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No Body to Kick, No Soul to Damn: Responsibility and Accountability for the Financial Crisis (2007–2010)

“Did you ever expect a corporation to have a conscience, when it has no soul to be damned, and no body to be kicked?”

Edward, first Baron Thurlow (1731–1806).

Abstract

This article takes the 2008–2010 financial crisis as a case study to explore the tension between responsibility and accountability in complex crises. I analyze the patterns of attribution and assumption of responsibility of thirty-three bankers in Wall Street, interviewed from fall 2008 to summer 2010. First, I show that responsibility for complex failures cannot be easily attributed or assumed: responsibility becomes diluted within the collective. Actors can only assume collective responsibility, recognizing that they belong to an institution at fault. Second, I show that blaming is a social process that should be examined contextually, relationally, and dynamically. I build on sociological theories to depart from the normative focus of philosophers, and the cognitive focus of psychologists, who have dominated the study of responsibility so far.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Angus Reid, June 2010: Mostly to blame for the financial crisis: Banks and financial institutions 58 %, Big corporations 51 %; Governments 40 %; Consumers 24 %. From June 17 to June 18, 2010, Angus Reid Public Opinion conducted an online survey among 1004 American adults who are Summerboard America panelists.

  2. 2.

    The firing squad is the classical example illustrating the problem of the diffusion of responsibility in a collective. If in a firing squad one or more shooters are randomly given blank cartridges instead of bullets, each shooter might believe that they did not kill the prisoner.

  3. 3.

    As Curran (2015) remarks, the “boomerang effects” of systemic financial risks could have annihilated the benefits of the risks taken by senior finance employees, who could have suffered severe financial losses.

  4. 4.

    The notion of organized irresponsibility is equally present in Mills’ work (1956). Although Beck and Mills start from different premises, they both reach the conclusion that actors in position of responsibility can actually avoid being held to account. Mills contends that a system of organized irresponsibility can be produced and reproduced because of the emergence of a mass society, which does not hold the “Power Elite” accountable. However, Mills restricts his argument to the elite, whereas Beck thinks it is more pervasive throughout society.

  5. 5.

    The other model of collective responsibility consists in blaming the group itself, rather than any specific group member (see Feinberg 1970). This model would not imply any assumption of responsibility from my respondents though.

  6. 6.

    The three factors correspond to categories for which my sample provides variance.

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Acknowledgments

The financial support from the Axa Research Fund is gratefully noted. The author acknowledges, without implicating, helpful comments on earlier versions of this work by Peter Bearman, David Stark, Diane Vaughan, William McAllister, Gabriel Abend, Marion Fourcade, Kristin Murphy, Pilar Opazo, Gérôme Truc, Catherine Tan, as well as the members of Peter Bearman’s workgroup and the members of the Mellon Interdisciplinary program workgroup.

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Correspondence to Olivia Nicol.

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This work was supported by the Axa Research Fund.

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Nicol, O. No Body to Kick, No Soul to Damn: Responsibility and Accountability for the Financial Crisis (2007–2010). J Bus Ethics 151, 101–114 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-016-3279-3

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Keywords

  • Attribution of responsibility
  • Assumption of responsibility
  • Accounts
  • Financial crisis