Academic Business Ethics and the Corporation as Political Actor

I’m returning home today after spending the weekend at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Business Ethics, the world’s foremost association for academics engaged in the study and teaching of issues related to business ethics, corporate social responsibility, and so on. (It was a fantastic meeting and anyone with a professional interest in these issues should consider joining SBE.)

One of the dominant themes of this year’s meeting was the role of the corporation in the political realm. It’s an old topic, one revitalized by the US Supreme Court’s decision last year in the Citizens United case. Corporate involvement in the political sphere takes many forms (from lobbying to campaign donations to participation in collaborative approaches to regulation). Such involvement is probably inevitable, but definitely controversial, and so there’s lots to sort out regarding how we should understand corporations in the political realm, and what rights and responsibilities they should have in that world. Among several dozen scholars presenting their research at the SBE meeting, a striking proportion of them presented work related to this set of topics.

David Ronnegard and Craig Smith, for example, presented work that elucidated the connection between competing theories of business ethics, on one hand, and competing theories from political philosophy, on the other.

Anselm Schneider and Andreas Scherer presented their work on the changes in corporate governance necessitated by (what I would call) the quasi-governmental responsibilities that corporations sometimes take on in the international sphere.

Pierre-Yves Néron presented work arguing that the way we think of corporations in the public sphere ought to be strongly influenced by thinking about the kinds of corporate behaviours (including regulatory lobbying, for example) that can either improve or frustrate market efficiency.

Waheed Hussain presented his work on what it might look like to “civilize” the corporation to make its participation in the political realm less worrisome — essentially, by fostering among corporations a “public interest” ethos, and insisting that lobbying etc be framed in terms of the public good.

Wayne Norman encouraged his fellow business ethicists to pay more attention to regulation, rather than focusing (as the typically do) on the corporate ethical obligations that go “beyond mere compliance”.

I myself presented some of my current thinking on the various ways we might think of corporations in their interactions with government. In particular, I argued that while, in some cases, it makes sense to conceptualize the corporation as an agent in its own right, there are other cases (perhaps many more cases) in which it makes sense to think of the corporation as a tool or technology used by citizens to advance their goals. (This is something I’ve touched on before, informally, in a blog entry.)

Although I don’t want to speak for my colleagues, it seems safe to say that the scholars whose work is noted above share an interest in better understanding what it means, and what it should mean, for corporations to be political agents. They are part of a trend — I don’t yet want to say movement — that sees scholars attempting to take seriously the complexity of the practical and philosophical problems raised by having limited-liability, joint-stock corporations participate in a realm that is generally thought of as being rightfully the place of flesh-and-blood citizens.

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