Volume 7, Issue 3, 2009
Green Shoots and Perennials
Stockholders Versus Stakeholders
Implications for Business Ethics
This paper analyses the arguments for two competing ethical models of business. On the one hand there are theorists like Milton Friedman who claim that the sole social responsibility of business leaders is to maximise stockholder profits. On the other, there are those who argue that a business has ethical responsibilities to many stakeholders: employees, stockholders, retailers, customers, and so on.
I argue that a business has ethical responsibility over those functions and purposes over which it has the most autonomous control. The production and selling of products and services for customers is the primary purpose of a business. The generation of profit is a contingent purpose dependent on the exchange between the business and the customer. I define excellent functioning businesses as those that synergise the purposes of stakeholders to provide products and services with ethical outcomes. When ethical considerations and business interests between stakeholders conflict, the responsibility of a business to its customers has primacy over those related to business input stakeholders such as employees, stockholders and suppliers.