Organizing Organizations

This entry builds on previous posts about the responsibilities of corporations and organizations for the ethical behavior of their employees. There are (at least) two important questions that arise from this treatment of the organization as a distinct actor. First, in the world where corporations possess personhood, and certain constitutional rights, then they should also possess certain responsibilities. Namely, they should possess ethical responsibilities. Yes, there is such a concept as corporate social responsibility (CSR), and while that concept may propound ethical claims for appropriate action by corporations, there is a significant justification for CSR that points to potential profit maximization rather than intrinsic ethical obligations. That is to say, CSR is sometimes espoused as a way to increase revenues rather than adhering to ethical standards. While CSR may in fact achieve positive outcomes for society, is it possible that ethical codes should establish additional expectations of ethical behavior by corporations, in particular ones less prone to co-optation? Ethics codes clearly already create expectations of the individual employees within the organization, but perhaps it would behoove professional societies to establish canons for the companies themselves.

Of course, this might raise the specter of implying that the professional engineer is an employee rather than an independent professional, but that is a red herring, to a large extent. First, there is nothing necessarily mutually exclusive about those distinctions. Second, employment within or by a corporation, by definition, renders one an employee – this is not a question about the status of engineering as a ‘profession’. That said, this is an irrelevant concern because the ethical codes that would apply to corporations would be in addition to those which apply to the individuals within the corporation (rather than superseding or supplanting them). If indeed it is the case that legal codes extend to corporations some of the same rights bestowed upon citizens, then perhaps these ethical codes should extend to them as well. There is an appreciable objection one might raise about the telos of a corporation and how that might affect its actions, but that is a topic for another day.

The second question arising from the treatment of organizations as distinct actors pertains to the obligations of the employees to the company vis-a-vis the obligations of the employees to society. How does one prioritize those responsibilities? Ideally those two would align, but if corporations now have agency then one might infer that employees have ethical obligations to their employing corporations. How, then, can they resolve potential conflicts between competing ethical duties? That, as they say, is the cliffhanger foreshadowing next week’s post…


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