Big business is getting bigger. We live in an electronic age where business is global and their reach and influence invades every home and business. Lives are helplessly connected to, and often at the mercy of, a breed of powerful multinational businesses. But with the effect of such power and ability, do big businesses have a moral responsibility, or is their responsibility to provide profit for shareholders and keep employees in work. How should we view moral responsibility of large organisations? Can they be seen as morally responsible individuals?
A basic form of moral responsibility is ‘being responsible’, meaning “bearing responsibility for things that did or didn’t happen”1. Events must be caused by previous action or inaction to create responsibility. This is required for harmful acts which make us liable, starting a process of fault finding, leading to accountability. However this contrasts responsibility for beneficial situations, which are eligible for praise and reward. Both cases have the same causal responsibility, but result differently. When we approach causal responsibility, we “end up considering questions of moral responsibility in the ‘duty owed’ sense”.
This is important for accountability because what makes us morally liable isn’t that we caused a harmful situation, but in doing
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Both attempt to answer whether company responsibility belongs to separate moral agents, distinct from the accumulated responsibilities of individual members. Or are corporate actions accumulations of individual activities? The individualist reply states, given the last alternative, corporations are void of responsibility and thus individuals are responsible for all actions. Individualists state legal practices based on charging corporations for damage by individual members are based on false assumptions – “only human individuals can be moral agents, this is why corporations are not morally responsible”.
Individualists see moral judgements of companies, as judgements of individual members. They furthermore state it’s vital to understand “individual managers are also responsible, whenever they knowingly and willingly comply with harmful and immoral policies”. The collectivist view looks at group features of an organisation, insisting on morality of corporate goals, strategies, procedures and controls. The whole corporation isn’t seen as supported by human beings. They also consider corporations to be more than just the sum of its parts. Such organisations exist due to humans being willing and able to achieve collective goals.
The utilitarianism and Kantianism schools of thought are also applicable to this discussion. Both are very different, but although, in theory, we can use these rules to assess morality of individual actions, can we do the same for organisations? Utilitarianism suggests we can asses what is right or wrong in terms of consequences of our actions, assessment is not easy however. By what benchmark can we measure the result of one action against another? Utilitarianism assesses consequences in terms of utility, meaning the greatest number of people who are happy.
There are two types of utilitarianism. Actutilitarianism looks at consequences of individual action on specific occasions. The second, broader type of utilitarianism is Rule Utilitarianism. It looks to a specific situation but assesses what happens in general circumstances, not on specific occasions. Suppose a large organisation must cut costs? They decide to do this by incinerating dangerous materials rather than dispose them safely but expensively, thus causing pollution, while also saving jobs. Under Actutilitarianism we would asses the moral consequences of this one action.