Corporations and the Cause of Environmental Protection
- Napoleon M. Mabaquiao, Jr., Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of the Philippines-Diliman, Quezon City, 1104 The Philippines
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 12 (2002), 11-15.
This essay deals with the following issues: (1) whether corporations can have moral responsibilities; (2) whether, granting that corporations can have moral responsibilities, nature can be an object of these responsibilities; and (3) what moral theory can appropriately justify why corporations ought to contribute to the cause of environmental protection. It is here argued that while it can be shown that corporations can have moral responsibilities, such responsibilities are limited towards humans and other corporations. The main reason is that the morally relevant functional capacities which corporations can be shown as possessing are limited to those functional capacities that give moral status to humans. As such, natural nonhumans are beyond the scope of these responsibilities. But this does not mean that it becomes justifiable for corporations to disregard environmental concerns. For part of the moral responsibilities of corporations towards humans is to respect the right of humans to a livable natural environment. In addition, because of their enduring existence and long-term goals, corporations can act as a bridge between humans of the present generation and those of future generations. This bridge makes it meaningful to speak of the moral responsibilities of humans of the present generation towards those of future generations.
A multitude of causes contribute to the present environmental crisis. One of these causes is our increasing demand for natural resources. Another is our use of machines that emit substances damaging to the atmosphere. And still another is our strong inclination, as consumers, to prefer products that are cheap but may not be environment-friendly to products that are expensive but may be environment-friendly. But when one talks about institutions whose activities have a major impact on the natural environment, one cannot lose sight of the big business institutions or the corporations. Corporations are the ones extracting resources from nature and dumping wastes into it on a large scale. Furthermore, environmental disasters like oil spills and leakage of toxic substances and ecological abuse such as animal mistreatment usually involve corporations. Certain views about corporations are believed to have made it possible for them to disregard environmental concerns in some or in most of their decisions. These views include the following: that the overriding consideration of their managers in making corporate decisions is the satisfaction of their stockholders' economic interests; that corporations do not have obligations to society or to the environment other than those required by the law; and that corporations, as artificial entities, do not have moral status or that they cannot meaningfully be said to have moral obligations.
In this paper, I would like to deal with three interrelated issues concerning the relation of corporations to the moral concern of protecting the environment. The first issue is whether corporations can have moral status, or whether it is meaningful to speak of corporations as having moral responsibilities. The second is, granting that it is meaningful to speak of corporations as having moral responsibilities, whether nature can be an object of these responsibilities. The third concerns the problem of which among the various moral theories on nature can appropriately justify why corporations ought to contribute to the cause of environmental protection. I would like to argue that corporations can have moral status, but their moral responsibilities extend only to other corporations and humans. The main reason is that the functional capacities of corporations that can give them moral status are something that they can share only with humans. This does not, however, free corporations from the responsibility of protecting nature. For the moral responsibilities of corporations towards humans include securing a livable natural environment for humans. In addition, because of their enduring existence and long-term goals, corporations can act as a bridge between the present human generation and future human generations. This bridge makes it meaningful to speak of the moral responsibilities humans of the present generation towards those of future generations.
My discussion is divided into three parts. The first part discusses the moral status of corporations or, more specifically, the issue of whether corporations are proper subjects of moral ascriptions. The second part discusses what it means and what will make it possible for humans to care for nature. And the third part addresses the issue of what can count as a moral justification for why corporations ought to contribute to the cause of environmental protection.
The Moral Status of Corporations
Peter French (1995, 10-12) argues that what basically gives moral status to an entity is not its ontological kind or the kind of entity that it is, but its possession of certain functional capacities. French considers the following functional capacities as morally relevant: the ability to act intentionally, the ability to make rational decisions and to consider rational arguments regarding the ways to realize one's interests, and the facility to make the necessary changes regarding one's behavior that are harmful to others. In this light, humans are moral beings not because they are humans but that they possess these morally relevant functional capacities. This implies that if there are other types of entities possessing the same functional capacities, such entities should have the same moral status as humans. French's view is essentially no different from Kant's. In his moral theory, Kant (1952, 280) makes the following statement: "For as morality serves as a law for us only because we are rational beings, it must also hold for all rational beings; and as it must be deduced simply from the property of freedom, it must be shown that freedom also is a property of all rational beings."
