Business Ethics Quarterly


Corporate Moral Responsibility: When it Might Matter

Michael J. Phillips


The debate over corporate moral responsibility has become a fixture in business ethics research and teaching. Only rarely, however, does the sizable literature on that question consider whether the debate has important practical implications. This article examines that question from a corporate control perspective. After assuming corporate moral responsibility’s existence for purposes of argument, the article concludes that such responsibility makes a difference in cases where it is present but personal responsibility is absent. Then the article tries to identify the forces that diminish personal responsibility when corporate responsibility exists. The most important such forces, it concludes, spring from the socialization processes people undergo when they enter groups. One example is the well-known phenomenon of groupthink, which can exculpate individuals by rendering them justifiably ignorant of foreseeable risks of harm.

Michael J. Phillips is Professor of Business Law at Indiana University’s School of Business. He received his B.A. degree from Johns Hopkins University, his J.D. degree from Columbia University, and his LL.M. and S.J.D. degrees from George Washington University. Professor Phillips has authored one scholarly book and over 30 law journal articles, and contributes to two business law texts. He also is a former editor-in-chief of the American Business Law Journal.