Blogs & Comment

Do corporations shield against personal responsibility?

Yes and no. And that's both a good and bad thing.

(Photo: Hanna/Wikimedia)

One of the key criticisms lobbed in the direction of corporations is that they’re essentially a mechanism for avoiding personal responsibility.

But this property is hardly unique to corporations. And it’s certainly not always a bad thing.

The notion that corporations shield individuals from responsibility in fact has two components: one about moral and legal culpability for wrongdoing, and another about financial responsibility.

On the financial side, the lack of individual responsibility goes by the legal name of ‘limited liability.’ Limited liability applies most famously to shareholders, who generally cannot lose more than whatever they have invested in corporate shares. When corporations do well, shareholders may be paid dividends; but no matter what happens, shareholders are never expected to pay the corporation’s debts. That’s what makes it relatively safe to invest. But less commented-upon is that the same principle applies to another important group, namely front-line employees. Corporations shield them from financial liability too. If the company you work for goes bankrupt, you’ll lose your job, but the company’s creditors generally cannot go after your savings, or your house.

What about responsibility for wrongdoing? In cases of actual wrongdoing, do corporations shield individuals from being held responsible?

Well, yes and no. Enron’s Jeff Skilling is in jail, and so is Conrad Black. They’ve been held accountable for what they did within their respective corporate structures. But yes it’s still true that individuals behind corporations—including shareholders, executives, and front-line employees—are shielded from responsibility for the corporation’s actions. If, due to someone else’s decisions within the corporation, the corporation does something criminal, you as an uninvolved employee or shareholder can’t be blamed for that. This generally seems right; responsibility requires knowledge and control. If you weren’t involved, you shouldn’t be blamed. People would be extremely hesitant to work together in large groups—something corporate structures facilitate—if they were going to be held responsible for other people’s behaviour.

But still, it remains true that one of the central moral problems related to corporations is their tendency to obscure and diffuse responsibility. Even though individuals within corporations can in principle be held (and sometimes are held) responsible for their actions, the complexity of corporate structures and decision-making can make it hard to figure out just who really is responsible, and hence who to blame. This is a genuine cost of the system. But it’s a system with considerable advantages. Our modern lifestyle would quite literally be impossible without corporations. So rather than reason for despair, the fact that corporations obscure and diffuse responsibility is a challenge to be dealt with.

Finally, it should also be remembered that corporations are hardly unique in shielding individuals from responsibility. Because really, in a sense, that’s what all organizations are for. They’re for achieving things that individuals cannot achieve alone, while avoiding personal responsibility. Think of all the things that governments, unions, nongovernmental organizations and charities do. Generally, most members of an organization (taxpayers, for example, or card-carrying members of Greenpeace) contribute to a joint cause, and contribute to its success, but are shielded from personal responsibility when things go wrong. That’s a cost we may want to try to minimize, but it’s also one to balance against the considerable gains we achieve from structures that allow us to work together toward a common cause.