Business Ethics 4

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Learning Activity #1 – Corporations and their Consequences

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In this week’s readings, consider the far-flung consequences to a corporation’s having engaged in activities we now recognize as unethical.  These include the hidden adverse affects of asbestos (in the Manville case), and the far flung financial ruin which accompanied the Enron, E.F. Hutton and the Continental Illinois Bank cases.

What response is appropriate?  How do we determine who is responsible here – corporate or individual?  On what basis?  Can a corporation be held to ethical standards apart from the individual ethical determinations of the people acting on behalf of the corporation?  Why – or why not?

Alternatively, should corporate leadership be held ethically responsible for the actions undertaken by corporate agents/employees?  On what basis?  Why – or why not?  Here in particular, the “Last Interview with Ken Lay” (part of your course materials) might be instructive.

Please do not focus on the legal aspects of damages, criminal charges, or reparations.  Try to maintain focus on ethical questions within this unique context where the destructive power of certain individual actions was multiplied by the corporate entity in a way that individual action could never have accomplished on its own.

This learning activity will allow you to consider just what a corporation is, and how it can transcend human action and time limitations.  It “acts” through human action – through joint human action – which greatly multiplies the possible power and impact of what then becomes corporate action.  Corporate “action” and the impact of that action can be much more than the simple sum of its parts.  The difficulty arises when individual human action is combined within the corporation, ultimately producing an unethical act or unethical result.  This gives rise to the consideration of whether we can effectively “punish” a corporation – or whether punishment is effective only against “real” people.  Here, you may also wish to remember that the corporate form was initially intended to limit individual liability.  Perhaps this is a case of it doing too well what it was intended initially to do.  Should there be the equivalent of a corporate “death penalty” for corporations that have committed what amounts to crimes against humanity?  Here we come full circle to whether or not a corporation is capable of ethical intent, apart from the ethical intentions of the humans who act on its behalf.

Learning Activity #2 – Corporate “Social” Responsibility

What does “Social Responsibility” actually mean, from a corporate perspective?  Do some research into the kinds of social responsibility programs currently being pursued by U.S. corporations and report on what you find.  Generally, what areas and/or values are being focused on?    Pick one program that you admire and describe it.  Why do you admire it?  What values are emphasized?  Does the program correspond to any of the ethical theories we have  looked at?  Analyze the program from an ethical standpoint, including considering how to balance profit-making with social responsibility, especially where pursuing social responsibility might adversely impact profits.

See if you can’t verbalize why a particular corporate social responsibility program is admirable.  Does it perhaps exemplify the display of certain virtues, which would tend to lead to the development of a virtuous character in the corporation’s employees, and in the community the corporation does business in?  Could one determine that the program carries out what would be considered a duty, having applied Kant’s Categorical Imperative?  [hint:  this is a good place to start for environmental values]  Would the greatest happiness/pleasure for the greatest number be achieved by the implementation of such a program – which is the stated aim of Utilitarianism.

Have fun with this one – but don’t just tell me you “like” it!  Why do you like it – using ethical terminology?

P.S. “It pays” – while a reason – is not necessarily an ethical reason.  Killing someone for hire ‘pays’, too, but is not ethical. . . .  Likewise, working for a paycheck ‘pays’ – but your work may or may not be a ‘good’ thing.  It could be a deadening, dead-end job.  Focus on what we would consider “good” – under the various ethical theories.

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