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The Politics of Stakeholder Theory: Some Future Directions1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 January 2015


The purpose of this paper is to enter the conversation about stakeholder theory with the goal of clarifying certain foundational issues. I want to show, along with Boatright, that there is no stakeholder paradox, and that the principle on which such a paradox is built, the Separation Thesis, is nicely self-serving to business and ethics academics. If we give up such a thesis we find there is no stakeholder theory but that stakeholder theory becomes a genre that is quite rich. It becomes one of many ways to blend together the central concepts of business with those of ethics. Rather than take each concept of business singly or the whole of “business” together and hold it to the light of ethical standards, we can use the stakeholder concept to create more fine-grained analyses that combine business and ethics; or more simply, we can tell many more, and more interesting, stories about business.

Copyright © Society for Business Ethics 1994

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2 Kenneth Goodpaster, “Business Ethics and Stakeholder Analysis,” Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1991, pp. 53–73.

3 James Kuhn and Donald Shriver, Beyond Success, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

4 Martin B. Meznar, James J. Chrisman, and Archie B. Carroll, “Social Responsibility and Strategic Management,” Business & Professional Ethics Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring 1991, pp. 47–66.

5 John Boatright, “What’s So Special About Stakeholders?” Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 4, October 1994 (this issue).

6 Goodpaster, op. cit., at 63.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid. at 67.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid. at 68.

11 We need look no further than any introductory finance book to find such claims of moral immunity.

12 In Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach I made a rather limited attempt to articulate these principles. Daniel R. Gilbert, Jr. showed me that once stakeholders were treated as moral agents, nothing less than a thoroughgoing redescription of corporate life would suffice. He and I have been engaged in various aspects of this project for the last 10 years.

13 I owe the formulation of these principles to a long-standing conversation of many years with Professor Jesse Taylor of Appalachian State University.

14 Cf., R. Edward Freeman and William M. Evan, “Corporate Governance: A Stakeholder Interpretation,” The Journal of Behavioral Economics, Vol. 19, No. 4,1990, pp. 337–59; and, William M. Evan and R. Edward Freeman, “A Stakeholder Theory of the Modern Corporation: Kantian Capitalism,” in T. Beauchamp and N. Bowie, (eds.) Ethical Theory and Business, 4th Edition, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993, pp. 75–93.

15 See for instance the essays in N. Bowie and E. Freeman (eds.) Ethics and Agency Theory, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

16 My colleague Professor Patricia Werhane has rightly point out, that on his own positive account of the moral nature of the corporation, Goodpaster does not need to accept the Separation Thesis. That he does, is evidenced by his formulation of the so-called “paradox.”

17 Thomas J. Donaldson and Lee Preston, “The Stakeholder Theory of the Corporation: Concepts, Evidence, Implications,” College Park: CIBER Occasional Paper #37, January 1994, forthcoming in Academy of Management Review.

18 See Steven N. Brenner and Jamshid C. Hosseini, “The Stakeholder Theory of the Firm: A Methodology to Generate Value Matrix Weights,” Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1, April 1992, pp. 99–120.

19 Creating a “reasonable pluralism” is a straightforward Rawlsian project whose whole point is to ensure that there exist multiple worldviews. Rawls’ argument is that only a liberal society, such as “justice as fairness” describes, makes such a reasonable pluralism possible.

20 See for instance A. Wicks, D. Gilbert and E. Freeman, “A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Stakeholder Concept,” Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 4, October 1994 (this issue); and E. Freeman and J. Liedtka, “Corporate Social Responsibility: A Critical Approach,” Business Horizons, Vol. 34, No. 4, July-August 1991, pp. 92–98.

21 At the Toronto workshop Mark Starik sketched how a theory would look if we took the environment to be a stakeholder. This fruitful line of work is one example of my main point about pluralism.

22 Infra note 14.

23 To show this rather than just claim it, one would have to examine how each of these three normative grounds of the stockholder theory themselves are used to justify the Separation Thesis. Such an analytic task is important, but beyond the scope of my present purposes. I claim here that each of these three reasons are used to justify treating stockholder claims as different from stakeholder claims, and used to separate the affairs of business from the affairs of ethics. I examine these issues in Managing for Stakeholders, forthcoming.

24 In private correspondence, David Schrader has recently argued correctly that “owners” is a misnomer, and that its use subtly cuts against the stakeholder idea. I have adopted “financiers” to call to mind Theodore Dreiser’s novel as well as recent events on Wall Street.

25 J. Rawls, Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993; and R. Rorty, “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy” in Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and Beyond), ed. Alan R. Malachowski, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990.

26 Notice that one could equally give a conservative notion of fairness, that a contract is fair if it is in fact agreed upon. On such an argument, the real world would assume a large element of fairness. While there would be a disagreement over which normative core is better, the argument around the legitimacy of the corporation would be moot. The question would be what constitutes fairness, not what constitutes the corporation. The stakeholder genre in fact makes moot this large question of corporate legitimacy. It is a genre that is inherently liberal, rather than radical.

27 I am especially grateful to Professor John Hasnas for critical comments on these principles.

28 This principle has been much criticized in a number of seminars, but I remain convinced that it is necessary. It ensures the liberal ideal of citizenship for all. Each stakeholder is sovereign in the matter of their own interests and they are jointly sovereign in matters of their mutual interests. Think of this principle as ensuring that no stakeholder can sell another into virtual slavery. It is also possible to invent actual mechanisms that rely on unanimous consent of representatives rather than individual stakeholders.

29 Again, this principle has been criticized as failing to understand that opportunity costs are pervasive. My reply is that we should build our understanding of economics on a reasonable moral order, rather than vice-versa; or, so much the worse for the idea of “opportunity cost.”

30 The presumption of a reasonable future is an important yet overlooked area of democratic theory. The idea of “race relations” depends on a shared understanding of “reasonable future” or more poignantly a “philosophy of hope.”

31 For a recent and thorough analysis of the current state of so-called “constituency statutes” see Eric W. Orts, “Beyond Shareholders: Interpreting Corporate Constituency Statutes,” George Washington Law Review, Vol. 61, November 1992, p. 14.

32 So, Andrew Stark’s recent lament “What’s the Matter with Business Ethics,” Harvard Business Review, Vol. 71, No. 3, May-June 1993, pp. 38–48, misrepresents and misunderstands the current landscape of both business and ethics, though his main points were true enough 10 years ago.

33 I explore the difficulties inherent in these dynamics in an unpublished paper, “The Business Sucks Story.”