Kant takes rationality (which includes the property of freedom) as the morally relevant functional capacity and it is by virtue of man's possession of this capacity that makes him a moral being. French's morally relevant functional capacities can actually be subsumed under the Kantian rationality. And Kant also thinks that if there are nonhuman beings that are also rational, such beings ought to be moral beings too. But given the time frame of Kant, he presumably did not have in mind what French has in mind regarding possible nonhuman moral beings. Perhaps Kant was thinking of metaphysical beings like angels, but French is definitely thinking of corporations.
French argues that corporations do possess the morally relevant functional capacities he identifies. But this is not what is crucial for French. For corporations to be legitimate moral actors, it also has to be shown that, since a corporation is a collectivity, saying that a corporation possesses such functional capacities is not merely a metaphorical way of saying that the humans comprising such corporation possess the said capacities. Or more specifically, it needs to be shown that corporate intentions are not reducible to certain human intentions. For otherwise this would mean that if we say that a corporation is morally responsible for a particular wrongdoing, what we actually mean is that some members of the corporation : those who had a say on the decision behind the wrongdoing and those who carried out the decision (granting of course that they had knowledge of its moral wrongfulness) : are morally responsible for such wrongdoing. In this sense, the real subject of the moral-responsibility ascription is not the corporation, but some humans comprising it. To address this issue, French (1995, 15) argues that corporate intentions are products of an internal mechanism within a corporation, which he calls the Corporate Internal Decision (CID) structure, which transforms the various individual intentions of some of its members into corporate intentions. In this light, a corporate decision or intention is not a mere summation of certain individual intentions of some of the members of the corporation. These individual intentions undergo certain processes within the CID structure, such that the resulting intention acquires a distinct identity from those intentions it comes from. French (1995, 20) explains that this is the main reason for the difference between corporations and mobs. Accordingly, the ascription of moral responsibility to a mob can be distributed among those who comprise it, because its behavior is not a result of an organized process, unlike in the case of a corporation.
But if we grant that corporations are legitimate moral actors, the following question is in order: Does holding corporations morally responsible for their acts excuse the humans who had contributed to the formation of corporate intentions from moral responsibility? Christopher Meyers, who agrees with French on the moral status of corporations, argues that it should not be the case. Meyers (1992, 257; 259) explains that those humans who contribute to the formation of corporate intentions, like the directors, managers, and supervisors, are morally responsible for their approval of such intentions as consistent with company policies, especially if this approval is a result of compromise among competing individual interests. But, following French, he maintains that they are not morally responsible in the sense that the corporate intentions are reducible to their individual intentions. Meyers (1992, 252) believes that this explanation disposes of the either/or dilemma of corporate moral responsibility, which he puts as follows: "Either we hold the company responsible for immoral behavior and exempt its members from accountability, or we condemn the individual members and conceive of the corporation as nothing more than a legal fiction."
Humans and the Natural Environment
Whenever we speak of care or concern for nature, we usually mean recognizing certain responsibilities towards nature or its nonhuman members. But how is this concern possible? Following Heidegger's distinction between concern based on equipmentality and concern based on empathy in his monumental book, Being and time (1962, 95-102; 153-162), two general types of concern can be distinguished among humans: concern based on utility (equipmentality) , and concern based on affinities in terms of traits or functional capacities (empathy). In the first kind, something is an object of concern because it can be used to achieve some end. While in the second kind, something is an object of concern because it belongs to a common group. And of these two, it is the second kind that usually gives rise to responsibilities. Humans who feel certain affinities with each other often feel responsible for each other. In addition, the degree of these affinities oftentimes determines the degree of concern that they feel for each other. For example, we usually feel more responsible for our relatives, our friends and loved-ones than for strangers, or for those with whom we share certain valuable experiences than for those with whom we do not. In the same way, for humans to recognize certain responsibilities towards nature they should feel certain affinities with its nonhuman members.
