About Collective Responsibility

This is to be a philosophical paper in which the foundations of the notions of collective responsibility are studied. The notion of collective responsibility has been under extensive study in business ethics. The study has been both theoretical and empirical. However, the notion of responsibility is philosophical rather than empirical or theoretical. Hence, there is a proper need for a philosophico-conceptual study of the topic. The notion of responsibility is ethical in character. Primarily the ethical notions are individualistic. Ethical notions like responsibility are agent-based, which implies that collective responsibility supposes proper ethical collective agents. It is not clear what kinds of agents these could be. Consequently, the notion of collective responsibility is an extremely interesting and important topic of study. Ethics is one of the deepest areas in philosophy and hence this kind of paper cannot be but an introductory paper which is only “about” the problematic concerning business ethics and ethicality.


Business is an important and influential aspect of human life, and is part of not only the everyday life of ordinary people but also more deeply, societies in general. It is obvious that business is not an isolated realm of human life but part and parcel of it. So, we have to take the values business exemplifies seriously. That is, we have to consider deeply “questions about the changing relationship between business, society and government, environmental issues, corporate governance, the social and ethical dimensions of management, stakeholder debates, shareholder and consumer activism, changing political systems and values, and the ways in which organizations can respond to new social imperatives” (Vilke 2011a, 32). So far it seems obvious, but the next steps are not so obvious: How should we approach the problematic?

In business, as Friedman (1962, 349) says, the basic idea is to maximize profit “so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition, without deception or fraud.” The role of ethics or ethical deliberation is not obvious in such a game, even if the notions of “deception” and “fraud” are ethic-laden. However, as Friedman himself says, in business deception and fraud are not allowed, but, as Vilke (2011a; 2011b; 2014) shows, business is interconnected with society through many different kinds of ties which makes business as ethic-laden as other social practices.

The notion of game, which was used by Friedman, is of central importance. It has theoretical importance in that it allows for a methodologically clear and rich approach to business studies: The mathematical theory of games gives a methodological foundation for business studies. Von Neumann and Morgenstern (2004, xxxi) state that they “are trying to follow the best examples of theoretical physics,” where the intention is not formal mathematical theorizing but, as Hintikka emphasizes repeatedly (see, for example, Hintikka 2007), conceptual study. In the following some conceptual distinctions are explicated.

Game theory can also be used to metaphorically characterize business practices. So it is possible, for example, to characterize different kinds of business games: Games played between business organizations or corporations, games played between state (public sector) and business organizations, and games played between business organizations and customers. Different games have different rules, and the players are not of similar characteristics or backgrounds. The difference between a business organization and a customer as a player is enormous—the players are not equal. The game metaphors can be, as von Neumann and Morgenstern (2004) demonstrate, made explicit, which is a central task of a logico-conceptual study. The danger with the game theoretical approach is that the games and factors of the games are characterized in a purely formal way, which excludes “substantial” aspects like ethicality.

The notion of game forces us to systematically formulate the notions of goal and strategy, which are theoretically and also practically of great importance. The systematic and precise methodology is the key element of the mathematic-logico theory of “games of strategy” (von Neumann and Morgenstern 2004, 1). The formal character of game theory allows it to be applied to different kinds of contexts (von Neumann and Morgenstern 2004; Kuhn & Nasar 2002).

Public authorities regulate the legal rules of business games via legislation. Laws cannot be broken and they are equal for each player. The games are played in a society which has several different kinds of social habits. These, at the same, apply pressure favoring certain kinds of behaviors, and these habits generate social “norms”, which bring social and eventually ethical values into business games. That is, business games are not played within a separate business reality but rather our common—and nowadays international or global reality. However, habits are—by definition—local and (present day) business is global (Vilke 2011a). Hence, there is a tension regarding the origin of business ethics.

Ethics can be understood as a branch of philosophy and business ethics as a branch of (general) ethics. As a field of academic study, ethics may be understood as a theoretical field of study which has no connection to our practical lives or to business practices. Business ethics may—and to some extent should—be done in an “ivory tower”, but the study may not be an innocent conceptual analysis without practical consequences: Conceptual work simultaneously changes our understanding and our behavior (MacIntyre 1985). To understand this better, let us remind ourselves that when Plato says that “Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most righteous man” in Phaedo (118a), he is not expressing a common (ethical) truth as we (nowadays) would like to assume. At that time the behavior of Socrates was not as obviously (ethically) good as we nowadays understand it to be. At that time the balance within the distinction between “natural” (physis) and conventional (norm) was not evaluated as it is today, which can be seen from the statements given by Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias (483a–e). In fact, Plato’s statement quoted above was not a description of ethical understanding of his time, but rather a starting point for our new kind of understanding of ethical good (Hintikka 1969).

