ManagementSpeak: “While we don’t think we did anything illegal or unethical, from the standpoint of reputation risk we would not do this transaction today.” — A spokesperson for J.P.Morgan, reported in The Wall Street Journal, Monday, December 9, 2002
Translation: We’re guilty as sin, but we can afford better lawyers.
KJR club member Curt Cohee performs the highly ethical act of translating J. P. Morgan’s explanation.

In 1886, Santa Clara County sued the Southern Pacific Railroad regarding a tax matter. The case escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court where, in a mystifying aside, Chief Justice Waite commented, “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of opinion that it does.”

More than a century later we continue to suffer from the consequences of this tangential assertion that corporations are, for most legal purposes, people.

A recent Survival Guide, in a discussion of the morality of contracting with offshore providers for IT services, asserted that corporations aren’t moral agents. Quite a few readers disagreed, arguing that because corporations are composed of human beings, they inherit the morality of the individual human beings who own them and are employed by them.

If only it were that simple. But it isn’t. Human beings are composed of cells, tissues and organs. Presumably we each have greater moral responsibilities than our spleens. More generally, organisms have “emergent properties” — characteristics beyond those of their component parts.

Morality is a species-specific trait of Homo sapiens. As a former graduate student in ethology — the study of animal behavior — I can tell you with authority that there isn’t a shred of scientific evidence to suggest that any other species has a moral sense.

Organizations of human beings aren’t just big people. They’re different organisms, with different behavioral drivers. In a sense, they exist in a state of nature, subject only to criminal, civil, and evolutionary laws. The human decision-makers who make decisions on behalf of corporations might be moral beings (although I sometimes have my doubts) but group decisions and decision-making processes are quite different from those of individuals. We’ve seen this time and again in the form of mob behavior, and in the reprehensible behavior of some nations that’s at odds with the fundamental decency of most of their citizens, to give just two examples.

This, in fact, is the fundamental flaw in the Supreme Court decision: Human beings are presumptively moral beings; corporations are presumptively amoral. Our nation’s founders recognized the distinction: According to them the rights of human beings precede and legitimize government, while by definition, the government provides the legal framework that allows corporations to exist.

The rights of human beings precede government; the rights of corporations are defined by it.

Life sure would be easier if businesses operated as moral agents. It would be a refreshing change. But they don’t.

Which brings us to you and your role as a corporate leader. In that role, where you’re acting as the agent of an amoral entity, your moral choices aren’t easily summarized in black-and-white terms. It’s a subject next week’s column will explore in more practical terms.

Moral absolutism has become fashionable these days. It’s common to hear people assert that we all know what’s right and wrong, without question, beyond doubt, and don’t even think about arguing. That’s for moral relativists — muddled thinkers who allow evil to spread because they lack the courage and integrity to fight it. The moral absolutists know better — they can tell right from wrong and good from evil instantly and clearly. They know it in their guts.

Maybe they think our spleens do have a moral sense.