Corporate Responsibility

The latest story out of Brazil regarding the oil spill last November deserves some thought. The story begins “Brazilian prosecutors say they will bring criminal charges against 17 executives from the US oil company Chevron and drilling contractor Transocean after a new leak of crude.” The oil company was already facing a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit over the November spill. Apparently the court doesn’t feel this was adequate. This raises some interesting questions.

To begin with, what responsibility do 17 executives bear for the mistakes of the corporation they work for? Indeed, what is a corporation? The U.S. Supreme Court insists a corporation is a person and entitled to rights under the constitution, including free speech. This allows corporations to spend millions of dollars on political candidates who will advance their agenda. I have addressed this issue in an earlier blog and won’t kick a dead horse. But the question of who, precisely, is responsible for an oil spill (in this case) is philosophically interesting.

The philosopher Peter French argued some years ago that corporations should accept total responsibility for their actions and should even bear the shame of past mistakes, like Hester Prinn. This is a hard argument to swallow, but it is designed to address the fact that a simple fine doesn’t really punish a corporation because it will simply pass the cost along to the customers. If a corporation leaks millions of gallons of crude oil into the ocean it should not only pay a fine, French maintained, but it should be shamed into serious compensation, even penance (by paying for self-defamatory advertising attacking the corporation’s public image). But this pushes the analogy between corporations and persons too far, it seems to me. Corporations do not have rights, they have privileges. As such they cannot be regarded as persons in a moral sense, and one wonders just how it would be possible to shame them in the first place. Indeed, they seem to be shameless.

But whatever philosophical or moral stratus they have, corporations should be held responsible for their actions, which may or may not mean bringing 17 executives to trial for the sins of their company. The whole corporation is not equivalent to the sum of the parts. But this is not a bad start, though in this case it seems to be more an expression of frustration, as though someone must be punished and a simple fine hardly suffices. Something more needs to be done. It’s possible the court is trying to embarrass the corporation. Perhaps they read Peter French!

Let’s reflect on the origins of corporations for a moment. Once again we can learn from Henry Adams who was on to something in 1905 when he pondered the nature of corporations which were still aborning. Reflecting on Teddy Roosevelt’s attempts at Trust busting, Adams mused, “The Trusts and Corporations stood for the larger part of the new power that had been created since 1840, and were obnoxious because of their vigorous and unscrupulous energy. They were revolutionary, troubling all the old conventions and values, as the screws of ocean steamers must trouble a school of herring. They tore society to pieces and trampled it under foot.” Indeed, and they still do!

Adams was clearly one of the best minds this country ever produced. And his take on corporations is, as always, provocative. And this only a relative few years after they appeared on the horizon! One can only imagine what he would say today if he could see the unlimited power they have and reflect on the fact that they have been granted “person” status by a politically biased Supreme Court. I dare say he would allow the executives of Chevron to be punished, and then look around for others to share in the punishment as well. I’m with him.

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