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Responsibility, Accountability and Corporate Activity

By Will Barrett - posted Wednesday, 25 August 2004

The notion of corporate responsibility dominates business ethics, in education and in practice. The relationship between the moral responsibility of corporations and that of their individual and collective members is an ongoing philosophical issue, ultimately riding on theories of moral agency. Whether corporations possess moral agency or not, corporate activity undeniably has morally significant effects. In this article I discuss moral responsibility and how it gives rise to accountability. I then outline the connection between responsibility and moral agency, and associated theoretical difficulties. I argue that we can detach accountability from responsibility in a way that avoids issues about agency.

The nature of responsibility

Assertions of responsibility can mean a number of different things. We might be making a judgement of someone’s character, implying that she can be trusted to act responsibly. We might refer to a person’s responsibilities, as expressed by “my responsibilities in my job are…” or “Mary has a lot of responsibilities”. We might mean that someone was responsible for bringing something about.  But listing usages doesn’t take us far towards a satisfactory answer to the question “What do we mean when we talk about responsibilities”. To advance our understanding of responsible action we need to know in general terms who may be held responsible, and for what.

The question “Who is responsible?” has both practical and theoretical aspects. As a practical question, it aims to identify the responsible party: causally, as in “Who is responsible for the stain on the carpet?”, and for roles, as in “Who is responsible for the web site?” When asked theoretically it aims to establish what sorts of entities are properly ascribed responsibilities. Can only individuals be properly ascribed responsibilities, or can organizations also be held responsible? If the latter, then what sorts of organizations, and under what conditions?


Issues about what constitutes responsibilities fall into two categories: kinds of responsibility, such as legal, moral, or causal responsibility; and actual responsibilities, such as parental, employer, or employee responsibility. Responsibilities interact and overlap both within and across the categories: parents have legal and moral responsibilities for their children; moral responsibility often, but not always, depends on causal responsibility. Relations between responsibilities only underline the need to think about these differences when we make judgements on the basis of responsibilities. We also need to think about degrees of responsibility. A murderer has a greater responsibility for the act of killing than someone who commits manslaughter both legally (because courts typically impose harsher sentences) and morally (because murder is worse than manslaughter). A senior member of a corporation has greater causal, legal, and perhaps moral responsibility than a junior member, at least in theory.

Moral responsibility

Moral responsibility assumes a capacity for making rational decisions, which in turn justifies holding moral agents accountable for their actions. Morality gives reasons for action, and moral agents must in principle be capable of choosing to act morally, and of acting on the basis of a moral reason. People who lack a capacity for rational decision-making cannot be held morally responsible for their actions. In case this requirement strikes you as too stringent, ask yourself why adults are held responsible for the welfare (and sometimes the actions) of children. Adults have moral responsibility for children because children lack a developed capacity for rational decision-making, and adults, other things being equal, are taken to have such a capacity.

Given that moral agency entails responsibility, in that autonomous rational agents are in principle capable of responding to moral reasons, accountability is a necessary feature of morality. Moral agents have negative responsibilities at least, and can be held to account for violating these. A thicker sense of accountability derives from the roles we occupy. Responsibilities attach to roles, for example professional responsibilities, and roles sometimes are defined in terms of responsibilities. I can be held to account for my fulfilment of my role-given responsibilities.

The content of responsibility

Agents can be morally, legally, or causally responsible. Our focus here is on moral responsibility, without denying the importance of the other two kinds of responsibility for morality. The sources of moral responsibility - the grounds on which moral responsibilities can be ascribed to agents - include our past actions, our roles, and our developed moral agency. The last of these - being capable of recognising the force of moral reasons, and of responding to them - is a pre-requisite for the other two sources of moral responsibility, and so of accountability.

Moral responsibilities change over time and between agents. They can be shared, and they can be contested. Given the sometimes-fluid nature of moral responsibility, identifying who is responsible for what can be difficult. Even though moral responsibility is not always fixed or explicit, and can be shared, the general point about responsibility and accountability remains. Where I have a responsibility either to commit an act or to refrain from acting, I can be held to account.

Accountability and responsibility are distinct. I can be morally responsible for some purely self-regarding act without being accountable to anyone, except perhaps myself. I can be accountable without being morally responsible, say for some state of affairs that pre-existed my occupying a relevant role, or because I occupy the role of account-giver in an organisation. But the link between responsibility and accountability holds for other-regarding acts and for role-related circumstances where I do have moral responsibility. In many circumstances, responsibility does imply accountability.


Corporate moral responsibility

Corporations are legal entities with legal rights and responsibilities. Are corporations the kind of entities that have moral responsibilities?

Two fundamental considerations count against claims that corporate activity only generates legal responsibilities, or that corporate moral responsibilities are restricted to those imposed by ownership rights. First, the roles of corporations as suppliers of goods and services and as employers, and the impact of corporate products and activities, make it reasonable to talk about their moral responsibility. Corporations exercise social and economic power and can cause harm to individuals and social institutions. Second, corporations participate in the moral sphere just as much as individuals and organisations of other types, such as political parties and sports associations. In both their internal and external interactions they make commitments, have duties of care, depend on trust, and so on.

Philosophical theories of corporate moral responsibility often focus on the notion of agency.  This involves related issues about individual, collective and corporate identity on the one hand and about moral agency on the other. It makes sense to think of corporations as having both individuals and collectives as their members, but its members don't by themselves constitute a corporation.

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About the Author

Will Barrett is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne.

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