Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 154, Issue 1, pp 49–63 | Cite as

Communicating Moral Legitimacy in Controversial Industries: The Trade in Human Tissue

  • A. Rebecca ReuberEmail author
  • Anna Morgan-Thomas
Original Paper


Globally active companies are involved in the discursive construction of moral legitimacy. Establishing normative conformance is problematic given the plurality of norms and values worldwide, and is particularly difficult for companies operating in morally controversial industries. In this paper, we investigate how organizations publicly legitimize the trade of human tissue for private profit when this practice runs counter to deep-seated and widespread moral beliefs. To do so, we use inductive, qualitative methods to analyze the website discourse of three types of organizations that trade in human tissue and are associated with different degrees of moral controversy with respect to tissue procurement and use. Our analysis reveals an object-oriented approach to moral legitimizing centered on the human tissue as a morally disputed good. We find that the website discourse translates human tissue into technology, constructs normative meaning around a dominant instrumental value associated with human-tissue-as-technology, and reproduces and stabilizes this meaning by six discursive mechanisms that amplify and anchor it. Moreover, the use of amplifying and anchoring discourse was greater in organizations associated with greater controversy. The results are consistent with an object-oriented sociality.


Controversial industry Discourse Human tissue Legitimize Moral legitimacy Market morality Object-centered sociality Website 



The authors are grateful for the research assistance of Laurence Dessart, Hayley Dilazzaro, Cassandra Nakamura, Dottie Omino and Ian Thomson and for the financial assistance of the Adam Smith Research Foundation and the University of Toronto’s Work-Study Program. The paper has benefited enormously from the valuable comments and suggestions on earlier versions from Michel Anteby, Robert Chia, Eileen Fischer, Robin Holt, Trish Reay, András Tilcsik, Scott Vitell, participants at the EGOS 2013 Workshop on the Communicative Constitution of Organizations, and two anonymous reviewers.

Compliance with Ethical Standard

Conflict of interest

Rebecca Reuber has received financial assistance for this research from the Adam Smith Research Foundation at the University of Glasgow and from the University of Toronto’s Work-Study program. Anna Morgan-Thomas declares that she has no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Rotman School of ManagementUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Adam Smith Business SchoolUniversity of GlasgowGlasgowUK

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