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Alex Shapiro

The role of multinational enterprises (MNEs), particularly in an American context, has evolved from one defined by shareholder primacy to one that must consider a greater panorama of stakeholder interests. The traditional view of capitalism is giving way to a modern view, in which global issues like climate change have rallied citizens around the world toward an expectation that corporations will take greater responsibility for the stewardship of social and environmental conditions. What Donaldson calls “non-perfectionist moral languages” are adequate to theorizing corporate ethics in the traditional view, but the modern international business environment requires a “perfectionist moral language” to undergird it. Non-perfectionist languages imply a fundamentally limited moral aspiration, and lead to a systemic deferral of responsibility. Perfectionist languages, on the other hand, presuppose an unlimited moral aspiration and invite the MNE to take full ownership of any consequences that follow from corporate operations. Emmanuel Levinas, a twentieth-century French philosopher whose unique conception of ethics has recently become a popular resource for theorists in nearly every field of inquiry, sketches out a perfectionist moral language that provides a fresh approach to the ethical dimension of multinational decision making. His theory prioritizes the other over the self, inverting the order of relations at the basis of traditional capitalism. This leads to an ethics that eschews reliance on formal frameworks and quantifiable metrics, focusing instead on the felt responsibility for individual, vulnerable stakeholders. MNE managers are empowered to envision possibilities for profitably utilizing corporate capabilities and resources in service to others. The MNE becomes a steward of its stakeholders’ well-being and, in so doing, aspires as a matter of course to maximize social and environmental health in the communities in which it operates.