In the very terminology of the “for-profit” corporation, the primary aim of the latter is clearly stated: it is to generate profit for itself. That is to say, its decisions in the business realm are intended to generate capital for the company itself. Its teleology, to use a philosophical term, is therefore defined by its own well-being, which is primarily measured in terms of the quantity of profits it is to accrue. According to this definition, it would seem that “for-profit” corporations are in themselves incompatible with a greater ethical good within society: namely, their primary aim is not defined in terms of working for a greater society, but rather in terms of their own survival, a survival that is equated with profit.
This primary goal of the corporation, however, does not mean that corporations themselves are incapable of aiding society through pursuing their programs: namely, corporations, by pursuing profit, also create employment within a society, clearly giving jobs to those who need to them. In addition, profits of the corporation can also be used for functions such as charity, which clearly aim to provide a greater positive social service. Essentially, from this perspective, even though a corporation may in fact be a “for-profit” corporation, there is nothing in this definition of profit itself that details what should be done with these profits. For example, we could hypothetically conceive of a corporation that uses all of its profits for charitable causes, although such a corporation does not exist. The definition, however, does not exclude this possibility.
Examples of corporations that have nevertheless pursued greater social aims include Microsoft, which has shown a continuing commitment to philanthropy: for example, its “YouthSpark” global initiative, created in September, 2012, aims to “combat ‘the opportunity gap’ for young people.” (Tu, 2012) In this example, profits of the company and the company’s own vitality eventually help engender a greater ethical program that aims to provide social services.
However, it still remains the fact that corporations are not in themselves ethical organizations. Corporations can contribute to the social good, but in so far as their primary aim is their own individual good, there is no necessary causal connection between a for-profit corporation and an ethical contribution to society. It is because that from the first point does not necessarily follow the latter point that corporations can become the exact opposite: they can become ethical minuses in society, creating a negative force in society because of their obsession with creating profits intended for their own survival.
Consider for example, the explosion of the chemical factory owned by the Union Carbide Corporation in Bhopal, India in 1984. This explosion claimed the lives of over 2,000 workers and citizens of Bhopal. Furthermore, “chemicals from the plant continue to contaminate drinking water.” (Synovitz, 2004) Certainly, it can be argued that this is an extreme case and does not represent for-profit corporations as a whole. However, from a greater perspective, there is still no necessary causal link between the entity of the for-profit corporation and ethics. The two in themselves are discontinuous and this has one decisive ethical problem for our societies: in so far as our societies are continually more organized around independent for-profit corporations, which are in themselves entities concerned above all with their own well-being, the structure of our society lacks an ethical foundation common to all. We relegate ethical and social concerns to the whim of the corporation in question, that is, social and ethical concerns are only addressed when a corporation autonomously decides to help society in a manner beyond merely offering members of society employment. In other words, we have marginalized ethics in our society in favor of a concept of profit that has in its own definition no greater socio-ethical connotation.
Hence, whereas for-profit corporations can certainly create programs for social good, there is no inherent reason why they should do so. And in so far as we encourage the organization of society along these types of corporations, it shows our neglect of focusing on ethical and social concerns. The greater effect of emphasizing such corporations’ existence thus inevitably comes at the expense of emphasizing a greater ethical and social justice.
Synovitz, R. (2004). “India: Twenty Years Later, Bhopal Still Reeling from World’s Deadliest Chemical Accident.” Radio Free Europe. 2 December. Accessed at: http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1056188.html
Tu, J.I. (2012). “Microsoft Starts Biggest Philanthropy Effort in Company History.” The New York Times. 21 September. Accessed at: http://seattletimes.com/html/microsoftpri0/2019220926_microsoft_starts_biggest_philanthropy_effort_in_co.html