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Corporate Moral Agency and the Responsibility to Respect Human Rights in the UN Guiding Principles: Do Corporations Have Moral Rights?

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In 2011 the United Nations (UN) published the ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations “Protect, Respect, and Remedy” Framework’ (Guiding Principles). The Guiding Principles specify that for-profit corporations have responsibilities to respect human rights. Do these responsibilities entail that corporations, too, have basic rights? The contention that corporations are moral persons is problematic because it confers moral status to an organization similar to that conferred to a human agent. I shall argue that corporations are not moral persons. But as collective bodies created, operated, and perpetuated by individual human moral agents, one can ascribe to corporations secondary moral agency as organizations. This ascription, I conclude, makes sense of the normative business responsibilities outlined in the Guiding Principles without committing one to the view that corporations are full moral persons.

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Wicklander Chair Emerita, DePaul University and Ruffin Professor Emerita, University of Virginia, USA. My deep thanks to the editors of the Journal, Michael Santoro and Florian Wettstein for their numerous extraordinarily helpful comments and additions. The errors are unfortunately my own.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Wesley Cragg , ‘Human Rights, Globalization, and the Modern Corporation’ in Tom Campbell and Seamus Miller (eds.), Human Rights and the Moral Responsibilities of Corporate and Public-Sector Organizations (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2004)

Florian Wettstein , ‘Normativity, Ethics, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: A Critical Assessment’ (2015) 14(2) Journal of Human Rights 162

Archie B Carroll et al, Corporate Responsibility: The American Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Eric Orts , Business Persons: A Legal Theory of the Firm (London: Oxford University Press, 2013)

David Lyons , ‘The Correlativity of Rights and Duties’ (1970) 4 Nous 45

Michael J Phillips , ‘Corporate Moral Personhood and Three Conceptions of the Corporation’ (1992) 2 Business Ethics Quarterly 437

Manuel Velasquez , ‘Why Corporations Are Not Morally Responsible for Anything They Do’ (1983) 2 Business and Professional Ethics Journal 118

C K Prahalad and R A Bettis , ‘The Dominant Logic: A New Linkage Between Diversity and Performance’ (1986) 7 Strategic Management Journal 485

David Ozar , ‘Do Corporations Have Moral Rights?’ (1985) 4 Journal of Business Ethics 277

Tom Donaldson , ‘Moral Agency and Corporations’ (1980) 10 Philosophy. In Context 54

Larry May , ‘Vicarious Agency’ (1983) 43 Philosophical Studies 69

Andreas G Scherer and Guido Palazzo , ‘Toward a Political Conception of Corporate Responsibility: Business and Society Seen From a Habermasian Perspective’ (2007) 32(4) Academy of Management Review 1096

Andreas G Scherer and Guido Palazzo , ‘A New Political Role of Business in a Globalized World: A Review and Research Agenda’ (2011) 48(4) Journal of Management Studies 899

Dirk Matten and Andrew Crane , ‘Corporate Citizenship: Toward an Extended Theoretical Conceptualization’ (2005) 30(1) Academy of Management Review 166

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Business and Human Rights Journal
  • ISSN: 2057-0198
  • EISSN: 2057-0201
  • URL: /core/journals/business-and-human-rights-journal
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