With an ever-increasing global population, hunger in the developing world, and the health risks of pesticides, some experts view genetically modified food as a panacea. Others view it as one of the most serious threats to human civilization. These diametrically opposing views point to an ethical dilemma that will certainly be difficult to resolve: whether the benefits of developing and supplying the world with genetically modified foods outweigh future consequences that these products may have for the human species, animal life, and the ecosystem (Jefferson 2006, p. 33).
In the management and business ethics literatures, stakeholder engagement has been demonstrated to lead to more ethical management practices. However, there may be limits on the extent to which stakeholder engagement can, as currently conceptualized, resolve some of the more difficult ethical challenges faced by managers. In this paper we argue that stakeholder engagement, when seen as a way of reducing five types of knowledge problems—risk, ambiguity, complexity, equivocality, and a priori irreducible uncertainty—can aid managers in resolving such ethical challenges. Using a practical illustration of the ethical challenges surrounding the development and application of genetic modification technologies, we demonstrate how stakeholder engagement enables managers to better address these knowledge problems, thereby to manage more ethically. In this way, we suggest that stakeholder engagement has an even more crucial role to play in business ethics research and practice.
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We note that another difficulty in resolving ethical challenges may also result from an unwillingness on the part of managers to address knowledge problems relating to certain beliefs, facts, inferences, needs, etc., vis-à-vis their stakeholders. In this sense, a boundary condition of our approach is that a manager must first want to address a knowledge problem through stakeholder engagement.
We recognize that the example of recombinant DNA that we utilize involves decision makers who are primarily scientists. Nonetheless, we consider these individuals to be managers of a set of technologies that have given rise to an industry valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars and acknowledge that a subset of these scientists went on to be the founders and managers of the firms that make up this industry. In this role, they created both their own firms and also substantial value for their universities through the licensing of their patents.
As we previously have noted, equivocality often is confused with ambiguity; but these are distinct concepts. With ambiguity, increases in information lead to increases in consensus. Whereas with equivocality no amount of additional information can create consensus. Only increased dialogue relative to some common purpose will produce the intersubjective agreement necessary to coordinated action, without any expectation that the distinct world views that give rise to equivocality will be reconciled (Townsend et al. 2018).
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Mitchell, J.R., Mitchell, R.K., Hunt, R.A. et al. Stakeholder Engagement, Knowledge Problems and Ethical Challenges. J Bus Ethics (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-020-04550-0
- Stakeholder engagement
- Uncertainty and knowledge problems
- Ethical challenges