Shareholders vs. Stakeholders: How Liberal and Libertarian Political Philosophy Frames the Basic Debate in Business Ethics

Business and Professional Ethics Journal 32 (3-4):183-220 (2013)
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The “basic debate” in business ethics between shareholder theory and stakeholder theory has underlined the field since its inception, with wide ranging normative, descriptive, and instrumental arguments offered on both sides. We maintain that insofar as this is primarily a normative debate, clarity can be brought by elucidating how it is framed by the political philosophies of liberalism and libertarianism.With liberalism represented by John Rawls’s theory of justice and libertarianism represented by the ideas of Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick, and Edward Freeman, the paper shows that both liberalism and libertarianism can be interpreted to justify shareholder and stakeholder theory respectively. The debate between shareholder theory and stakeholder theory is framed by liberal and libertarian justifications that hinge primarily on whether and to what extent one should have exogenous or endogenous safeguards on corporate behavior. Accordingly, political philosophy turns out to be highly relevant to both business ethics and corporate governance, not because the corporation resembles the state, but because of the potential safeguards placed on the corporation by the state



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