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Mutually Enhancing Responsibility: A Theoretical Exploration of the Interaction Mechanisms Between Individual and Corporate Moral Responsibility

Abstract

Moral responsibility for outcomes in corporate settings can be ascribed either to the individual members, the corporation, or both. In the latter case, the relationship between individual and corporate responsibility has been approached as inversely proportional, such that an increase in individual responsibility leads to a corresponding decrease in corporate responsibility and vice versa. In this article, we develop a non-proportionate approach, where, under specific conditions, individual and corporate moral responsibilities interact dynamically, leading to a mutual enhancement of responsibility: the more the corporation is responsible, the more the individuals become responsible and vice versa. We develop this mutually enhancing approach in terms of normative ascriptions of responsibility, while leaving aside empirical implications in terms of mutual awareness of responsibility between individuals and corporations. We explore conceptually the conditions and mechanisms that generate this mutual enhancement and also discuss the implications for research and practice.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. We use “attributions” and “ascriptions” of moral responsibility interchangeably throughout the article; they both refer here to a normative way of allocating moral responsibility in corporate settings, except where otherwise indicated.

  2. Which we do not aim to explore in this article.

  3. When building the two scenarios, we imagined only two of the dimensions of corporate culture which might influence ethical behavior of employees (Kaptein 1998, 2011a, b), namely time pressure (Treviño 1986; Kaptein 2011a, b) and reinforcement of ethical behavior, with the latter referring to the “likelihood of managers and employees being punished for behaving unethically and rewarded for behaving ethically” (Kaptein 2011b, p. 851). Of course, other situations might be imagined, where, for instance, the corporate culture is such that the distinction between ethical and unethical behavior is not clear (Kaptein 2011a, b), or it demotivates employees, leading to poor commitment to behave ethically (Idem). It is not within the scope of the article to explore all such possibilities, the aim of the scenarios being only illustrative for our account of mutually enhancing moral responsibility.

  4. Even if we concede, for example, that corporate agents are ascribed a more limited moral responsibility than individual agents (Wilmot 2001), they are still up to 100 % morally responsible for a specific corporate outcome, given that they have participated in bringing it about.

  5. It is beyond the scope of this paper to explore the manner in which a specific degree of moral responsibibility (from 0 to 100 %) is to be assigned to agents in a given case.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank our colleagues from Erasmus University and University of Bucharest, especially Ben Wempe, Valentin Muresan and Emilian Mihailov for their useful comments on earlier drafts of the paper. Part of the research was funded by the University of Bucharest.

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Correspondence to Muel Kaptein.

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Constantinescu, M., Kaptein, M. Mutually Enhancing Responsibility: A Theoretical Exploration of the Interaction Mechanisms Between Individual and Corporate Moral Responsibility. J Bus Ethics 129, 325–339 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-014-2161-4

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-014-2161-4

Keywords

  • Responsibility
  • Moral responsibility
  • Corporate responsibility
  • Individual responsibility
  • Interaction mechanisms