Institutionally driven moral conflicts and managerial action: Dirty hands or permissible complicity?


Ethics and Business Law

Date of this version


Document Type



Corporate responsibility Dirty hands Human rights Intentionality Managerial responsibility Moral conflict Moral dilemmas


This paper examines what managers ought to do when confronted with apparent moral conflicts between their managerial responsibilities and the general requirements of morality, specifically when those conflicts are driven by the institutional environment. I examine Google’s decision to enter the Chinese search engine market as an example of such a conflict. I consider the view that Google’s managers engaged in justifiable moral compromise in making the choice to engage in self-censorship and show how this view depends on the idea of genuine moral dilemmas or irresolvable moral conflicts. I argue that there are serious reasons to doubt the existence of genuine moral dilemmas both in the abstract, as well as in the context of managerial responsibility. I propose an alternative account for what Google’s managers ought to do, as well as others who face relevantly similar situations. The account contains two conditions for permissibly contributing to another party’s failure to live up to their moral responsibilities. The first condition is that the manager must intend and act in such a way as to minimize the firm’s complicity in the other entity or actor’s failure, which in most cases will imply a duty for the manager to take actions that aim towards changing the institutional context. Under the second condition, managers ought to communicate to the firm’s constituents that they take seriously the importance of the interests at stake.

Published in

Journal of Business Ethics

Citation/Other Information

129 (1) 161-175