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Business Ethics Without Stakeholders

One of the most influential ideas in the field of business ethics has been the suggestion that ethical conduct in a business context should be analyzed in terms of a set of fiduciary obligations toward various “stakeholder” groups. Moral problems, according to this view, involve reconciling such obligations in cases where stakeholder groups have conflicting interests.

The question posed in this paper is whether the stakeholder paradigm represents the most fruitful way of articulating the moral problems that arise in business. By way of contrast, I outline two other possible approaches to business ethics: one, a more minimal conception, anchored in the notion of a fiduciary obligation toward shareholders; and the other, a broader conception, focused on the concept of market failure.

I then argue that the latter offers a more satisfactory framework for the articulation of the social responsibilities of business.

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Business Ethics Without Stakeholders