An impressive number of major corporations have announced they are withholding campaign contributions to candidates that submit to Trump’s Big Lies about the election and January 6 insurrection. Have these companies developed a moral backbone? Don’t count on it.
Ever since the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, progressives have been upset that corporations were entitled to the same rights as individuals when it came to political speech and contributions. It’s led to wide ranging questions about moral culpability and demands that corporations be held accountable as moral agents. Can we expect corporations to be moral agents? Probably not. Moral agents are natural persons, human beings. Corporations are legal persons as defined by law, but they are not human beings. Corporations, like human beings, can be held accountable for obeying the law, but that’s not the same thing as expecting an institution to be a moral agent.
Moral agency has to do with what is good and right, not what is legal or illegal. Every human being is a moral agent whether they are aware of it or conscious of making moral decisions. Humans are moral agents because they are human, conditioned from infancy to have an understanding of right and wrong within the context of the society in which they are raised. Most moral decisions humans make are routine, habits of the heart guiding judgments without too much thought. Other decisions require effort, not always in terms of right or wrong, but more like working out the quandary of ‘what should I do, and why should I do it?’ Some are serious moral questions of right and wrong that can become quite complex.
In the 1980s, a colleague and I taught a class to introduce corporate managers to what it means to be moral agents in the context of their companies and the work they do for them. We had the idea that corporations could be morally responsible organizations without infringing on responsibilities to investors. Managers, properly educated, would act as moral agents on behalf of the corporation’s ethical culture, and everyone would be better off. We were wrong. We used Harvard Case Studies about companies that had made compelling moral decisions under challenging conditions, which sounded great until everyone of them had not long after been indicted for behavior that was unethical and illegal. What happened? Executives had made courageous moral decisions in the name of the company, but the institution, as such, didn’t care one way or the other. When those executives were no longer on the scene, the moral standards that guided them went with them. High moral standards exist only in the lives of decision makers, not in the ‘life’ of the company. That’s true not only for corporations, but for every organization and institution.
The point is, corporations are not human beings. They are legal entities having neither brain nor soul. They are an assembly of parts organized to produce a maximum return to investors through products sold at a profit abetted by shrewd financial manipulation. Whatever moral principles companies (or any organization) follow are the product of individuals who manage them, and the power they temporarily exert to influence corporate culture.
For what it’s worth, we changed our approach to teaching the class, dumped the case studies, used as our text the play “A Man for All Seasons”, and worked on what it means to be a moral human being, not a moral executive.
That brings us back to corporations that have decided to withhold campaign funds from Trump oriented candidates. It’s possible that some are guided by executives making a moral decision for the good of the nation. Corporate leaders are more likely reading the public opinion tea leaves and their effect on the products and services they offer. Will it last? The Magic Eight Ball says the outlook is not favorable. Prevailing thought among corporate leadership is, the less government oversight and interference in the way they do business, the better. They know the deregulation crowd flows toward the Trump camp, so the practical move is to throw money in that direction. If their read of public opinion tea leaves changes, they will turn on a dime.
Corporations, as corporations, cannot be trusted to act for the public good. They’re soulless entities created to productively employ capital producing goods and services the public is willing to buy. That they do well, but no more than that can be expected of them. That is why we need government regulation of business. It is the government’s job, acting on behalf of the public interest, to establish the rules by which corporations do business. Rules that set terms and conditions for transparency and honesty in dealing with customers, investors, employees, trading partners, and competitors, must also be rules protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public and the environment in which we live.
With that said, wisdom reminds us that the government is also an organization. It has no soul, no brain, no inherent interest in what is good and right. Its moral standards and direction are the product of legislators and executives working out agreements among competing ideas about what is right and good for the nation. The American ideal tries for the place at which freedom and the public good meet. Since the 1980s, the trend has been toward libertarianism that subordinates the good of the community to the freedom of persons (corporations included) to act as they choose with as little oversight as possible. Since 2008, the pendulum has begun to swing back toward a balance in which the good of the community has a more equal standing. Four years of Trump’s amorality showed how determined libertarian forces are to prevent much of a swing. Biden’s election gave the swing a little momentum. The 2022 midterms will add to the momentum, or stop it altogether.