Avoiding the blame game: moral responsibility in corporate contexts

The third of Trinity term's R:ETRO - Reputation: Ethics, Trust, and Relationships at Oxford - seminar series.

Kendy Hess, Brake-Smith Associate Professor in Social Philosophy and Ethics, College of the Holy Cross, was the guest speaker for the seminar hosted by Alan Morrison, Professor of Law and Finance, and Rita Mota, Intesa Sanpaolo Research Fellow, as part of the R:ETRO seminar series.

A question that always arises in the aftermath of corporate wrongdoing is, 'Who's responsible?' ('Who can fix this?' might be a better question, but it's not the one we usually turn to.) While the answer will typically be quite complicated, the question itself seems relatively simple. But each of the two words comprising the question are importantly ambiguous, and the way we interpret them will have significant implications for the answers we come up with. Here I focus on the complexities of the 'who': does it include collective agents, like firms? If we hold the collective agents responsible, do we thereby hold their members responsible for too much, or too little? How are they responsible at all?

There are individualist, collectivist, and holist answers to those questions. The first two approaches refuse to recognize the firms and rely on a distributive approach to moral responsibility that yields implausible results. The holist approach recognises the firms themselves as potentially responsible, but critics have objected that this forces us to either blame their members for things they haven’t done or excuse them entirely. I reply that using a suitably robust account of corporate agents and a non-distributive paradigm of moral responsibility ('collateral responsibility') avoids both outcomes, allowing us to properly allocate responsibility to the firms and to hold the members responsible for their own contributions.