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The Moral Responsibility of Corporations1

  • Ken Hanly (a1)
Abstract

This paper examines the concept of moral responsibility as it applies to the actions of corporations. I argue that it is both conceptually and morally appropriate to hold corporations morally responsible for some of their actions, and I attempt to show that arguments to the contrary are unsound. Although I hold that corporations may legitimately be held morally responsible I also argue that one can expect capitalist corporations to follow moral principles only to a rather limited extent.

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Notes

2 Prof. Gosselin makes two further distinctions which seem to me to be quite relevant to a more adequate account of some of my examples. In the first sense (the desert sense) the person is actually morally blameworthy but in the second sense (the accountability sense) the person is merely held accountable for his or her actions. Prof. Gosselin points out that for some acts which I would say involve specific moral accountability, a person may not be morally blameworthy at all. A supervisor may be accountable for actions of subordinates even though we attach no moral blame to the supervisor at all. For example, if the supervisor happened to be in the washroom, while unknown to him and as a result of a bribe, his crew opens a valve which pollutes the river, the supervisor may still be accountable but not morally blameworthy. This seems correct. Yet my remark still stands: one may be held morally accountable — indeed morally blame worthy — even if one did not actually perform an act. Whether one is merely accountable or morally blameworthy all depends on the details of the situation.

3 Velasquez Manuel G., “Why Corporations Are Not Morally Responsible for Anything They Do,” Business and Professional Ethics Journal, 2 (Spring 1983), p. 14, 6–17, as reprinted in Ethical Theory and Business, edited by Tom Beauchamp and Norman Bowie, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1988) p. 69–75.

4 Ibid., p. 69.

5 Ibid., p. 70.

6 Ibid., p. 71.

9 French Peter, “The Corporation as a Moral Person,” in Business Ethics in Canada, edited by Poff Deborah and Waluchow Wilfred (Scarborough, ON: Prentice-Hall, 1987), p. 3338. This is an adaption of an article that originally appeared in American Philosophical Quarterly, 16, 3 (July 1979).

10 Velasquez, “Why Corporations Are Not Morally Responsible,” p. 72.

11 Ibid., p. 73.

12 There is a certain precedence in the structures, in that the same soccer team can have a change of players over time, just as the same company may have a change of employees. (Sports teams differ somewhat from corporations in that there is perhaps more emphasis upon the team members being a criterion of identity for “same team” as compared to the corporation whose “members” may change all one likes but the corporation remains basically the same. Although even in this instance former employees may complain that it just is not the same company with all the old gang gone!)

13 Velasquez, “Why Corporations Are Not Morally Responsible,” p. 73.

14 Ibid., p. 74.

16 Ibid., p. 75.

17 Glasbeek H., “Criminal Prosecution of Corporate Wrongdoing,” in Business Ethics in Canada, edited by Poff Deborah and Waluchow Wilfred (Scarborough, ON: Prentice-Hall, 1987), p. 5056.

18 Velasquez, “Why Corporations Are Not Morally Responsible,” p. 75.

19 Glasbeek, “Criminal Prosecution,” p. 51.

21 This point is elaborated in an article by K. Goodpaster and Matthews J., “Can A Corporation Have a Conscience?,” in Business Ethics in Canada, edited by Poff Deborah and Waluchow Wilfred (Scarborough, ON: Prentice-Hall, 1987), p. 7686.

22 Velasquez, “Why Corporations Are Not Morally Responsible,” p. 75.

23 Kavanagh John P., “Ethical Issues in Plant Relocation,” in Ethical Theory and Business, edited by Beauchamp Tom and Bowie Norman, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1983), p. 114.

1 A condensed earlier version of this paper was read at a Western Canadian Philosophical Association meeting in Lethbridge in October 1989. Several helpful comments were made by my commentator, Eldon Soifer of the University of Regina, and those present. I would also thank Prof. Philip Gosselin for extensive comments he made on the earlier draft.

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
  • URL: /core/journals/dialogue-canadian-philosophical-review-revue-canadienne-de-philosophie
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