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Whose “loyal agent”? Towards an ethic of accounting

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In order to move towards an Ethic of Accounting, one must start by defining the function and role of the accountant. This in turn depends to a great extent on the identity of the “client” or whatever party the Accountant owes his “loyal agency” to. The issue is one of cardinal importance, and it is perceived as such by the accountants themselves. Loeb for instance says that the “client-identity issue is overriding importance now, and will become even more crucial in the immediate years ahead”. The question of what constitutes ethical behaviour on the part of the accountant will depend then upon the relation within which such ethical behaviour will have to be deployed.

The main question raised in this paper will therefore be, is the accountant primarily engaged by one client (whether an individual or a corporation) to act as their “agent”, deal with their problems by loyally advancing their interests to the best of his professional competence, although within the limits imposed by law and morality? Or is the “public sector” to be considered the principal target of the accountant's resolute professionalism and unswerving loyalty?

These problems and other related issues are here analyzed against the background of a recent (1984) case involving a Revenue Canada Auditor in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, which helps to bring out the almost paradoxical relation between accountant and client, and the difference between this relation and that of other professionals to their clients or patients.

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Laura S. Westra is Doctor of Philosophy at Clemson University. Previously she worked at Lakehead University, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Toronto. Her most important publications are: ‘Let It Be: Heidegger and the Future’, in Environmental Ethics, Ed. E. Hargrove (University of Georgia, Athens, GA, 1985); ‘On war and Innocence’, in Dialogue (forthcoming). These are articles in applied ethics, plus serveral other publicatons in Greek, Hellenistic and Medieval philosophy and ‘The Religious Dimension of the Question of Individual Immortality in the Thinking of William James’, in Faith and Philosophy, Wm. Alston Ed. (1986). She is currently working on a collection of Canadian Case Studies in professional and applied ethics.

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Westra, L.S. Whose “loyal agent”? Towards an ethic of accounting. J Bus Ethics 5, 119–128 (1986).

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