The fundamental question, however, is about what constitutes the morally relevant affinities humans ought to have with the other members of nature such that it will be possible for humans to recognize certain moral responsibilities towards these other members of nature. The different moral views on nature or theories in environmental ethics can be seen as various responses to this question. For example, homocentrism regards the affinities humans have with each other, referring to rationality and freedom, as the only morally relevant affinities. As such, this perspective claims that humans cannot have moral responsibilities towards nature; and hence the concern of humans for nature can only be based on utility or can only be a means to satisfy their needs. Peter Singer's version of utilitarianism, on the other hand, regards the shared capacity of humans and animals to experience pleasure and pain as the morally relevant affinity. This leads Singer (1992, 850-853) to argue that animals are also entitled to an equal consideration of interests just like humans, and hence that humans have moral responsibilities towards animals as well. And in the case of biocentrism, the only morally relevant affinity refers to the one shared by all members of nature: the functional capacity to exist interdependently in natural ecological systems. And this leads to the claim that humans have moral responsibilities towards every member of nature (Leopold 1999, 460-469).
The consideration that some affinities are morally relevant clarifies two important ethical concepts or phenomena. First, it is what gives rise to the phenomenon of discrimination. For example, in the homocentric perspective, preference for certain human groups on the basis of non-morally relevant affinities, like gender and race, is considered discrimination (called gender discrimination and racial discrimination, respectively). From the utilitarian perspective, Singer (1992, 850) calls the preference of humans for the members of their own species over the members of the animal species not on the basis of their capacity for sentience as speciesism : this Singer considers a kind of discrimination. And second, the morally relevant affinities define the scope of a moral being's moral responsibilities. If the possession of certain morally relevant functional capacities is what gives moral status to an entity, the sharing of these morally relevant functional capacities, however, is what occasions moral concern among moral beings : the kind of concern that recognizes one's moral responsibilities towards others. But this also means that a moral being can only be morally responsible towards his fellow moral beings, or towards beings with which he shares the morally relevant functional capacities.
But which of these moral views on nature is the most plausible is, of course, a matter of controversy. Often when one argues for his preference for a certain view, the difficulties of the other views or some relevant phenomena the other views cannot consistently account for are cited. For example, how to deal with the moral status of the so-called non-rational humans or humans who do not have the functional capacity for rationality, such as those that have mental disabilities, is one of the difficulties often cited in arguing against homocentrism (Katz 1992, 856). In arguing against utilitarianism, on the other hand, two of its difficulties often cited are those concerning the fact that pain is also necessary for survival especially of animals in the wild (Katz, 1992, 856-857), and the discrimination that may result in giving a higher value to the pain of animals whose pain behaviors resemble those of humans (Katz, 1992, 856-857). And in arguing against biocentrism, its difficulty in dealing with the apparent absurdity of sacrificing human lives for the sake of maintaining natural ecological systems is often cited (Callicot 1999, 486).
In dealing with this controversy, I think it would be helpful to be clear about the basis or criterion for one's preference for the most plausible view. Particularly, it would be helpful to be clear about whether this preference is argued on the basis of the comprehensiveness of the preferred view (or its ability to consistently account for the most number of phenomena) or on the basis of its appropriateness in dealing with certain specific situations to bring about some desired results. To my mind, the issue of the comprehensiveness of a certain view is difficult to settle, for the simple reason that, as earlier shown, each view has its share of difficulties; and given this, it would be difficult to establish which view has the least number of difficulties or which view has the least serious difficulties.
In contrast, I think the issue of the appropriateness of a certain view in dealing with certain specific situations to bring about some desired results is more manageable. For in this case, one is not constrained to use different views or theories in dealing with different situations. This is because in claiming that a certain view is appropriate in a given situation, one is not committed to the claim that this view is also appropriate in all other situations. Another way of saying this is that the possible inappropriateness of a certain view in other situations does not invalidate its appropriateness in a given situation. For instance, in dealing with the case of the non-rational humans, let us suppose that it would be appropriate to deal with them using the utilitarian perspective (because of their capacity for sentience) to grant them moral status. One who accepts this is not obliged to deal with rational humans in the same way. For in the case of the rational humans, it might be more appropriate to use the homocentric perspective in dealing with the issue of their moral status. French (1992, 65) can be taken to be thinking along the same line when he advocates Nozick's principle "Utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people." Here, the preference for Kantian ethics in dealing with the moral status of humans does not contradict the preference for utilitarianism in dealing with the moral status of animals. Here, the issue is just a matter of appropriateness and not of comprehensiveness. In the following section, I would deal with the issue of the role of corporations in the cause of environmental protection also along the same line. Particularly, I would deal with the issue of the appropriateness of a theory in justifying this role.
