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The Narrow Application of Rawls in Business Ethics: A Political Conception of Both Stakeholder Theory and the Morality of Markets

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This paper argues that Rawls’ principles of justice provide a normative foundation for stakeholder theory. The principles articulate (at an abstract level) citizens’ rights; these rights create interests across all aspects of society, including in the space of economic activity; and therefore, stakeholders – as citizens – have legitimate interests in the space of economic activity. This approach to stakeholder theory suggests a political interpretation of Boatright’s Moral Market approach, one that emphasizes the rights/place of citizens. And this approach to stakeholder theory – in terms of citizens – raises a further question, what rights and obligations do economic agents have, beyond those attached to their roles as citizens? Rawls would reject additional rights and obligations of this sort for two reasons, one tied to freedom and one tied to pluralism. Rawls’ work therefore presses us to re-conceptualize the place of ethical claims in the economic context.

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The author wishes to thank John Dienhart, Maria Derdevandis and Jeff Helmreich for many helpful suggestions and encouragement.

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Correspondence to Marc A. Cohen.

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Marc A. Cohen, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Management at Seattle University, where he holds a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy.

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Cohen, M.A. The Narrow Application of Rawls in Business Ethics: A Political Conception of Both Stakeholder Theory and the Morality of Markets. J Bus Ethics 97, 563–579 (2010).

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