Business Ethics Quarterly

Special Issue: Human Rights and Business

The Limits of Corporate Human Rights Obligations and the Rights of For-Profit Corporations

John Douglas Bishop

Trent University


The extension of human rights obligations to corporations raises questions about whose rights and which rights corporations are responsible for. This paper gives a partial answer by asking what legal rights corporations would need to have to fulfil various sorts of human rights obligations. We should compare the chances of human rights fulfilment (and violations) that are likely to result from assigning human rights obligations to corporations with the chances of human rights fulfilment (and violations) that are likely to result from giving corporations the legal rights needed to undertake those human rights obligations. Corporations should respect basic human rights of all people. Non-complicity in human rights violations requires that corporations have the right to political freedom of speech. To actively protect people from human rights violations, corporations need the right to hire armed security personnel; such obligations should be limited to protecting corporate property and narrowly defined stakeholders. Obligations to spend corporate resources on human rights fulfilment are confined to contributing to specific projects. Corporations have no obligation to ensure a society in which human rights are fulfilled. This principle helps us understand why corporate obligations are substantially different from those of governments.


  • human rights;
  • business;
  • corporations;
  • duties

John Douglas Bishop is professor in the business admisitration program at Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. He obtained a Ph.D. in moral philosophy from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (1979), and an MBA in finance from McMaster University (1985). He worked for multinational computer corporations for several years. He has published in Business Ethics Quarterly, Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of the History of Ideas, and the Canadian Journal of Philosophy. He is the editor of Ethics and Capitalism (University of Toronto Press, 2000). His current research interests are the rights of for-profit corporations, ethics and economic theory, and corporate capitalism and sustainability. E-mail: