Communicating Moral Legitimacy in Controversial Industries: The Trade in Human Tissue

Journal of Business Ethics 154 (1):49-63 (2019)
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Abstract

Globally active companies are involved in the discursive construction of moral legitimacy. Establishing normative conformance is problematic given the plurality of norms and values worldwide, and is particularly difficult for companies operating in morally controversial industries. In this paper, we investigate how organizations publicly legitimize the trade of human tissue for private profit when this practice runs counter to deep-seated and widespread moral beliefs. To do so, we use inductive, qualitative methods to analyze the website discourse of three types of organizations that trade in human tissue and are associated with different degrees of moral controversy with respect to tissue procurement and use. Our analysis reveals an object-oriented approach to moral legitimizing centered on the human tissue as a morally disputed good. We find that the website discourse translates human tissue into technology, constructs normative meaning around a dominant instrumental value associated with human-tissue-as-technology, and reproduces and stabilizes this meaning by six discursive mechanisms that amplify and anchor it. Moreover, the use of amplifying and anchoring discourse was greater in organizations associated with greater controversy. The results are consistent with an object-oriented sociality.

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