Do Shareholders Have Obligations to Stakeholders?

Journal of Business Ethics 33 (4):287-297 (2001)
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Abstract

The question of whether, and to what extent, business managers have obligations to stakeholders has been the principal theme in much of recent business ethics literature. The question of whether shareholders have obligations to stakeholders, however, has not been addressed sufficiently. I provide some needed attention to this matter by examining the positions of shareholders in the contemporary world of investing. Their positions are considerably different than that often envisioned by business ethicists and economists where shareholders determine the directions of corporate activities through their voting decisions. Typical contemporary investors rarely control corporate activities. If they own corporate securities directly, generally they own too small an interest to exercise control. And, in most cases, they do not even own corporate securities directly, but, rather, own shares in funds. Because of the positions of shareholders today, it is highly questionable whether most have obligations to stakeholders. This has a significant implication for business managers. Whether or not shareholders have obligations to stakeholders, business managers have a greater obligation to educate shareholders about how corporate activities affect stakeholders. I provide a justification for that obligation and comment on how business managers might begin to fulfill it.

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Earl Spurgin
John Carroll University

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