Cowton, Christopher J. (2011) The moral status of the corporation, collective responsibility and the distribution of blame. In: Business Ethics And Corporate Sustainability. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, pp. 18-28. ISBN 978 1 84980 371 7

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The moral status of the corporation is a foundational issue in business ethics. A long-running debate has considered whether a corporation can be considered a moral agent in its own right, akin to an individual human agent. As Moore (1999, p. 330) comments, the views are ‘essentially twofold and diametrically opposed’. Some think corporations are moral agents, while others disagree.

As befits such a long-running and important debate, several review articles have been produced (e.g. Danley, 1999), in addition to the literature reviews that precede any attempts at novel analysis. Moore’s (1999) review covers most, if not all, of the many significant papers on this topic over the years, considering the principal arguments on both sides of the debate. As he notes, the debate on the moral status of the corporation can be seen as a particular case regarding collective responsibility – an issue that has been extensively discussed in the general philosophy literature, where concerns have included attribution of blame to particular races or nation states.

In this chapter, rather than revisiting the business ethics literature and reviewing it anew, I take a step back and undertake a review of the philosophical literature on collective responsibility. This is not to imply that previous business ethicists have not also referred to the philosophical literature. However, in reviewing that literature I wish to bring out a particular issue that I regard as having been ignored or under-played by previous authors – namely, the distribution of blame. I pay particular attention to the work of Sverdlik (1987) who, like most other protagonists in the debate within the philosophical literature, is concerned with the general nature of collective responsibility rather than its particular application in relation to business corporations.

The term ‘collective responsibility’ clearly involves two elements. As in the literature on collective responsibility, the element on which I wish to focus in this paper is ‘collective’. However, I will first make a few points about ‘responsibility’, with the principal aim not of finding some essentialist definition but of ensuring that it is sufficiently clear for the purposes of this chapter how I am using the term. Given the tenor of the debate on corporations, I am particularly interested in blame and its relationship to responsibility and obligation.

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