The case of business ethics is similar: Even if the study of business ethics is conceptual, it is part and parcel of the “world-making” process in which we create better activities together. Ethicians or philosophers are not “outsiders” or “rule givers” but neighbors, just as business leaders or workers are. Together we form a community; the ethicality of the members of the community constitute an ethical community. Philosophers have their own special fields of expertise which allow them to conceptualize different kinds of problem situations. However, in this paper we will give only an introductory characterization of this very complex problematic. So, this paper is only “about” the whole problematic. Still, we try to argue why it could be reasonable to restrict the consideration to the usual individualistic methodology considering ethicality in business.

Ethics, and especially business ethics, is a multidimensional field. Still, the fundamentals of ethics should be kept in mind when discussing the problems of business ethics. This brings up the idea that the “great difficulty which arises in ethical discussions is the difficulty of getting quite clear as to exactly what question it is that we want to answer” (Moore 1978, 5). The problem Moore refers to is not a minor one. The discussion about business ethics varies from deep philosophico-conceptual questions to practical problems of positive business communication and the mundane valuations of people. All of these are, of course, important, but their (conceptual) status should be specified. In this task a linguistic analysis of great importance by von Wright (1996) is one excellent example in this direction. However, proper philosophical study is of central importance: Ethics must not be reduced to linguistic or empirical study. Ethics must be taken seriously: Both in terms of content and methodology. The content of ethics is very deep, as Moore (1978) shows. The seriousness can be understood as a methodological strategy, as shown by Pihlström (2014 and 2015).

About Ethics

It is an obvious fact that business is part and parcel of our common social reality. Business is done within our society, that is, within our legal, social, and ethical realms. So, in order to gain an adequate understanding of business one cannot concentrate only on business studies—a more general field should be studied, as formulated by Granoveter and Swedberg (2001, 2): “What we do argue, however, is that sooner or later the realization was bound to come that it was unwise to make such a radically sharp separation between what is “economic” and what is “social”. We argue that theoretical economics should not have a monopoly on economic analysis, for which economic history, economic sociology, and other perspectives are equally needed.” Thus, for theoretical reason it is not enough to concentrate only on business studies, but one must open their mind to other fields of sciences. Moreover, ethics is also part of philosophy, which implies that the conceptual structure in business ethics is essentially philosophical. The philosophical aspects which are easily reduced into factual aspects and hence proper ethicality become hidden.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes that “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim” (I 1.1). That is, human beings are intended to achieve some good or well-being. The idea behind the Aristotelian characterization is that we as humans are aiming at something ultimately good, i.e., something which is good as such and not merely good for something else. A person who is aiming at such a goal is virtuous. According to Aristotle, the connection between the aiming and the character of the person who is aiming is not factual but conceptual: The characteristics of a person are called virtues and a person with such characteristics is virtuous. So, it demonstrates a misunderstanding to ask whether the virtues of the profession are realized in the activity of the professional: A medical doctor who does not heal is no longer a medical doctor. The Aristotelian approach is called virtue ethics, and is nowadays studied extensively, especially within professional ethics. Virtue ethics is not ethics of absolute denials or commands but a requirement for moderation. So in virtue ethics, the central topic is neither ethical rules nor useful consequences of an agent’s actions but virtuous behavior. The content of virtuous and moderate behavior has been a central topic in virtue ethics.

It is not clear whether Aristotelian argumentation could be extended to the aims of a society. Aristotle’s ethics are primarily individualistic: Aristotelian ethics are actor-based, whereby the actor is an individual human being who is bound to responsibility in a deep way. Ethical notions cannot be applied to societies (collectives) without careful consideration. In fact, ethics more generally are in this sense individualistic, which has to be taken into account when business ethics are developed, otherwise there is a danger of the language becoming (merely) metaphorical or merely narrative, and therefore the methodological foundation of business ethics would remain unsatisfactory. There is nothing wrong with the metaphorical use of ethical notions, but then it may not be understood as properly ethical. Because metaphorical notions are methodically weaker than proper substantial notions, they cannot have such strong methodical tasks in inquiry as proper substantial notions have.

