Virtual Voices

The virtues of corporate citizenship

Business

Many of the folks in the Occupy Wall Street movement seem to have a hostile attitude toward corporations. For them, the words "corporation" and "corporate" are slurs. Insofar as one can distill any coherent message from the movement, if nothing else it is critical of corporate behavior.

But it's entirely reasonable to be critical. Every human act is a moral act, and corporations are just human beings acting in concert but incorporated as a legal person under the law. Conservatives, perhaps especially of the libertarian variety, often speak of businesses as though we cannot hold them to any moral standard other than the maximization of shareholder profits within the limits of the law, the so-called bottom line. If it is both profitable and legal to pollute waterways, we cannot expect them not pollute the waterways. If it is profitable and legal to pollute the character of their fellow citizens, even of children, then we cannot expect anything more from them.

But this is not how we view anyone else. We expect people who are not corporations to be good citizens, to sacrifice their convenience, their personal profit, and even in some cases their lives for their community and nation. We expect "civic virtue," not just self-seeking. This is citizenship in the fullest, i.e., in the moral sense of the word. People who rise to it are heroes, and people who shirk from it are disgraced.

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We expect more than narrow self-regard from people because they are able to pursue their various goals only because of the benefits they derive from the healthy functioning of their community at large. So our life together depends on everyone's self-restraint and on people helping one another in need, whether family, neighbors, or strangers, and volunteering in a seemingly infinite number of civic associations. Ultimately, the survival of the larger community-the nation-depends on some people being willing even to die for it.

But whereas we expect individuals to be more than crassly self-centered, can we expect the same standard of behavior from corporations? Is there such thing as corporate citizenship?

Corporations also have an interest in national well-being. The nation enforces contracts and property laws, and it establishes and protects the market structure. It protects corporations and individuals alike against foreign invaders and preserves "law and order" generally. So corporations have an interest not only in the continued existence of the nation, but of a particular kind of nation, i.e., a nation that respects the rule of law and is made up of good citizens and patriots who are willing to sacrifice for that good country.

As good corporate citizens, American companies should also be interested in protecting the good character of their fellow citizens. Sure, in the short run, they can make money from corrupting the youth and everyone else. Perhaps, if they are thinking about the issue at all, they are thinking like free riders. There is enough in the culture to keep tolerably good character going while they cash in on appealing to what is lowest in us.

But the people whose characters they help to weaken will one day be employees. Companies have a hard time these days getting people to show up for work sober and on time. When they do show up, they too often either steal stuff or steal time, perhaps by fooling around on email or on the internet. Businesses also depend on the good character of their customers. According to Hayes International, shoplifting and fraud cost American businesses billions of dollars a year, and employee theft accounts for several times what is lost to shoplifting.

No one is a man without a country, and no one, not even an international corporation, can be spared the duties of citizenship.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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