Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Ronald Nash, Arvin Vos, Larry Mayhew

Degree Program

Department of Philosophy & Religion

Degree Type

Master of Arts


Much of the popular discussion of the social responsibilities of corporations overlooks the fundamental question of whether corporations (as opposed to their employees) are the type of entities to which it is proper to make responsibility ascriptions. That is the question I address in this paper. I proceed by outlining the criteria a subject must meet in order to qualify as a moral agent (the most controversial of which when applied to corporations is the capability of intentional action) and then examining five popular views on the status of corporations. The views vary widely in their conclusions, from the position that corporations are full-fledged members of the moral community to the theory that it is only their employees that have moral responsibilities. Regardless of their conclusions all are found deficient for one reason or another, most criticisms boiling down to the claim that they are based on an inadequate view of corporate structure or behavior.

Following organizational theorist Michael Keeley's lead, I conclude that corporations are not moral agents, although for much different reasons than any of the other nay-sayers whose views I examine. I suggest that whatever the details of their arguments, all theories that claim corporations are moral agents (and even some who deny it) are based on an organismic model of corporate behavior that involves goal-oriented behavior. It is my contention that when the activities of corporations are actually examined that no such corporate intentional action can be identified and that corporations therefore do not qualify as moral agents.

However, I also suggest that while we cannot properly hold corporations morally responsible for their actions, they are not shielded from moral judgements. As moral agents, we are justified in preferring one type of corporate activity over another (say, proper treatment of toxic wastes over "midnight dumping") on moral grounds. Finally, calling once again on Keeley, I point to an alternative to the organismic model of corporate behavior, the social-contract model, as a potentially more fruitful tool of inquiry into the relationships between corporations, individuals and society.


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