Corporations and the Natural Environment
Having known what it means for humans to care for nature, let us now inquire into what it means for corporations to care for nature. The traditional approach to this issue is to determine which among the moral views on nature can provide an appropriate moral justification for obliging corporations to recognize certain moral responsibilities towards nature, or why they ought to contribute to the cause of environmental protection. For example, W. Michael Hoffman (1992) and Eric Katz (1992) both claim that it would be better for corporations to adopt the biocentric perspective. Hoffman arrives at this conclusion after identifying the homocentric perspective of corporations as the one major factor that led them to inflict damages to the environment. Katz, on the other hand, arrives at this conclusion after defending the use of animals by businesses from the criticisms of the utilitarian perspective. In the light of the moral status of corporations as argued by French that defines the scope of the moral responsibilities of corporations, I think the approach of scholars like Hoffman and Katz fails.
As explained earlier, what makes corporations moral actors is their non-metaphorical or irreducible possession of certain functional capacities. These functional capacities mainly refer to their capacity to make rational intentions. It has also been established that one can be morally responsible only towards his fellow moral beings or beings with whom he shares the morally relevant functional capacities. These considerations imply that corporations can only be morally responsible to their fellow corporations and humans, for it is only with them that they share the morally relevant functional capacities. And this means that corporations cannot have moral obligations towards the nonhuman members of nature.
Aside from not sharing the morally relevant functional capacities with the nonhuman members of nature, corporations, as artificial entities and as human artifacts, are not natural members of ecological systems. As such, corporations lack the fundamental affinity with the nonhuman members of nature to make it possible for corporations to be concerned with these entities. Incidentally, Katz makes the same claim regarding domesticated animals, which are raised by humans for specific purposes. Katz (1992, 859) claims that domesticated animals are human artifacts, and hence not natural members of ecological systems. As such, he claims that these animals are outside the realm of environmental ethics. Katz, of course, does not mean that senseless cruelty to these animals is of no moral import. What he is simply arguing for is that our behavior towards domesticated animals cannot be governed by the same ethics that governs our behavior towards animals in the wild.
Two questions are in order. First, does this mean therefore that corporations can only be homocentric in their view of nature? The answer is in the negative. The reason is that homocentrism gives utmost preference to human interests, which ought not to be the case if corporations and humans, being both rational beings, are governed by the same moral principles. This means that there may be cases wherein these moral principles would require that corporate interests override human interests. As in the case of Kant, the fact that he considers other possible rational beings as members of the kingdom of ends means that his moral theory is not essentially homocentric. For if those other rational beings actually exist, then the actions of humans towards them, their actions towards humans, and their actions towards each other should be governed by the same moral principles that govern the actions of humans towards each other. For this reason, Kantian ethics can properly be classified as a rationalist ethics, rather than a homocentric one. And French is merely applying Kantian ethics to the issue of the moral status of corporations. As such, in the case of French, this would mean that the actions of humans towards corporations, the actions of corporations towards humans, and the actions of corporations towards each other, ought to be governed by the same Kantian moral principles that govern the actions of humans towards each other.
Second, does this mean that it is permissible for corporations to do whatever with the natural environment? The answer is likewise in the negative. Consistent with the Kantian perspective, French believes that among the moral principles that can govern the behavior of rational beings among themselves, the Kantian principle of respect for persons is the most fundamental. Accordingly, rational beings ought not to use other rational beings merely as means to an end, but also as ends in themselves. Thus, if it is morally wrong for humans to use other humans merely as means to an end, it would also be wrong for humans to use corporations, for corporations to use humans, and for corporations to use other corporations merely as means to an end. Now one concrete manifestation of using rational beings merely as means to an end is when their moral rights are violated or disregarded. And among humans, one of these rights refers to the right to a livable natural environment. In this light, the cause of environmental protection is a necessary means to respect the said right. And corporations, as rational and moral beings, ought to respect it in as much as humans ought to.
