Blame feels like one of the most natural human reactions, and it is one of the most important ways that we maintain reputations. This seems true of people and of organizations. A person’s reputation for discretion is seriously undermined when we decide that she or he is responsible for leaking a confidential letter; and, as we saw when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April 2010, a massive corporation’s reputation for risk management can be destroyed in an instant when it is blamed for an avoidable disaster. The consequences of justifiable blame are so important that they inform the resource allocation choices of managers, the ways in which legislation is framed, and, of course, the research performed by scholars of law, economics, and organizations.
But the examples above are different. Blame seems appropriate when an action can be attributed to an actor who understands the action, can reasonably anticipate its consequences, and could have chosen not to take the action. Those conditions can clearly be satisfied by a human person and, equally, they could be used to excuse a human person for her or his actions. We don’t blame children for actions that they cannot be expected to understand; we wouldn’t blame a person if, when she flicked a light switch, she caused a short circuit that resulted in an explosion; and we would not blame a person who helped a gang of bank robbers for fear of the consequence of non-compliance for the family members who were held at gunpoint by the gang.
It is not obvious that this type of reasoning applies to a corporate person. Some prominent politicians vocally assigned blame for the Deepwater Horizon disaster to BP. What did they mean? At the time of writing, BP is an organization of about 60,000 people operating in 78 countries. An action might be legally attributed to BP, but it is nevertheless taken by one or more of BP’s employees; in what sense is it really BP’s? And, if we can answer that question, how can we say that BP is “free to act”? Surely freedom is a property of natural, human, persons? What does it mean to say that BP understands something? It surely cannot mean that every one of BP’s 60,000 employees understands it; in practice, many of them will be completely unaware of it. And, likewise, what are we claiming when we claim that BP can anticipate the consequences of its actions?
These questions are absolutely foundational. If we cannot understand what it means to blame a company, then our grasp on the apparently concrete and natural concept of corporate reputation seems incredibly nebulous. And, if we cannot explain precisely what it means for a corporate to bear a reputation, the foundations of our scholarship may be built on sand.
A natural response to the questions above is to point at the way that a corporation’s people are organized by its governance systems. If BP makes a decision about safety, then its decision has presumably been ratified by a group of people operating using standardized corporate procedures. And, when a person acts in accordance with that decision, then the action is corporate because the actor is authorized by BP and is acting within her or his authority. This type of thinking can be traced back to a foundational paper by John Ladd (1970) and is the basis of the reasoning that underpins much of the literature on corporate moral agency (see, e.g., (French 1979; List and Pettit 2011)). But one could reasonably contest this type of reasoning on the basis that, whatever governance procedures an organization has, it is still composed of people and, ultimately, those people are the legitimate target of blame (see, e.g., Keeley (1981), Velasquez (1983; 2003), Rönnegard (2015), Sepinwall (2017)).
Rita Mota, Bill Wilhelm, and I have been investigating another way to understand blame attribution. We draw upon the work of the Oxford philosopher P.F. Strawson ( 1974), whose work in this field starts from the fact that the practice of blaming, like that of praising, is so natural that we cannot imagine human life without it. Perhaps, rather than being derivative of other facts about an actor and his or her context, blaming is a foundational activity that provides its own justification.
Of course, the fact that blaming is a foundational activity does not mean that blame cannot be withdrawn, or that it is not something over which we can deliberate. After all, we say things like “you are entitled to blame him,” or “now that I understand, I no longer blame you.” The question is, if blame is foundational, what justifies these comments? In response, recent work by Stephen Darwall (2006) argues that justifiable blame can be identified through the conversations that we have with other people when we hold them to account. Jane is entitled to blame John if, when John is called upon to explain his actions, his response reveals a lack of respect for Jane; conversely, holding-to-account may reveal John’s adequate reasons for acting so that Jane’s blame naturally melts away.
Rita, Bill, and I apply these insights to the corporate world. It feels so natural to blame a corporate body that, in line with Strawson’s insights, the practice of blaming corporations may be a fundamental fact of social life. If it is, then, following Darwall, perhaps that practice is tied up in the conversations that we have with corporations and the way that we hold them to account. That means that corporate blaming, and, by extension, corporate responsibility, may be best studied by getting to grips with the ways that corporations speak and the processes by which they receive our speeches. These ideas are worked out in greater detail in a piece that is forthcoming in Business Ethics Quarterly (Morrison, Mota, and Wilhelm 2021); we believe that they have important ramifications for corporate moral responsibility, and they may also open new avenues for research into corporate reputation more broadly.
Alan Morrison is Professor of Law and Finance at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School and a Fellow of Merton College Oxford
Darwall, Stephen L. 2006. The Second-Person Standpoint: Morality, Respect, and Accountability. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
French, Peter A. 1979. “The Corporation as a Moral Person.” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (3): 207–15.
Keeley, Michael. 1981. “Organizations as Non-Persons.” The Journal of Value Inquiry 15 (2): 149–55.
Ladd, John. 1970. “Morality and the Ideal of Rationality in Formal Organizations.” The Monist, 488–516.
List, Christian, and Philip Pettit. 2011. Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Morrison, Alan D, Rita Mota, and William J Wilhelm. 2021. “Relationships, Authority, and Reasons: A Second-Personal Account of Corporate Moral Agency.” Business Ethics Quarterly Forthcoming.
Rönnegard, David. 2015. The Fallacy of Corporate Moral Agency. Springer.
Sepinwall, Amy J. 2017. “Blame, Emotion, and the Corporation.” In The Moral Responsibility of Firms, edited by Eric W. Orts and N. Craig Smith, 143–66. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Strawson, P. F. (1962) 1974. “Freedom and Resentment.” In Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays, 1–28. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Velasquez, Manuel. 2003. “Debunking Corporate Moral Responsibility.” Business Ethics Quarterly 13 (4): 531–62.
Velasquez, Manuel G. 1983. “Why Corporations Are Not Morally Responsible for Anything They Do.” Business & Professional Ethics Journal 2 (3): 1–18.