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Confucian Philosophy and Corporate Responsibility

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Freedom devoid of responsibility would result in the collapse of the social network. It would cause strife among individuals, between individuals and society, and essentially would lead to the sacrifice of the future in order to fulfill short-term desires. Coming under much scrutiny for allegedly doing just this is today’s dominant institution, a legal establishment with pervasive influence on contemporary life: the modern corporate enterprise. We live in a world plagued with human exploitation and severe environmental degradation. Many would claim that behind this unfair and unsustainable global situation lies the profit-hungry hand of corporate power. Accused and often found criminally guilty in court of having enormous and often hidden harms, one might ask exactly what a corporations ethical responsibilities are towards the world in which it functions. Attitudes toward the subject of responsibility are globally and historically diverse, however. Due to cultural differences certain traditions are heavily concerned with responsibility and societal harmony while others are far more preoccupied with free choice and individual rights.

Looking to Confucianism, the philosophy of Confucius (or King fu-tzu), one can see a philosophy that places a great deal of emphasis on human responsibility. Confucius is, in fact, the most influential thinker in human history if influence were to be measured by the number of people who have lived in accordance with a philosopher’s vision. (Ames, 28) Turning to the scriptures outlining the teachings of this Chinese sage who lived over 2,500 years ago, it would be unproblematic to prove that the modern corporation has been and continues to be unethical by Confucian standards. That is not the purpose of this essay, however. This essay will explore concept of corporate institutions and their ethical accountability using Confucian philosophy a guide.

For the purposes of this essay, focus will be given to the Confucian Analects and interpretations of it. This compilation of quotes, conversations and anecdotes is also referred to as The Lunyu and remains the primary source document of Confucian philosophy. Interestingly, despite being revered as Chinas first and greatest teacher, there is no coherent system of thought laid down by Confucius himself. Much like Socrates, Buddha and Jesus Christ, Confucius’ many disciples are entirely...

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Whether it is due to innate predispositions or learned characteristics, human beings, despite admittedly irrational behaviors, are also moral beings. We are characterized by our freedom of choice, consciousness of abstract thought and largely by a sense of responsibility. As a species we are not solely interested in the process of an action, but also its motives and its consequences. One could argue that attaining a manageable balance between action and responsibility has been a fundamental issue in all past and present traditions and philosophies.

In a sense, whether a concrete proposal for universal Confucian ethic is successfully put in place is not of primary importance. The significance is found in the ethical attention of the modern day corporations and the consumerist world that supports them , shifting in a fundamental way from rights-based morality, to a more sustainable, responsibility-emphasized ethic. While perhaps a corporation itself has is devoid of moral obligations, those who function within it, along with the public supporters of it are not. In and contributing to the harmony of the universe, Confucian ethics will have an instrumental role to play.
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