Business Ethics Without Stakeholder

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BUSINESS ETHICS WITHOUT STAKEHOLDERS

Joseph Heath

Abstract: One of the most influential ideas in the field of business ethics has been the suggestion that ethical conduct in a business context should be analyzed in terms of a set of fiduciary obligations toward various "stakeholder" groups. Moral problems, according to this view, involve reconciling such obligations in cases where stakeholder groups have conflicting interests. The question posed in this paper is whether the stakeholder paradigm represents the most fruitful way of articulating the moral problems that arise in business. By way of contrast, I outline two other possible approaches to business ethics: one, a more minimal conception, anchored in the notion of a fiduciary obligation toward shareholders; and the other, a broader conception, focused on the concept of market failure. I then argue that the latter offers a more satisfactory framework for the articulation of the social responsibilities of business.

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ver the past two decades, the "stakeholder paradigm" has served as the basis for one of the most powerful currents of thinking in the field of business ethics. Of course, stakeholder vocabulary is used even more widely in areas where it is not necessarily intended to have any moral implications (e.g., in strategic management).' In business ethics, however, the stakeholder approach is associated with a very characteristic style of normative analysis, viz. one that interprets ethical conduct in a business context in terms of a set of moral obligations toward stakeholder groups (or one that helps "to broaden management's vision of its roles and responsibilities to include interests and claims of non-stockholding groups"^). Seen in this light, the primary moral dilemmas that arise in a business context involve reconciling these obligations in cases where stakeholder interests conflict. Thus ethicists who are impressed by the stakeholder paradigm have become highly adept at translating any moral problem that arises in the workplace into the language of conflicting stakeholder claims.-*

The question that I would like to pose in this paper is whether the stakeholder paradigm represents the most fruitful approach to the study of business ethics. The vocabulary of stakeholder obligations has become so ubiquitous that in many contexts it is simply taken for granted. Yet the stakeholder approach is one that comes freighted with very substantive—and controversial—normative assumptions.

© 2006. Business Ethics Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 4. ISSN 1052-150X.

pp. 533-557

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BUSINESS ETHICS QUARTERLY

Naturally, there are many who have criticized the stakeholder paradigm as part of a broader skeptical critique of business ethics in general, one which denies that firms have any "social responsibilities" beyond the maximization of profit." This is not my intention here. I will argue that firms do have important social responsibilities, ones that extend far beyond mere conformity to the law. The question is whether the stakeholder paradigm represents the best framework for articulating the logic and structure of these obligations.

In order to serve as a point of contrast, I would like to provide an outline of two other possible approaches to the study of business ethics: one, a more minimal conception, anchored in the notion offiduciaryobligations toward shareholders, and the other, a broader conception, focused on the regulatory environment in which firms operate.^ I will then attempt to show that the latter, which I refer to as a "market failures" approach, offers a more satisfactory framework for articulating the concerns that underlie traditional appeals for increased corporate social responsibility. Business Ethics as Professional Ethics

There is one point that all three of the approaches that I will be presenting here have in common. All three conceive of business ethics as a species of professional ethics.* In the same way that medical...
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