Jan 10, 2007

the Categorical Imperative and the corporation

Reader euan hypothesizes the consequences of applying the Categorical Imperative to corporations.
Well, the actions of corporations are so much more complex than the actions of individuals and are almost never based on a pure, or moral, motive. Corporations, in almost every situation, are based around profit (they are not ALL based around profit, as some are charity organizations.) Corporations don't exist to do what is "right," they don't exist to fulfill their moral duty. Human life, on the other hand, is centered around becoming MORE human, and we exist to find a deeper humanity. We do this by doing what is right, without question. Humans can be held to moral standards because we exist to become more moral, more human. Corporations exist for a different purpose than to be moral and/or more human, therefore their actions can't be held to those same moral standards that dictate the actions of individuals.

Hm . . . Humans strive to be more human. Corporations strive to make a profit. A corporation cannot take an action because the members of the corporation decide that the action is "right." The actions of corporations always take into account their shareholders, profit, budget, etc.. They are never and can never be pure. Therefore, the actions of a corporation can't be moral, so they ought not to be held to the same moral standard as the actions of individuals. Or something.

Any ideas?
First, I'm not sure that the greater complexity of corporations is a knock-down argument for their moral "differentness." Think about how complex a human being is, how complicated the decisions we make every day, all the obligations we place upon ourselves, or have placed upon us--legal, moral, familial, societal, to name a few--and you start to realize that, in euan's words, humans "are never and can never be pure." Does this mean their actions can't be moral? I think not. A moral standard is a goal for action, and a failure to reach a goal doesn't necessarily invalidate the goal. (The confusion between what humans--or corporations--do and ought to do is common in these arguments.)

Also, does Kant's morality derive from a notion of "purpose?" That claim requires justification. It seems to me to come more from a notion of "good will," which is good in and of itself, the will of an autonomous agent.

Kantian morality might apply to corporations thusly: they should act in a way that they can universally will for every other corporation to act. However, if it can be shown that corporations are not autonomous agents, but are rather inherently "heteronomous," then the Categorical Imperative doesn't apply, and their actions should be held to a different standard.

11 comments:

TheTachyix said...

Ugh, I typed this before, but apparently it didn't appear. You can delete either version if it does later.

Are democratic nations the same type of corporate being as other nations? I'm leaning towards yein, but I don't know why.

Jim Anderson said...

I'm not sure what you're getting at.

I'd say the nation-state in general is analogous to a corporation, the social contract (especially when codified in a constitution) much like a corporate charter, and its decision-making handled in about the same way.

Euan said...

There's something wrong with your site that deletes my responses . . .

Okay, well you misinterpreted what I was trying to say (through no fault of your own - my writing isn't exactly Pulitzer-quality!)


Kant says that the only moral actions that we can take are actions that are taken purely for the greater good with no ulterior motive behind them. They are taken without hesitation, without questioning, they are taken blindly, as they are simply the right thing to do. A corporation, which is made up of a conglomeration of individuals all with their own opinions and ideas cannot take any action blindly and without hesitation. The actions of corporations are taken with great deliberation, never blindly and without hesitation. Corporations have a responsibility to shareholders, and must thusly take into account things outside of the greater good. Therefore, the actions of corporations can NEVER be moral.

You can point to charity organizations and argue that they work for the greater good, but all that the neg has to do is prove that the actions of at least one or more corporations can never be moral.


My argument doesn't hinge on complexity, just so you know.

Jim Anderson said...

I don't know what's wrong with the site--it seems to be a blogger comment bug. Select your text and hit CTRL+C before clicking "preview" or "publish" as a safeguard.

euan, I think what you say here...

Kant says that the only moral actions that we can take are actions that are taken purely for the greater good with no ulterior motive behind them. They are taken without hesitation, without questioning, they are taken blindly, as they are simply the right thing to do.

...requires warranting. Where does Kant say that our moral actions are unhesitant, unquestioning, and blind?

Also, I argued above that people have obligations outside "the greater good." They are often responsible, for example, to their family members, to their spouses, to their pets, to their coworkers, to their students... some of those relationships are even contractual. This doesn't mean that individuals "cannot be moral" because of conflicting obligations.

Euan said...

Hm . . . I'll find that warrant . . .

"Also, I argued above that people have obligations outside "the greater good." They are often responsible, for example, to their family members, to their spouses, to their pets, to their coworkers, to their students... some of those relationships are even contractual. This doesn't mean that individuals "cannot be moral" because of conflicting obligations."

Well the individuals can be moral because they can take actions that ARE moral. They can forget about their obligations and responsibilities and just do what is right. They can take a pure action. Corporations can't do this.



I'll find you your warrant, just you wait ;-)

Euan said...

"Where does Kant say that our moral actions are unhesitant, unquestioning, and blind?"

Well, I'm looking through numerous sources and finding much of the same interpretation of Kant.

