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Confucian Philosophy and Corporate Responsibility

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Freedom devoid of responsibility would result in the collapse of the social network. It would cause strife among individuals, between individuals and society, and essentially would lead to the sacrifice of the future in order to fulfill short-term desires. Coming under much scrutiny for allegedly doing just this is today's dominant institution, a legal establishment with pervasive influence on contemporary life: the modern corporate enterprise. We live in a world plagued with human exploitation and severe environmental degradation. Many would claim that behind this unfair and unsustainable global situation lies the profit-hungry hand of corporate power. Accused and often found criminally guilty in court of having enormous and often hidden harms, one might ask exactly what a corporations ethical responsibilities are towards the world in which it functions. Attitudes toward the subject of responsibility are globally and historically diverse, however. Due to cultural differences certain traditions are heavily concerned with responsibility and societal harmony while others are far more preoccupied with free choice and individual rights.

Looking to Confucianism, the philosophy of Confucius (or King fu-tzu), one can see a philosophy that places a great deal of emphasis on human responsibility. Confucius is, in fact, the most influential thinker in human history if influence were to be measured by the number of people who have lived in accordance with a philosopher's vision. (Ames, 28) Turning to the scriptures outlining the teachings of this Chinese sage who lived over 2,500 years ago, it would be unproblematic to prove that the modern corporation has been and continues to be unethical by Confucian standards. That is not the purpose of this essay, however. This essay will explore concept of corporate institutions and their ethical accountability using Confucian philosophy a guide.

For the purposes of this essay, focus will be given to the Confucian Analects and interpretations of it. This compilation of quotes, conversations and anecdotes is also referred to as The Lunyu and remains the primary source document of Confucian philosophy. Interestingly, despite being revered as Chinas first and greatest teacher, there is no coherent system of thought laid down by Confucius himself. Much like Socrates, Buddha and Jesus Christ, Confucius' many disciples are entirely responsible for the surviving compilation. The Analects is rich in subtle insinuation and tautology making it seem disjointed and unclear to the western reader. With the help of translations and interpretations, however, it can be put into context.

When the stables were burnt down, on returning from the court, Confucius said, "Was anyone hurt?" He did not ask about the horses. (Analects X. 11, Ames)

This well-known anecdote, for example, gains far deeper meaning when the reader is made aware that in Confucius' time, horses were up to tenfold the price of a stableman. Confucius demonstrates here, a priority of human life above all else. Through interpretation, this seemingly simplistic anecdote, among others, has led various Western commentators to refer to Confucian teachings as an important variant of humanism.

While this essay does not claim that Confucianism can provide a new moral code for the global village, or restore ethics to the western construct of the last century known as the corporation, it is key that one acknowledges the values inherent in Confucian philosophy. The three essential values expressed through Confucian teaching are filial and political authority, ritual, and humaneness. These values have their basis in pre-existing Chinese culture and for this reason, Confucius referred to himself as a "transmitter who invented nothing". (Xinzhong.

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