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Why Blame the Organization? by Raymond Pfeiffer

Michael Boylan enjoys Raymond Pfeiffer’s book on collective responsibility.

The recent difficulties of corporations such as Enron, ImClone, WorldCom, Tyco and Adelphia (among others) show just how topical the debate on collective responsibility has become. Moreover, it is clear that questions of collective responsibility are yet to be adequately resolved. For this reason, books like Professor Pfeiffer’s are important in furthering our attempts to clarify these increasingly complex issues, particularly in an environment of corporate globalization.

Pfeiffer begins with the thesis that, when at all possible, we should opt for blaming individuals rather than corporations. This is called the ‘thesis of individual sufficiency’ (p.9). It is Pfeiffer’s belief, however, that these cases are rare, because assessing individual blame for corporate wrongdoing is often rather difficult. In the present climate in the United States, the aforementioned companies and their woes could be brought forward to support Pfeiffer’s conjecture.

When it is impossible to demonstrate that specific, named individuals are solely responsible for some instance of corporate malfeasance, then Pfeiffer asserts that we should blame the organization. This he calls the ‘thesis of individual dependency’ (p.31). The thesis has two components:

a) In order for an organization to be blameworthy for some matter, some individuals in it must share some blame for their contribution to it.

b) Evidence to prove that an organization is to blame must include evidence that some of its personnel are to blame, even if it is unclear who they are or to what extent they are to blame (p.31). Thus, the individual dependency thesis doesn’t completely shift the focus away from individuals, but merely accepts that in certain situations it is impossible to find a particular person or persons who can be assigned all the blame. It is important to be able to assess blame because of retributive justice (from the society’s point of view as well as from the perspective of the victim, pp.14-15, cf. chapters 7 & 8 ). Being able to blame an organization will ensure that in cases where specific named individuals cannot be brought forward, there will still be a legal entity that can be punished and can be assessed for damages to compensate victims.

The search for a model through which corporate blame may be assigned has been a hot topic for some time, but took on particular impetus with the publication of Peter French’s book, Collective and Corporate Responsibility in 1984. French created a model under which corporations may be assessed for moral blame on the grounds that a corporation is an agent, and all agents are responsible for their actions.

Given his own view, it is important for Pfeiffer to refute French’s account, and to this end he devotes much of three chapters. Though much ink is shed in this effort, the refutation of French’s depiction of two sorts of groups is not entirely convincing. One feels that a discussion of emergent properties, either from the point of view of formal logic or from the literature of philosophy of science, would have helped make this discussion sharper.

Another position that Pfeiffer is keen to refute is Larry May’s view of groups and the doctrine of vicarious negligence (The Morality of Groups, 1987). Pfeiffer believes that May (like French) errs when he approaches the problem of understanding individuals and groups from the perspective of the group and the ontological status of collections. Pfeiffer thinks that one must always maintain the perspective of the individual (thus, Pfeiffer’s characterization of the individual dependency thesis). However, Pfeiffer’s refutation is rather too swift. In the end it is still unclear how such a perspective is distorting. Pfeiffer makes internal reference to his own five points for assigning blame, and assesses how May’s argument stacks up. However, this is not a refutation on May’s terms or even on neutral grounds. There is too often a tendency to argue by example without giving the complete mechanics that underlie the analysis.

Nevertheless, even if French and May are not effectively refuted, this doesn’t diminish the many fine distinctions and discussions in Pfeiffer’s book. Chapters 7 & 8 are particular interesting. The first contains a discussion of ways to understand membership in certain groups when the membership itself may carry moral blame (such as in a mob) and other organizations in which such membership is neutral (such as in a corporation). The second concerns ways in which punishment ought to be assessed. These follow from the five conditions for blaming organizations:

1. Some matter (event, process, or state of affairs) came to be, and is morally objectionable. That is, some combination of people should (and could) have taken measures which would have prevented it from occurring. They had a moral duty to take those measures.

2. More people are blameworthy for having contributed to the matter at hand than any specific people whose blameworthiness is known.

3. A subset of those with a moral duty to take preventive measures were related through a network of organizational interrelationships.

4. Some of those in the subset could have taken appropriate measures to fulfill their relevant moral duties but did not, and have no good moral, exculpatory excuse for not having done so.

5. The dereliction of moral duty producing the matter in question arose within the context and as a result of the organizational interrelationships. (p.33)

These five points, as well as the discussion on punishment, exhibit an interest in procedural justice. In other words, once we all agree on what is moral or not, then here is a procedural model for thinking about it and applying it in cases deserving various sorts of punishment. Questions of procedural justice are important, but it may be the case that disagreements about morality reduce such discussions to mere enforcement of the law (as in the contemporary cases cited at the beginning of this review).

In any event, Pfeiffer’s book raises many important issues about the ways we think about groups and corporations. It presents a procedural pragmatic model as one way forward with this debate. The discussion is focused and sequential, and is thus well suited for inclusion in classes on business ethics and corporate responsibility.

© Michael Boylan 2002

Michael Boylan is a professor of philosophy at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia.

Why Blame the Organization?: A Pragmatic Analysis of Collective Moral Responsibility by Raymond S. Pfeiffer, (Rowman & Littlefield, 1995). $27.95/£15.15 ISBN 0822630451.

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