Jan 3, 2007

morality, law, and the actions of corporations

What role does the law play in the current resolution? It has to play some role. After all, corporations are entities established--or at least recognized--by law, and their actions are bound by law. (Already you might see enough similarity to realize that since both are legal persons, it's not too much of a stretch to declare both moral persons--but should they be judged similarly? There's the rub.)

Tossing some ideas around, reader d. fay hypothesizes:
Morality is defined by Merriam Webster as "a doctrine or system of moral conduct", with "moral" being defined as "conforming to a standard of right behavior." Our resolution implies that there is a moral standard for individuals and corporations alike to be held to, but the definitions above, with phrases like "a doctrine" and "conforming to a standard" imply there is more than one.
Already I see a problem: the resolution in no way implies the existence of a moral standard (or standards) that individuals and corporations "alike can be held to." To imply such would be to cede too much ground to the affirmative.
So how are we to decide which should be upheld for individuals or corporations in the first place, with the many conflicting standards out there? Which can be universally accepted and, more importantly, which of these can bind everyone to it, let their actions be "held" to it equally?
These are fair questions. Any moral theorist has to at least acknowledge the conflicting standards around the world. But does the resolution require adoption of a universal standard? Look at the text again: "The actions of corporations ought to be held to the same moral standards as the actions of individuals. Though conflicting standards present their own problems, they (at least) balance with the harms of nihilism, no standards.
The answer has already been provided by society. Law. Society, with the government as its enforcer, has recognized that there are conflicts on many issues, like the morality of pre-marital sex or same-sex couples, which can seem absolutely right to one person and absolutely wrong to the next, with no real gainsaying factor on either side. Society has seen this, and therefore it has codified those standards which are universally seen as immoral, such as murder and rape, in law. The others can almost be considered a moot point in this issue, because who can really hold somebody to every moral standard? Things that some people see as perfectly harmless, like drinking alcohol or caffeine, can be violations of the moral codes of others.
Now, this is an interesting conception of law: that it is "universally" agreed to (even though many laws are written and passed without the general consent, and sometimes even despite the utter ignorance of legislators--hence the "Read the Bills Act.") Other laws are procedural, and don't seem to encompass any particular moral issue. There's probably nothing immoral about having a license plate that says "WHISKEY," but in Washington state, it's illegal.

So, there's a problem in condensing "moral standards" to those imposed by law, since it presumes too much about the origin and import of actual legal practice.

Looking for other thoughts on the topic?

I first respond to the resolution here, take a look at a particularly Kantian view here, and note the problems inherent in the phrase "the same" here.

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