Business Ethics Quarterly


The Ontological and Moral Status of Organizations

Christopher McMahon


The paper has two parts. The first considers the debate about whether social entities should be regarded as objects distinct from their members and concludes that we should let the answer to this question be determined by the theories that social science finds to have the most explanatory power. The second part argues that even if the theory with the most explanatory power regards social entities such as organizations as persons in their own right, we should not accord them citizenship in the moral realm. Rather we should accept moral individualism, the thesis that only individual humans can have rights and duties. The moral status of corporations and other organizations is often thought to depend on their ontological status. In particular, it is thought to depend on whether they can be said to exist as distinct entities, and especially as persons distinct from the individuals who are their members. In this article I argue that the two questions are actually independent of each other. No matter what the ontological status of organizations, they should not be accorded citizenship in the moral realm in their own right.

Christopher McMahon is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of a number of articles in ethics and political philosophy, including, “Morality and the Invisible Hand” (Philosophy and Public Affairs, Summer 1981), which explores why business seems morally problematic. His book, Authority and Democracy: A General Theory of Government and Management (Princeton University Press, 1994).