According to Dr. Gordon L. Zinieqicz, at http://www.fred.net/tzaka/kant2.html, "According to Kant, the only thing which is good without qualification is the good human will. Will, for Kant, means pure practical reason. "Pure" means detached from all ulterior motives and desires."

"The good will is a will that wills what is right simply because it is right, without thought of "reward or punishment." The good will is autonomous - self-contained and self ruling. It commands and obeys itself; it is not determined by external conditions or authorities or internal inclinations or interests."


The actions of corporations are ALWAYS determined by external conditions and authorities and internal interests and inclinations. In fact, there are MULTIPLE internal interests and inclinations, and there is always a non-pure moral behind that action.



Perhaps I exaggerated when I said that the action-taker is blind when he or she takes that moral action. It is more like he or she does it unquestioningly because it is his or her duty to do the right thing.




According to Marian Hillar, M.D. and Ph.D, (http://www.socinian.org/kant.html)

"Kant states that only the good will is good in a moral sense of the word, the strict sense. More, he says, there is only one motive which is morally good and this is the will to act according to duty as expressed in a general principle. Thus an act is morally praiseworthy if it is done out of a sense of duty as such, and not, for instance, from mere inclination or compassion. If what is my duty happens to coincide with what I will spontaneously, my act is morally empty (in the strict sense); a duty should be performed merely because it is duty and not for any other reason. Kant also realized that people being what they are may act from various motives. Thus the rational act performed out of a sense of moral duty is the supreme ideal of moral acts."


Is that warrant enough?

Jim Anderson said...

I still don't see the difference between corporations and individuals in a Kantian framework. According to that last quote,

1. A person can act out of various motives.

2. Nevertheless, a person of good will chooses good actions out of a sense of moral duty.

Why can't we just insert the word "corporation" for "person?" Why can't a corporation put aside its obligation to its shareholders if they want it to do something immoral? After all, corporations do all sorts of things outside their shareholder's interests. If they can do so wrongly (Enron!), why can't they also do so rightly?

Quick, useful quotes, by the way. You should have your own blog.

You should also check out this link, in which Ewin gives corporations a Kantian moral personality, but denies them virtues--another way to make the distinction between corps and indivs.

Euan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Euan said...

"Why can't we just insert the word "corporation" for "person?" Why can't a corporation put aside its obligation to its shareholders if they want it to do something immoral? After all, corporations do all sorts of things outside their shareholder's interests. If they can do so wrongly (Enron!), why can't they also do so rightly?"

Sure, a corporation can act outside of the interests of its shareholders. You pointed out that they do so all the time. Well, regardless, it's impossible for a corporation to take an action unilaterally and for the sole purpose of the greater good. There are many conflicting interests, many different opinions. All actions are taken after deliberation and discussion between the different members of the corporation. It seems as though that deliberation would undermine the purity of the action.



Also, after reading Kant and looking at the wide range of interpretations of his philosophies, looks like his thoughts on morality and his maxims were very personal. Not like, morality is personal/subjective, but personal in the sense that we must look inside of ourselves to determine what is and is not moral. Corporations lack this introspection, since their multifaceted nature (many different people, stockholders as owners, etc) gets in the way of personal reflection. But this is just a thought, not an argument for my case.




I'm terribly sorry for flooding your comment page, our discussion has certainly been illuminating. I'm in high school and this is my first debate, so I'm not exactly sure how this is all going to work out.




Also, I have a blog (URL: http://www.xanga.com/AestheticRevolution) but it's mostly full of trivialities and half-baked ruminations. There's some interesting stuff, but only if you dig hard enough.

TheTachyix said...

You mentioned at UPS most people were running a "goal oriented" analysis of corporate morality. More resources means more accountablity, etc.

As a corporate being, a nation state can accomplish something. Let's say the state wants to improve quality of life of its individual citizens by increasing GNI. As a corporate being, the nation state can export more product than an individual. Increasing the QOL is positive morality. And I'm less concerned about the morality element of the resolution for now.

So, a one party nation can pursue a goal or particular set of goals consistently. (I'm speaking in general terms) But a democratic nation can change its goals and still maintain it's identity as corporate being.

I am having trouble reconciling things. Can corporate beings actually be made of genuinely different individuals?

Jim Anderson said...

euan, I could go with what you say about deliberation making actions "impure," but it seems to undercut your second claim that corporations can't be introspective. Why isn't the deliberative process equivalent to individual introspection? In a Kantian sense, introspection involves analysis of motives. Some corporations even have "ethics officers" whose major task is to do just that. Others write "mission statements."

thetachyix,
I think that analysis makes the same error that I've discussed previously. It conflates persons with their goals. A one-party state can change its goals, too, as can a human being, but I don't see that affecting its ontology.

I think your second question is resolved by considering that individuals within a corporation reidentify themselves, morally speaking, as members within it, and agree (by contract, by employment) to operate within its rule structure. They aren't "genuinely" identical, just functionally identical. It's that base level of similarity ("We all agree to abide by the social contract") that matters.