotts? Journal of Social Philosophy, 27(3), 136–148.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rawls, J. (1990). The law of peoples. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rothbard, M. N. (1998). The ethics of liberty. New York and London: New York University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ryan, C. C. (1980). The normative concept of coercion. Mind, 89(356), 481–498.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stoll, M. L. (2009). Boycott basics: moral guidelines for corporate decision making. Journal of Business Ethics, 84, 3–10.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We would like to thank the participants of the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum annual meetings in 2013 and 2014, Deborah Mower, and annonymous reviewers for the Jounral for Business Ethics for helpful comments and suggestions.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Alan Tomhave.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Tomhave, A., Vopat, M. The Business of Boycotting: Having Your Chicken and Eating It Too. J Bus Ethics 152, 123–132 (2018).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Boycott
  • Business
  • Coercion
  • Expression
  • Freedom
  • Marketplace
  • Protest