Ethical notions, like “good”, “well-being”, “bad”, and “shame” are deep philosophical notions but, at the same, our everyday notions. This causes difficulties in understanding the ethical discussion, and especially in contexts such as business ethics the difficulties are especially complex. Hintikka (2007; Ch. 1) argues that the notion of information would be more adequate in the generic logic of epistemology than the deep philosophical notion of knowledge. However, in the case of ethics we do not have such well-behaving notions and we have to use these deep philosophical and historical ethical notions. Von Wright (1996, 1–2) characterizes the conceptual—or linguistic—situation as follows: “The so-called moral sense of ‘good’ is a derivative or secondary sense, which must be explained in the terms of non-moral uses of the word. Something similar holds true of the moral sense of ‘ought’ and ‘duty’. For this reason it seems to me that a philosophic understanding of morality must be based on a much more comprehensive study of the good (and of the ought) than has been customary in ethics.” To understand the situation better we can use the Wittgensteinian notion of the language game. Everyday interpretations are the primary use of the notions. There are more “developed” games in which the use of the notions is separated from the everyday practical uses. Here the notion of developed is not evaluative but it refers to the logical fact that secondary games (logically) presuppose primary games. So, it is extremely important to carefully consider the conceptual basis of the ethical discourse. Ethical language games are extremely complex and multidimensional. Thus it is important philosophically analyze the structure of ethical language games. The analysis has to consider the interconnection between everyday and ethical language: The danger is that ethical meanings become reduced to everyday meanings.

In ethics, virtue ethics is not the only approach, and in fact it is not even the mainstream approach. Let us also mention utilitarianism (consequentialism), in which the consequences of the act determine its ethical value. In a given situation our ethical duty is to perform the act which, in the situation, causes most utility. This can be further divided into act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism, which differ as to whether the act as such or a rule behind the act is evaluated. According to Kant, the most ethically valuable thing is “a will to do one’s duty for duty’s sake” (von Wright 1996, 156), which is an example of deontology (ethics of duty). (See also Lantos 2002.)

The choice between the theories of ethics is not a simple practical choice but a serious ethical one. Deep ethic-laden notions like responsibility anchor us deeply in ethicality, and also in the question of virtue ethics, which show that the study of ethics is already ethics-laden; there is no logico-conceptual point from which one could take a “value-free” view. The characterization of utilitarianism given by Moore (1978, 96–97) is a good example, whereby the ethical value of an act is determined by the “intrinsic value” of an act, not “any mental attitude” we may have about it or of “the motive” one may have toward it, or whether an agent “has reason” to expect certain kinds of consequences. Such utilitarianism is an ethically demanding approach, just as all ethical theories are—and must be.

Deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics are included in so-called normative ethics, which have been studied in philosophical ethics. However, the mainstream of the study of philosophical ethics has been so-called metaethics, which focuses attention on conceptual (linguistic) and foundational study. Von Wright 1996 is an excellent example of this approach, with the foundational study including, for example, the character and epistemology of ethical values.

Ethics is not only a philosophical field; it can also be studied empirically, with the study, for example, of what kinds of ethical beliefs humans actually have or what kind of ethical behavior societies in fact have. Westermarck was one of the first researchers who studied ethics empirically (see, for example, Westermarck 1891). Such empirical study is called descriptive ethics, and forms an important part of ethics. However, the ethical notions change historically and new applications cause changes in meaning independently, whether we intend it or not. Empirical study provides information about factual changes in the opinions, but besides such an empirical study there is also historical study of the changes of ethical concepts which characterizes the changes in the conceptual web. Hence, besides historic-empirical study there is also a need for the historic-conceptual study of business ethics which should be connected to proper philosophical study.

In business ethics there is and should be both philosophical and empirical study. They should not be separate but should go hand in hand. A corporation’s responsibility in particular is a topic of central importance and extreme complexity. The notion of responsibility has its roots in deep philosophical and practical history. An actor is responsible for his or her acts because he or she causes the consequences of the acts. The notion of cause here is an example of the so-called manipulative notion of causation (von Wright 1971; Woodward 2002), which is connected to the legal notion of guilt (von Wright 1971, 65). This shows how deeply our ethical notions are bound to practical notions, which makes philosophical study a necessary part of business ethics.

It is easy to accept that we are responsible for the things we cause. However, there are several important questions to be answered. It may seem obvious that the agent intends what he or she does, but this obviousness is not easy to understand. If someone intends to do p, and q is the consequence of p, how do we decide whether the actor also intends q in addition to his or her intention to do p? Should the actor know the consequences of his or her action? It is important that problems like these are solved. In the courtroom in particular this importance is not only theoretical but also an important practical legal problem: Legal responsibility is dependent on the answer the court gives.

