All in the mind? Ethical identity and the allure of corporate responsibility

Baker, Max and Roberts, John (2011) All in the mind? Ethical identity and the allure of corporate responsibility. Journal of Business Ethics, 101 (1 Supp). pp. 5-15. ISSN 0167-4544

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Abstract

This paper develops a critique of the concept of ‘ethical identity’ as this has been used recently to distinguish between ‘cynical’ and ‘authentic’ forms of corporate responsibility. Taking as our starting point Levinas’ demanding view of responsibility as ‘following the assignation of responsibility for my neighbour’, we use a case study of a packaging company—PackCo—to argue that a concern with being seen and/or seeing oneself as responsible should not be confused with actual responsibility. Our analysis of the case points first to the allure of programmes of strategic corporate responsibility and the ways in which, through identification, they can provide a tacit form of moral sanction to managers in their aggressive pursuit of profit. It then contrasts the responses of different managers to negative staff feedback to illustrate the difference between managers’ attempts to defend their identity of being ‘responsible’ managers, and responsible conduct itself. The paper concludes that a potent danger of programmes of corporate responsibility is that they allow managers to deceive not just others, but also themselves in relation to the exercise of responsibility.