General Question

nikipedia's avatar

Do corporations have a moral obligation to society?

Asked by nikipedia (27327 points ) July 13th, 2008

If so, how far does their moral obligation extend?

Should corporations be allowed to sell products that are harmful (e.g. cigarettes)? What about products that are stupid and useless (e.g. Febreeze)?

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29 Answers

richardhenry's avatar

To a degree. But people also have a moral obligation not to harm themselves or buy stupid and useless products. There wouldn’t be a market if people didn’t buy them.

cheebdragon's avatar

People still have morals?

Allie's avatar

Companies are in business to make money. They have an obligation to themselves and only to us when it’s suitable for them (such as making more money because they “care”). For example, when tons of companies jumped on the Stop-Global-Warming bandwagon because they could make money off of it (which I think is pretty sad).

SquirrelEStuff's avatar

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=192012118972057552

Here is a great documentary on Corporations starring Noam Chomsky. They come to the conclusion that if a corporation was a person, it would be considered a sociopath. As Michael Moore says about them “The rich man will sell you the rope to hang himself with if it produces a profit.”

jcs007's avatar

Have you seen Hancock? Obviously, they don’t care since they laugh at the idea of the “All Heart”.

mirza's avatar

i dont think they should. Ultimately, corporations are about profit. I

nikipedia's avatar

Thanks for the answers so far. Would be interesting to differentiate between how things are and how you think things should be….

aaronou's avatar

If society has a goal, an aim, or some purposeful objective, then every element of that society has a moral obligation to do its best to uphold their end. Perhaps the issue is that no one can agree on the aim of society, or even life for that matter. In other words, what are we working towards? I think most would agree that we are working towards the betterment of humanity, but deciding exactly how we go about that is what creates a stumbling block. Thus, we are left with very little grounds to define ethical standards.

Mangus's avatar

A corporation isn’t some abstract super-entity whose social participation and obligation is different from a person’s. They get talked about that way, but it’s absurd. A corporation is a group of people working to some end, adhering to a particular set of rules to do so. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is a group of people. As such, they should be held to the same moral and ethical standards we might hold any other group or individual.

The whole argument that they’re for profit, and as such shouldn’t be concerned with ethical issues, selling cigarettes being one of the oft-used examples, is just ludicrous. Now, this is where we separate how things are from how things should be. The corporation was created, as a legal mechanism, to maximize the accumulation of wealth for a small portion of society. That much is clear. But just because it was created for a purpose, doesn’t mean we all have to lay down and accept the offensiveness of that purpose. Just because the Klu Klux Klan was created to maintain white power doesn’t mean I have to accept that organization’s work to fulfill it’s purpose.

Judge an organization by the good it does (or doesn’t) do people now, and people in the future.

mirza's avatar

Also febreeze is not useless. Ok maybe it harms the environment and all other hippie BS, but it really helps make my room smell nice

marinelife's avatar

Corporations cannot be expected to be ethical or moral because that is antithetical to their goal: maximum profit in the form of return on investment for investors.

The way to ensure corporate behavior according to the mores of our society is through regulation by our elected officials.

Mangus's avatar

@Marina: I know this is the rhetoric we’re all raised with, but I think it’s quite fallacious. Why can’t corporations be expected to be ethical and moral? It just seems silly to me. Who gets to say that? “I’m a soldier, my purpose is to kill. Don’t ask me to be moral.” or “I’m a racer. My purpose is to win. Don’t expect me to be ethical.” It just doesn’t fly.

There’s only one other area in our society where this sort of logic is so prominent–criminal justice. I always get in hot water for adding this to the mix, but criminal justice in this country is just as ludicrous, here’s why: we try to get to the truth, not by aiming at the truth, but by having a rules-based competition where two sides in a case try to win. Not try to get to the truth. Then, we get these outcomes and supposedly, because everyone was trying to win, we somehow magically get the truth. Same thing with corporations, and capitalism more generally. “Everyone try to make a crap-ton of money, and somehow, magically, we’ll feed everyone and keep our kids healthy and take care of our land.” This argument only serves a small group of people who get the spoils, and thus can avoid all the hardships that the system causes the rest of us.

The real point of human endeavors is to provide for the wants and needs of society. It’s not profit. We want hospitals to make people well. We want edible goods to sustain us. We want entertaining gadgets to entertain us. What corporations do is the stuff of life and civilization. We have companies to build boats so we can visit our relatives, ship our stuff across the globe, and go on vacations. That’s what they’re for. So hold them to the standards we hold anything and anyone else who participates in society.

SquirrelEStuff's avatar

I respect your opinion, Marina, about regulation by our elected officials, but we must first elect officials that do not have ties to corporations, because any regulations will end up only benefiting corporations.

If we are dependent on the government to regulate things, as we are now, we do not pay attention to things we assume are good for us. Ex. aspartame, certain pharmaceuticals, GM food

El_Cadejo's avatar

fabreeze isnt useless. My room would reek of weed without it. ^_^

PupnTaco's avatar

I got news for you. Now it reeks of weed and Febreze.