Furthermore, French also considers the cause of environmental protection as a species of care about future human generations. This, I think, is a logical entailment of the fact that the Kantian principle of respect for persons applies to all rational beings, which must include not only those of the present generation but those of future generations as well. But French claims that it is only meaningful to speak of the moral obligations of humans of the present generation towards those of future generations if actual relationships can be established between them. This is where corporations play a major role. For as French (1995, 226) explains, corporations "can survive well into the future and as they stand in relationships with us now, they will stand in relationships with our future generations." French is saying that corporations, because of their long-term plans and enduring existence, can act as a bridge between humans of the present generation and those of future generations. This bridge makes it possible to meaningfully speak of the moral responsibilities of humans of the present generations towards those of future generations, most especially of the responsibility to respect the right of future human generations to livable natural environment.
French (1992, 76) aptly describes our present social world as a corporate one. It is a social world where the dominant actors are corporations. The influence of corporations permeates our social lives in almost all aspects and their power transcends all other forms of human organization. In the pre-corporate social world, where most of the ethical theories were developed, the moral conflicts people were dealing with were not as complex as the ones in our present world. The emergence of the corporations on the social scene has brought about changes that add new dimensions to our moral world. In this light, we may need to revise some of our traditional ethical perspectives to accommodate these new dimensions. And this should be the case in dealing with today's environmental crisis.
Baxter, William 1999. People or penguins. Applying ethics. 6th ed. Edited by Jeffrey Olen and Vincent Barry. New York: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
Bishop, John. 1992. The moral responsibility of corporate executives for disasters. Business ethics: a philosophical reader. Edited by Thomas White. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
Callicot, J. Baird 1999. An ecocentric environmental ethic. Applying ethics. 6th ed. Edited by Jeffrey Olen and Vincent Barry. New York: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
French, Peter 1992. The corporation as a moral person. Business ethics: a philosophical reader. Edited by Thomas White. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
French, Peter 1995. Corporate ethics. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company.
Hanson, David 1992. The ethics of development and the dilemmas of global environmentalism. Business ethics: a philosophical reader. Edited by Thomas White. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and time. Translated by J. Macquarie and E. Robinson. New York: Harper and Row.
Hoffman, Michael. 1992. Business and environmental ethics. Business ethics: a philosophical reader. Edited by Thomas White. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
Kant, Immanuel. 1952. The fundamental principles of the metaphysics of morals. Great books of the western world 42 Kant. Edited by Robert Maynard Hutchins. Chicago:
Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
Katz, Eric. 1992. Defending the use of animals by business: animal liberation and environmental ethics. Business ethics: a philosophical reader. Edited by Thomas White. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
Ladd, John. 1992. Corporate mythology and individual responsibility. Business ethics: a philosophical reader. Edited by Thomas White. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
Leopold, Aldo. 1999. The land ethic. Applying ethics. 6th ed. Edited by Jeffrey Olen and Vincent Barry. New York: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
Machan, Tibor. 1999. Do animals have rights? Applying ethics. 6th ed. Edited by Jeffrey Olen and Vincent Barry. New York: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
Meyers, Christopher. 1992. The corporation, its members, and moral accountability. Business ethics: a philosophical reader. Edited by Thomas White. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
Regan, Tom. 1992. The case for animal rights. Applying ethics. 6th ed. Edited by Jeffrey Olen and Vincent Barry. New York: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
Shaw, William, H. 1996. Business ethics. 2nd ed. California: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
Steinbock, Bonnie. 1999. Speciecism and the idea of equality. Applying ethics. 6th ed. Edited by Jeffrey Olen and Vincent Barry. New York: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
Singer, Peter 1992. The place of nonhumans in environmental issues. Business ethics: a philosophical reader. Edited by Thomas White. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
Singer, Peter 1999. All animals are equal... or why supporters of liberation for blacks and women should support animal liberation too. Applying ethics. 6th ed. Edited by Jeffrey Olen and Vincent Barry. New York: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
Taylor, Paul. 1999. The ethics of respect for nature. Applying ethics. 6th ed. Edited by Jeffrey Olen and Vincent Barry. New York: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
Velasquez, Manuel. 1995. Business ethics: concepts and cases. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Go to commentary by Morioka
Go back to EJAIB 12 (1) January 2002
Go back to EJAIB
The Eubios Ethics Institute is on the world wide web of Internet: