Philosophy > Collective Moral ResponsibilityPosted by Andy on 03-27-2014
What does it mean to say X Corporation is morally responsible? Is that to say the company as a separate entity, is morally responsible, or are we simply referring to some people [a,b,c] as being morally responsible within a corporation? Often times, we say X Corporation is evil without actually clarifying exactly who we are ascribing moral responsibility to. This also brings into question whether it even makes sense, at least metaphysically, to hold a collective, morally responsible.
One might argue that when we say a collective is morally responsible, we are simply using a shortcut in language to refer to person a, person b, person c, and so on. We might consider this view as methodological individualism (the idea that only individuals can be morally responsible, not the collective). But to some prominent philosophers, there exists collective moral responsibility. I’m sure many people have heard a corporation being referred to as a ‘person’. This idea has been engrained in U.S. law, where corporations have certain rights as people, e.g., corporations are protected under the First Amendment. In terms of philosophy, Peter French has echoed the idea of the corporation as a moral person. He refers to the Corporation’s Internal Decision (CID) Structure, as being able to create and make decisions that give it status as a person in the moral sphere.
Without getting into too much detail, does this seem right? One should be reminded that personhood is not specific or particular to Homo sapiens. If a sentient alien race were to visit earth, they would likely be considered persons. Does a corporation, or any collective group for that matter, meet the standards of personhood? What exactly are the necessary and sufficient conditions to be considered a person? Is it consciousness, rationality, a combination, or something else? This is a point of contention amongst philosophers.
To help motivate the idea of assigning moral responsibility, I'll use an example of a corporation committing an egregious act (trust me, it wasn’t hard to find). Throughout the years, Apple’s supplier, Foxconn, has had dozens of workers commit suicide over poor and hazardous working conditions. Does this correlate to Apple, or certain persons within Apple, being morally responsible? The majority would likely agree that a certain wrong has been committed that could have been prevented. Do we hold Apple, as a separate collective entity, morally responsible for negligence? Or should we, as a society, hold certain individuals morally responsible?
Some will argue that there are practical reasons for assigning moral responsibility to a corporation, as a collective. The corporation, so to speak, has deeper pockets. Perhaps this is true if our only goal is to monetarily punish corporations. But what about initiating actual progress and change? If top decision makers are rarely put behind bars for their actions, what keeps them from continually making immoral decisions? All one has to do is read the news to see another corporation being fined or sued. These individuals continually make erroneous decisions that have significant moral consequences. In order to truly stop a vicious cycle – placing corporate interests ahead of moral values – one must ascribe moral responsibility to the individual rather than the collective.
philosophy law collective moral responsibility