El_Cadejo's avatar

No way, Fabreeze covers that smell up. Ive been accused of my room smelling like weed once, and that was the night i didnt spray and fabreeze, so it obviously working.

susanc's avatar

Is Febreze the only thing/the best thing for conquering weedstink?

Is there nothing “natural” that doesn’t profit the demon corp’s?

Is Fluther incorpo… wait, this is a question isn’t it?

and so on

Harp's avatar

This odd creation of ours, the corporation, confuses our sense of moral responsibility by diluting ownership and control over so many people that it’s easy for any one person connected to the corporation to absolve himself of any moral onus. In that respect, it’s similar to representative governments.

Ultimately the power in corporations lies with the shareholders, just as it does with the individual voters in a democracy. But the illusion of separation between the guy who owns a few shares of Exxon Mobil and the way that corporation behaves on the world stage is so compelling, that the shareholder feels free to sit back and enjoy the dividends without considering his own moral agency. Isn’t that what the Board gets paid for, after all? But who elects the Board? And who capitalizes operations?

The same sort of mentality accounts for the apathy and inaction of the people in a democracy when their governments act as murderous, plundering bullies. The power, and so the responsibility, is ours.

cyrusbond's avatar

To most people, morals are flexible. Sadly…this also applies to corporations. This is a capitalist society. By that frame of thinking, I believe that it is by any means nessicary to make a profit. What this means to us is that, yes they are allowed to sell those usless and harmful products. One thing that humans are very proficient at is self destruction.

chaosrob's avatar

Corporations are just groups of people, codified into “individual” entities on their own. This makes the question of morality very complex. Relevant points include:

1. Corporate entities are supposed to be afforded some specific rights, including many of the same rights accorded individuals. Does this also encumber them with the same responsibilities as individuals?

2. The people who steer a corporation are individuals, with their own morals and biases. Are they expected to abdicate these just because they’re part of a larger entity? Or do corporations accurately reflect the morals of their Chairmen?

3. Are morals in the business interests of a corporation? That is, will they make more money by behaving in a morally populist manner?

4. Assuming corporations have, perceive and accept social obligations, is it more important for them to maximize shareholder value, or to align with the interests of their customer base?

This goes on and on…

Zaku's avatar

If you consult my morality, then yes they do.

People invent morality. So we get to choose. Do we want organizations that are dedicated to maximizing their own profits and ever-increasing wealth and power, and don’t care about anything else? Institutions of exploitation and endless growth… is something we want, or not to encourage or discourage?

Given that we live on a planet with limited resources, a huge human population, and huge inequality ranging from people who are raised to consume maximum resources, to people who are starving to death, wild habitats vanishing, more and more species becoming extinct due to human expansion… um, all-for-profit enormous corporations having morals or not – um, “with”, please. Thanks.

scamp's avatar

Febreeze saves my SO from lawsuits. We live in a small condo with 4 animals. Without that little ‘extra help”, the place would probably smell like a barn!

marinelife's avatar

@Mangus I don’t disagree with you. What I am saying is this will not happen automatically. The way to ensure it is through legislation and regulation.

jballou's avatar

Absolutely not, corporations are by definition money-making entities. Their sole purpose is to make money. A corporation is a legal status. How can a legal status have a moral responsibility? PEOPLE have a moral responsibility, and one would hope that if people are running a corporation, they would do it in a responsible manor, but ultimately money trumps everything. Any seemingly “moral” decisions companies make are usual just social pandering in an effort to shape their brand to attract the people that believe in that moral decision, not from any real code.

If it were legal to sell heroin you bet your ass you’d see it at WalMart.

Zaku's avatar

@jballou:
1) Not all corporations are defined with the purpose of money-making. (e.g. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting.) However, there are laws regarding publicly traded corporations which require them to strive to increase their stock value and prohibit acting for other purposes.
2) You asked “How can a legal status have a moral responsibility?” That question is confusing parts of speech and not addressing what is a clear and well-worded question. “Incorporated” is a legal status; a “corporation” is an organization, or a type of organization.
3) Ultimately reality trumps everything, not money. Money is part of a game humans invented, that doesn’t have a lot of correspondence to reality, even though some economists and people highly invested (in various senses) in the game may like to pretend like it is a cosmic truth.
4) I agree that for-profit corporations tend to play at morality in order to improve public opinion of themselves, rather than out of a fundamental dedication to a moral code or purpose.
5) I agree for-profit corporations would sell legalized heroin. Whether that would be immoral or not though, compared to the status quo alternative of perpetuating the value of the black market, armed gangs, and “the war on drugs”, seems not entirely clear to me.

jballou's avatar

@Zaku you make a lot of good points, I was definitely cutting some corners for the sake of my argument, but the argument remains the same- corporations have no moral responsibility. People do. That’s all I was really trying to get across.

Zaku's avatar

@jballou – Yep. I agree in general. I just tend to get analytical and look from various views and look for things to correct and make more accurate. And:
6) I love your avatar.

Mangus's avatar

@ballou: That’s fine. The problem is that people making decisions as a group pretend not to have a moral obligation when the group is a corporation. We don’t absolve group decisions by gangs of moral responsibility, why do it for corporations?

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