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On the other hand, the consequences for breaching a moral duty is blame and condemnation — and, if one has a well developed conscience, feelings of guilt and shame leading to remorse.


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Legal duties are created by federal, state and municipal laws as well as regulations promulgated by government agencies. Company policies have a similar effect on those bound by them. Promise-Based Moral Obligations.

The second source of moral obligation is based on a promise or agreement. While not all promises reach the level of an enforceable contract, honorable people and companies recognize and fulfill the oral obligation to do the things they agreed to do, especially if others are counting on them to do so.

Moral Obligations of American Companies

When we borrow money, promising to pay it back in a week, or tell a friend we will pick her up at the airport, or take a job involving the supervision of other employees, we undertake a moral duty to do what we say we will do and to dutifully perform the responsibilities encompassed in our promises. Though from an ethical perspective there is no doubt that we have a moral obligation to keep our promises, many people in business and politics do not accept this moral duty.

Consequently, a great many lawyers and executives think of their contractual obligations and other commitments purely in terms of economic impact. This leads to a belief that in business one has a right to breach a promise so long as he or she is willing to pay for any damages caused.

Unfortunately, this is not just an academic theory; it is an operational philosophy in much of the business world. The notion of honor seems to have no place in transactions involving something they evidently value more — money.

The Moral Responsibilities of Companies | C. Chapple | Palgrave Macmillan

While conducting a workshop on corporate values for senior executives of a Fortune company, I once suggested that promise-keeping was a central aspect of trustworthiness, that there is an ethical as well as a legal responsibility to keep commitments. He explained that whether the company decides to live up to an agreement is a business decision with no ethical dimension. Morality is not an issue.


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  • This legalistic, expediency-oriented attitude is a perfect illustration of the dangers, and in my view the fallacy, of trying to separate business and personal ethics. The standards of trustworthiness and honor do not change the moment one enters corporate headquarters. Moral Principle as the Basis of Moral Obligation.

    The third source of moral obligation is moral principle, a standard of conduct that exists irrespective of laws or agreements. Moral principles can be mandated by religious doctrine or derived through rational philosophical reasoning.

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    In some cases, principles such as justice and benevolence simply emerge as the result of an intuitive moral sense. Whatever their source, however, such principles are at the very core of ethics. Moral obligation of companies, more often referred to as corporate responsibility, is a philosophy, an ultimatum given to businesses to do good, a professional practice and a subject of academics.

    In general, corporate responsibility can be broken into five areas: environmental, social, economic, relational and voluntary. Economic responsibility requires corporations to care for rather than solely use the environment. Social responsibility mandates that corporations contribute to the improvement of society.

    The Moral Responsibility of Firms: For or Against?

    Economic responsibility argues that corporations should contribute not just to their profits but to overall societal economic development. Relational responsibility requires corporations to ethically manage their interactions with customers, employees, business associates, the communities in which they are situated and the communities on which they have an effect. Three basic questions are used in the field to help businesses find their moral compass.

    Corporate Social Responsibility

    The comparison of what is with what should be defines our societal ideas of what our current social contract looks like. Companies need to be aware of and participate in this discussion both to help shape it, and to make sure they are not left out of it. Writing for more than 20 years, she has contributed to academic journals and online publications, including the Colombian NTN24 news website.