According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, business ethics is defined as “the applied ethics discipline that addresses the moral features of commercial activity”, but in practice contains numerous and diverse projects that otherwise have very little in common. The article claims that the roots of business ethics can be found in the early and middle 20th century law and business literature discussing corporate social responsibility and business-and-society.
Perhaps the heart of business ethics lies in the debate as to whether or not the corporation is a moral agent. According to law, the corporation is “a person, distinct in its personality from the persons who bear ownership shares in it (its shareholders) or conduct activities on its behalf (its directors, officers, and other employees)”. But is the corporation also a moral person? Our legal system takes no explicit position on this matter, although it has frequently become an implied legal fiction, suggesting “that the corporation’s legally recognized personality is not also ontological fact.” After reading this article, I find truth in both sides of the argument and believe it’s a gray area that needs clarification for society to function more efficiently and for the people to know where corporations stand with respect to their own personal rights and obligations. One the one hand, the corporation was created by individuals for the sole purpose of profit-making for its shareholders. It is a legally separate body from its owners and shareholders, but it should remain true to its core purpose and act as a means to create profit. In that sense, the corporation itself is not a moral agent, but a tool to maximize profit. it is the owners and managers who ought to act responsibly and ethically when conducting business, and should be held accountable when they fail to do so.
On the other hand, Peter French argues that the corporation and corporate structure contain all the necessary features of moral agency. He claims that corporations have “corporate internal decision (CID) structures that provide sufficient grounds for attributing moral agency to them”. Part of the CID structure consists of a set of rules for determining whether a decision is a corporate decision rather than merely a personal decision. Therefore, one can identify corporate actions, intentions, and aims–the components of moral agency in natural persons.
I believe that the more important issue is reaching a decision in the classification of corporations as moral agents or not, not so much what the actual decision is. There is ample support for each side, and I personally feel there is no “better” answer so long as one is chosen and implemented uniformly. For example, the recent case, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people and share the same protections under the first amendment (i.e., freedom of speech) and therefore can support political candidates. This ruling was very controversial, but set the precedent that corporations are both separate legal entities, and share the same freedoms as individuals, and will hopefully provide future clarification for the role of corporations within society.