Do corporations have a duty to be trustworthy?

by Nikolas Kirby, Andrew Kirton and Aisling Crean

30 Oct 2018
Journal of the British Academy
Number of pages
54 (pp. 75-129)

Pages in this section

Abstract: Since the global financial crisis in 2008, corporations have faced a crisis of trust, with growing sentiment against ‘elites and ‘big business’ and a feeling that ‘something ought to be done’ to re-establish public regard for corporations. Trust and trustworthiness are deeply moral significant. They provide the ‘glue or lubricant’ that begets reciprocity, decreases risk, secures dignity and respect, and safeguards against the subordination of the powerless to the powerful. However, in deciding how to restore trust, it is difficult to determine precisely what should be done, by whom, and who will bear the cost, especially if any action involves a risk to overall market efficiency and corporate profitability.
The paper explores whether corporations have a moral duty to be trustworthy, to bear the cost of being so and thus contribute to resolving the current crisis of trust. It also considers where the state and other social actors have strong reason to protect and enforce such moral rights, while acknowledging that other actors have similar obligations to be trustworthy. It outlines five ‘salient factors’ that trigger specific rights to trustworthiness and a concomitant duty on corporations to be trustworthy: market power, subordination (threat and intimidation), the absence of choice, the need to preserve systemic trust, and corporate political power which might undermine a state’s legitimacy. Absent these factors and corporations do not have a general duty to be trustworthy, since a responsible actor in fair market conditions should be able to choose between the costs and benefits of dealing with generally trustworthy corporations.

Keywords: Trust, organisational trust, institutional trust, trustworthiness, corporate trust, corporate trustworthiness, business ethics.

Article posted to Journal of the British Academy, volume 6,
supplementary issue 1 (Reforming Business for the 21st Century).

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