Disaster and the Moral Appraisal of Corporate Actions

November 1990 (VOL. 8, NO. 3)

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Ethics is an aspect of disasters that has yet to receive sustained attention. We concentrate further on one particular kind of disaster, namely technological disasters. These are disasters that arise from human artifice. Because most technological development rests in the commercial sector, we examine the ethical responsibility of corporations. Following Charles Lindblom, we argue that corporate authorities can be understood as exercising delegated authority. If so, then at least part of their role is to act as if they were public officials. We conceive of delegated authority as a social contract in which society accepts the operation of business on the assumption that business acts in a way that respects rights and maximizes benefits for all concerned. Here we look to John Rawls. One way in which the role of the executive can be ventilated is by adopting a stakeholder frame of reference that recognizes the array of legitimate interest affected by a processing industry. In Lindblom's terms, this means accounting for hidden costs. We close with some specific examples where the ethical obligations of corporations can be discharged with respect to disaster prevention and mitigation.