Ethical or moral responsibility cannot be identified through legal responsibility. Of course, as in legal cases, the actor is responsible for his or her actions and of the consequences of them. Moreover, corporations and organizations (and some other collective agents) are legal agents and hence also legally responsible. This does not imply that corporations and organizations (or other collective agents) would be ethical agents. It seems that intentionality or knowledge does not play a central role in ethical responsibility. If someone does something accidentally, he or she may not be legally responsible for it, but ethical responsibility occurs independently of the intention or knowledge. The actor may think “I should have been more careful” or “I am guilty of the outcome even if I did not know the result in advance”, and such thoughts express ethical or moral responsibility. Guilt is one of the expressions of ethicality; ethicality is something personal, something that the agent cannot give away or share. The story of Oedipus provides a strong expression of how ethical responsibility follows our actions, independently of our knowledge or our (good) intentions.

Ethical responsibility refers neither to ethical norms nor to the consequences of actions, but to the character of the actor or the actor’s conscience[1]. In this sense, virtue ethics play an important role in understanding ethical responsibility. Responsibility supposes an agent who is responsible. In ethics the agent is a human being to whose ethicality the responsibility refers. This again moves ethical responsibility away from legal responsibility: In legal responsibility the fundamental factors are legal norms.

About Corporate Responsibility

Business ethics as a branch of applied ethics has an interesting but very complex field of application. The general theoretical discussion of business ethics has been deep but the practical consequences have—it can be said—been very thin. However, the discussions related to professional ethics and especially corporate responsibility have deepened the discussion a great deal. The theoretical discussion of professional ethics is related to the theoretical discussion of virtue ethics. The virtue ethics discussion made the ethical problems more concrete and practical, but the fundamentals of professional ethics are individualistic. The discussion of corporate responsibility made a change in this respect: We have to seriously consider the responsibility of a corporation or collective responsibility (Vilke 2011a; 2014; Becker 1992).

The notion of collective responsibility is not a simple notion. It is an obvious (legal) fact that corporations—and some other collectives—are legal agents and hence legally responsible. However, the notion of ethical collective responsibility is extremely complex and must not be confused with legal—or any other—responsibility.

Becker (1992, 1090) sets out the different interpretations that are given to collective responsibility:

“If Company X is said to be responsible for a certain mishap, then either (1) this is a misleading way of merely attributing causal (and not moral) responsibility for the mishap to some event in which Company X was involved, or (2) this is a disguised way of attributing personal moral responsibility to some key individuals in Company X for the mishap, or (3) this is an attribution of moral responsibility to Company X for the mishap, an attribution which is not wholly reducible to an attribution of moral responsibility to one or more individuals. The third option is difficult to support, although it has had its proponents.”

The characterization given by Becker is important; all the different kinds of interpretations still occur. However, only the third refers to proper ethical corporate responsibility. To better understand the problematic we have to discuss agenthood, or how a collective can be understood as an agent. Basically there are two fundamentally different approaches. The individualists, such as Tuomela (2000), regard collective agents as the sum of individual agents. This means that individuals are understood as the only primary agents and collective actions are—methodically—analyzed as actions of different individual agents. This approach is ontologically economical: The ontology remains explicit. This approach is called methodological individualism. The other approach, which is called methodological holism, destroys the ontological economy: It allows proper collective actors into the ontology, i.e., this approach takes Durkheimian social facts seriously. Holism can be divided into strong and weak holism, with the dividing line being the character of the collective agenthood. Durkheim (1982) argues strongly for the independence of collective facts and agents. According to strong holism, collective agents are Hegelianesque entities. Weak holism interprets collective agents as “plural subjects” which have only relative independency, hence individuals exist as a foundation of the collective agent (Audi 1995). However, strong holism solves the problem of collective ethical agents nicely but the price is quite high: The new agents are not usual kinds of agents. The relationship between the responsibility of individual agents and the collective agent would still need clarification. Usually, it seems that the discussion about collective responsibility is mainly metaphorical.

