Corporate (advocacy of) Citizenship

The language of “corporate citizenship” is pretty common these days. My friends Wayne Norman and Pierre-Yves Néron (at the University of Montreal) have been doing good work examining the ups and downs of applying the political vocabulary of citizenship to the artificial entities known as corporations.

In light of this, I found the following story pretty interesting:
Wal-Mart strides into election fray

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer, is planning to launch a voter registration and education campaign this fall targeted at its 1.3 million employees in an effort to combat growing criticism from Democrats and labor unions.

By doing so, the world’s largest retailer is striding into the national political arena, which until this election cycle it has taken pains to avoid.

Fantastic, huh? A major corporation working hard to make sure its employers vote (in an era where voter turnout in many democracies is pretty pathetic). That’s good, right? Promoting voting, and other forms of legitimate political engagement, has to be a central virtue of citizenship. But wait, this is a big corporation, flexing its muscles in the political realm. That’s bad, right? Uh-oh! Lots of people get uncomfortable — understandably — when corporations (and their deep pockets) get too involved in politics. Well, it’s certainly food for thought.

As Wayne and Pierre-Yves argue, in a paper they presented at the Society for Business Ethics meeting in Atlanta last month…

What a normative theory of corporate citizenship needs…is a framework for deciding what sorts of political activities and relations with government regulators are appropriate or inappropriate, permissible or impermissible, obligatory or forbidden for corporations….

(p.s. Some people say Enron is the best thing that ever happened to Business Ethics, as an academic discipline, on the grounds that it did a lot to bring the importance of business ethics into the media spotlight, and made it harder for dinosaur colleagues in certain business schools to continue doubting the significance of ethical issues in business. I think Wal-Mart has done more for Business Ethics than Enron did, precisely because Wal-Mart presents so many ambiguities. Enron is the hard sell. But Wal-Mart is so much more thought-provoking.)

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