Center for Governance and Sustainability

at the University of Massachusetts Boston

Aligning Values and Governance Structures

GRI recognizes that many “who inhabit the global economy are all too prone to treat matters of human dignity and security as outside their legitimate purview.” 1   GRI's observation identifies a significant tension for WEF's aspiration to engage corporate executives explicitly in the formal governance system. MNC executives have an extraordinary depth of knowledge of the global communities through which they relate to potential customers, workers, investors, or clients. Outside of these market-based realities, they tend to be very restricted in their knowledge of global issues, making them less able to be effective global political managers. One GRI proposal to overcome this deficit is to have corporate executives take a modified version of the Hippocratic oath.

Selecting the image of the Hippocratic Oath as the new model for an ethical standard for global corporate governance leaders is interesting. At its simplest level, the Hippocratic Oath is understood to mean that medical doctors should at the very least ‘do-no-harm’ to their patients. The direct transformation of this pledge to the business community would simply not be acceptable in the corporate world, as a good deal of legally acceptable business practices can do ‘harm’ to the environment, to workers, to customers, and to those unable to afford basic goods.

The text of the classic Greek Hippocratic Oath has a number of other ethical elements that are even less likely to be acceptable to the business community. The classic Greek Oath expects its adherents to share their professional knowledge with their teachers and the children of their teachers for free, 2  to refuse to provide a deadly drug to anyone, 3  to remain free of all intentional injustice and mischief, 4  and to agree to not spread abroad any personal information. 5  All of these aspects of the original Hippocratic Oath would be difficult for contemporary corporate leaders to accept. GRI therefore has called for a modified version of the Hippocratic Oath. The Global Agenda Taskforce on Faith and the Global Agenda Task Force on Values did seek to align religious values with the ethical standards for effective global governance, but in the end WEF chose to ask its Young Global Leaders to write a new corporate ethical oath.

Over the past 30 years, a number of specifically corporate-oriented codes of conduct have been developed by diverse groups of stakeholders. 6   Some express broad-based set of ethical principles for working in the world today, some articulate solutions to specific corporate practices, and some codes set standards for business disclosure in specific countries and regions (e.g. fragile states, authoritarian countries).  At the intergovernmental level, there are multilaterally agreed-upon statements that could easily provide a moral foundation for a modified corporate Hippocratic Oath (e.g Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  the Rio Principles, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, or Millennium Development Goals ). GRI  does not call for the widespread recognition of any of these stakeholder ethical guides or any intergovernmentally adopted normative statements. This lack of reference to existing intergovernmental, agreed-upon value statements is inconsistent with GRI’s Tool One that calls for “extending intergovernmental norms and legal frameworks.”

The GRI does break ground by recognizing the moral gap in the thinking of corporate executives. This recognition features prominently in Step Five. This step calls for “ . . .  cultivating a shift in values within societies and professions grounded in a deeper appreciation of the implications of global interdependence. . .” Unfortunately, in proposing a way to close this gap, GRI chooses to ignore prior efforts by other non-state Actors and intergovernmental bodies which have formulated specific business standards and ethical principles.  

Details on GRI’s views on the alignment of ethics to the new global governance system are in the co-chairs’ introductory essays, in the reports of their Global Agenda Council on Faith; the Global Agenda Council on Philanthropy and Social Investing; the Global Agenda Council on Values; the Young Global Leaders Oath Project Task Force; and the Partnering Against Corruption Initiative and in Professor John DeGioia’s essay. 

 

Related Ideas : Civic culture not robust enoughSense of ownership by non-state actors; The Oath; BriberyShift in Values; Tool One

The Readers' Guide welcomes commentary – critical or otherwise – of the classification system used as well as the identification of relevant governance papers and case studies from on-going thematic governance debates.

  • 1. ^ GRI, pg 28
  • 2. ^ “. . . to hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents … and to regard his offspring as equal to my brothers and to teach them this art.” English translation of the classic version of the see Hippocratic Oath on wikipedia.org  (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippocratic_Oath).
  • 3. ^ “. . . I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect…”, and, “… I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice…”Hippocratic Oath.
  • 4. ^ “. . . What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even outside the treatment in regard to the life of men, which on no account one must spread abroad, I will keep to myself, holding such things shameful to be spoken about.” Hippocratic Oath.
  • 5. ^ “ . . . What I may see or hear in the course of treatment or even outside of the treatment in regard to the life of men, which on no account one must spread abroad, I will keep myself holding such things shameful to be spoken about.” Hippocratic Oath
  • 6. ^ WEF did not need to re-invent the wheel. Corporate codes are also available from religious communities such as Bob Hinkley’s Code for Corporate Citizenship, Church corporate ethical associations (e.g. those from the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility), and from the business community (e.g. the Equator Principles).

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