Ethical responsibility is connected to virtue ethics, also known as “agent-based ethics”[2] (Audi 1995, 840), in which the moral character of the agent plays a central role. The fundamental aspect is the cultivation of moral virtues (Audi 1995), in the sense that the fundamental idea is pedagogical rather than theoretical (von Wright 1989). The notion of moral responsibility is naturally interpreted using this kind of agent-based ethical approach in which moral agenthood and moral excellence are central notions. Moral excellence can be better understood if we consider how moral responsibility manifests itself. Of course, moral excellence manifests itself in good actions, but not all actions are good, even if the agent is intending to do good. Human acting presupposes deliberation (von Wright 1996, 161). However, the agent is guilty even if he or she has deliberated according to his or her best possible knowledge (von Wright 1971, 65). This strong notion of guilt is demonstrated by the story of Oedipus, which may sound somewhat strange to present day readers.

Milton Friedman (1962) says that is it a misconception to embed (ethical) responsibility into a business. The aim of a business is not to do good but rather to make money: The primary goal in business is not ethics. The fact that the primary goal is not properly ethical does not imply that in business the goal is unethical; it implies only that the primary goal of companies is more “practical”, for example the production of cars at a suitable profit. Of course, the goals and the means employed in business have to be ethically acceptable, otherwise it would be impossible for individuals in a business to be ethical. Moreover, if we understand human individuals as proper ethical agents, Friedman’s statement becomes more understandable. This entails strong ethical responsibilities to individuals in business.

Many companies, especially small ones, are integrated into their local communities with many ties, which makes decision-making more “value-laden”, i.e., the decision-making is constrained by social factors. In many cases, discussions of corporation responsibility refer to these phenomena (Vilke 2011b; 2014) or to rules directing corporations to deliberate on how to fulfill such constraints (McWilliams and Siegel 2000). However, even if these all are important, useful and valuable, they are not properly ethical.

However, people in business—like people in general—have several different kinds of interests, and as humans they also have ethical responsibilities. Many business people have several opportunities through which to pursue the goal they have, as well as ethics-laden goals. Friedman believed that businesses should be run according to the rules of business games and that the players should be seen as human individuals who are committed to ethicality. In this sense, Friedman seems to be committed to methodological individualism. The ethicality takes place in a real society and the level of cultivation determines how easy or difficult it is for individuals to behave ethically.

About Bankruptcy and Ethicality

Sometimes it is said that ethics is good business (see, for example, Joyner and Payne 2002). The idea is that it is good for businesses to be ethical, which can be supported by empirical evidence. However, such evidence does not do the intended job. Ethicality is not a topic which can be submitted to empirical tests; ethicality comes before all the possible evidence: It characterizes good behavior and goodness in humans. Sometimes ethicality may entail useful consequences and sometime not, but empirical tests are not “crucial experiments”[3]. There is another­ —possibly deeper—reason why there cannot be empirical evidence supporting the belief that ethicality is good for business.

Of course, there may be, and in fact there is, empirical evidence that taking into account ethical questions increases the cash flow of a company. However, the phrase “taking into account ethical questions”[4] means that “company at least markets itself as ethical”. History shows that humans are not very exemplary, and that high ethicality is rather more the exception than the rule, as Plato remarked. Those who have maintained high levels of ethicality in history have not always seen very pleasant outcomes, as the example of Socrates shows.

There has been a good deal of empirical research into business ethics. There is nothing wrong with this: There is a long empirical research tradition in empirical ethics research, with one of the founders of the tradition being Edvard Westermark (1891). However, ethics is also, and perhaps mainly, a philosophic-conceptual field of research. The main problem is not what kinds of ethical opinions are supported in a society or among societies, but conceptual research that studies the fundamental meaning of ethical notions. This does not mean a search for a fixed, eternal meaning of the ethical notions, but a search for a deeper ethicality. Ethical notions have changing meanings, as Plato’s example referred to above shows. However, the meanings are not merely empirical facts.

The factual situation may be “a historical moment” which sees the re-evaluation of all values. Nietzsche (1886; 1887) saw his time as being one such “historical moment” and he argued for the necessity of renewing the foundations of morality. Plato explicated a less radical formulation, even if the result was extremely radical: Our understanding of ethics was totally changed. Plato’s example was based on the life of Socrates. Socrates was doomed to die because of his high ethical principles. But Socrates is an example of high ethicality for all Western societies and part of the power of his example comes from his destiny, which shows that ethicality is of extreme value: The morally valuable way of life followed by Socrates was morally notable. In this spirit, bankruptcy could be seen as a refreshing moment of business ethics. Of course, bankruptcy is a catastrophe for a company, just as death was for Socrates. Could there be something similar in business? Can a bankruptcy be such “a historical moment” which renew the practices of business such that they become deeply ethical?

