Actions within organizational contexts should be understood differently as compared with actions performed outside of such contexts. This is the case due to the agentic shift, as discussed by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, and the role that systemic factors play in shaping the available alternatives from which individuals acting within institutions choose. The analysis stemming from Milgram’s experiments suggests not simply that individuals temporarily abdicate their moral agency on occasion, but that there is an erosion of agency within organizations. The point about the erosion of agency is deepened in the discussion of a case study which illustrates the difficulty of identifying even the bare “ownership” of actions within organizations. While this is the case, explicating these reasons suggests that both individual actors and firms can bear ethical responsibility within organizational contexts. As part of the effort to present the whole picture, business ethics courses should introduce students to the relevant insights from social psychology and human factors research.
individual responsibility moral agency organizational responsibility social psychology systemic factors