In recent months, Tesla’s re-entry onto the S&P Global Sustainability ratings with a score below that of tobacco giants Philip Morris International (PMI) has attracted comment from the carmaker’s outspoken head, leading to reporting in the mainstream press.

The case seems, outwardly, to be a shock. How could the world’s leading electric-only vehicle producer have an ESG score which trails that of a company whose main product is tobacco, responsible for over 8 million annual deaths worldwide? The answer is that these kind of fringe cases are something of an inevitability in using aggregate ESG scores and taking a neoliberal attitude towards the economy.

According to that view, the smoker’s choice to light up is theirs alone, not the moral responsibility of the tobacco company (never mind that 1.2 million of those 8 million annual deaths are from second hand smoke). It is no business of anyone to question the choices of the consumer, merely to try and ensure those wishes are carried out in the least harmful way possible.

PMI has a robust disclosure regime, ranks among the best in its class for the environmental impacts associated with its operation and has performed strongly on labour rights issues and diversity representation and corporate governance. It has a 1.5C target, unique among major tobacco producers, ranks first among its peers for emissions associated with curing tobacco and has better supply chain procedures.

By contrast, Tesla lags behind most of the corporate world in its disclosure regime, has faced numerous allegations of labour rights violations, from discrimination to union-busting, and has concerns over its corporate governance structures and the power afforded its high-profile chief.

The case boils down to a simple philosophical question: is it better to do the wrong thing the right way, or the right thing the wrong way?

There are, of course, solutions to this problem. While many in the finance industry are sceptical of exclusions-based approaches to ESG and responsible finance, they have a long history, from early exclusions of weapons manufacturers by Quaker and Methodist pension funds, to Islamic finance, to the fossil fuel divestment movement.

Each of these approaches says that there are certain activities which should not be supported. There are certain red lines that must be crossed. Are addictive products like tobacco harmful enough to be treated in the way that we treat slavery, or child labour?