According to Michelman (1983, 79), business relations “are formal” and are based on “dislike and fear”. In this sense, the discussion on business ethics and in particular corporate social responsibility has made huge developments. However, there is no real need to generate new agents to achieve ethicality. We humans are bound to ethicality, which Friedman (1962, 349) also accepts: In business the fundamental intention is to maximize profit “so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition, without deception or fraud”. The individuals themselves have “the primary moral responsibility” (Pihlström 2015, 51).

In business ethics, the empirical approach has generated a new problem field which is subject to closer study. Generally, these aspects are of great importance. However, they also enlarge the field of ethics toward a merely empirical field. For example, sustainability is very central notion and it is of great importance. However, the problem of sustainability is a factual notion and is thus in need of empirical rather than ethical study, despite the fact that it has connections to ethical problems: We as humans are not allowed to destroy or pollute the environment. All these topics are ethics-laden but are not directly ethical. However, the ethicality of humans implies that we are responsible for the well-being of other people and of nature. Therefore, there is no need to formulate or find ethical rules but to understand moderate humanity.

The problem is not that the problematic is related to factual problems; ethics must have some practical consequences. The problem is that this makes ethics a “middle class topic” which entails concern about real and important problems, yet still does not require us to personally take care of the problems. In contrast, ethics and “any morally serious philosophy (…) should begin from the recognition of the reality of evil” (Pihlström 2014, 2). This negative methodology implies that the interpretation of ethicality is essentially personal: The moral responsibility binds just me. The collective interpretation becomes a secondary interpretation (Pihlström 2014; 2015).

People in business have several different kinds of aims and intentions. Moral responsibility binds business people just as it binds anyone else. Moreover, business people are humans just like all other people. Aims and intentions vary from person to person, and the degree of ethicality varies in a similar way. It is important to build up an organizational culture which supports ethicality, and in this task the study of business ethics and corporate social responsibility does important constructive work. In building a better and more ethical organizational culture we all have to work together—each of us has to take care of the ethicality. People in business are, just as everyone else is, bound to ethicality. In business, the burden of ethical responsibility of an individual is not easy to carry, but each has his or her own responsibilities that cannot be delegated to others or to some collective agent. People in business are bound to the practices of business and societies of their own time. The ethicality they can express becomes apparent only in practice, and therefore the level of cultivation of the whole organization is also ethically meaningful.

Closing Words

As Granovetter and Swedberg (2001, 1) state, it is easy for the layperson to understand that “the economy is part of the social world, not isolated from the rest of society, and that economics should deal with people in their everyday economy activities,” which implies that the economy has to be studied together with other social studies: There is no pure economics. In business ethics and the study of corporate social responsibility, this must be taken seriously. The results of the empirical studies of business ethics are very promising, but the embedding of economics into social studies does not make the study ethical. Ethics is a serious conceptual study which cannot be reduced to empirical study. There is a need for a proper study of ethics in a business context, forming part of a general study of ethics. The primary ethical notions are fundamentally individualistic and there is no proper need to generate new kinds of collective ethical agents. Such collective agents may generate more problems that they solve. The study of corporate social responsibility emphasizes the societal aspects of business practices into which individuals are embedded. The empirical study is connected to actual practices of how we actualize our virtues and skills. Future studies of business ethics should integrate practicality and ethicality.

[1] The word ‘conscience’ refers to common knowledge. In Finnish the word ‘omatunto’, which is the translation of conscience into Finnish, has a very individualistic connotation. We do not discuss this linguistic question any further.

[2] The notion of agent is in this context so called “moral agent” or “moral subject”. This may not be identified with other kind of subjects like legal subject.

[3] The notion of “crucial experiment” is in many senses philosophically problematic. However, for us the deeper philosophical problematic behind the notion plays no role. For the notion, see, for example, Popper (1959) and (1979).

[4] It is interesting to note that responsibility is expressed by the word “accountability”, which implies business practices. This may partly be the basis of the factual connotation of responsibility in business ethics.


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Adjunct Professor Arto Mutanen, Finnish National Defence University & Finnish Naval Academy

Reference to the publication:
Mutanen, A. (2017). About Collective Responsibility. HAMK Unlimited Scientific 10.2.2017. Retrieved [date] from https://unlimited.hamk.fi/yrittajyys-ja-liiketoiminta/about-collective-responsibility

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