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Whistleblowing and Employee Loyalty

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CHAPTER 8

WHISTLEBLOWING AND EMPLOYEE LOYALTY*

Three Mile Island. In early 1983, almost four years after the near meltdown at Unit 2, two officials in the Site Operations Office of General Public Utilities reported a reckless company effort to clean up the contaminated reactor. Under threat of physical retaliation from superiors, the GPU insiders released evidence alleging that the company had rushed the TMI cleanup without testing key maintenance systems. Since then, the Three Mile Island mop-up has been stalled pending a review of GPU’s management.1

The releasing of evidence of the rushed cleanup at Three Mile Island is an example of whistleblowing. Norman Bowie defines whistleblowing as “the act by an employee of informing the public on the immoral or illegal behavior of an employer or supervisor.”2 Ever since Daniel Elsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers, the question of whether an employee should blow the whistle on his company or organization has become a hotly contested issue. Was Elsberg right? Is it right to report the shady or suspect practices of the organization one works for? Is one a stool pigeon or a dedicated citizen? Does a person have an obligation to the public that overrides his obligation to his employer or does he simply betray a loyalty and become a traitor if he reports his company? There are proponents on both sides of the issue––those who praise whistle-blowers as civic heroes and those who condemn them as “finks.” Glen and Shearer who wrote about the whistleblowers at Three Mile Island say, “Without the courageous breed of assorted company insiders known as whistleblowers—workers who often risk their livelihoods to disclose information about construction and design flaws— the Nuclear Regulatory Commission itself would be nearly as idle as Three Mile Island … . That whistleblowers deserve both gratitude and protection is beyond is disagreement.”3 Still, while Glen and Shearer praise whistleblowers, other vociferously condemn them. For example, in a now infamous quote, James Roche, the former president of General Motors said:
Some critics are now busy eroding another support of free enterprise—the loyalty of a management team, with its unifying values and cooperative work. Some of the enemies of business now encourage an employee to be disloyal to the enterprise. They want to create suspicion and disharmony, and pry into the proprietary interests of the business. However,

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CHAPTER 8 this is labelled—industrial espionage, whistleblowing, or professional responsibility—it is another tactic for spreading disunity and creating conflict.4

From Roche’s point of view, whistleblowing is not only not “courageous” and deserving of “gratitude and protection” as Glen and Shearer would have it, it is corrosive and not even permissible. Discussions of whistleblowing generally revolve around three topics: (1) attempts to define whistleblowing more precisely; (2) debates about whether and when whistleblowing is permissible; and (3) debates about whether and when one has an obligation to blow the whistle. In this paper I want to focus on the second problem, because I find it somewhat disconcerting that there is a problem at all. When I first looked into the ethics of whistleblowing it seemed to me that whistleblowing was a good thing, and yet I found in the literature claim after claim that it was in need of defense, that there was something wrong with it, namely, that it was an act of disloyalty. If whistleblowing was a disloyal act, it deserved disapproval and ultimately any action of whistleblowing needed justification. This disturbed me. It was as if the act of a good Samaritan was being condemned as an act of interference, as if the prevention of a suicide need to be justified. It was as if my moral position in favor of whistleblowing was being challenged. The tables were turned and the burden of proof had shifted. My position was the one in question. Suddenly instead of the company being the bad guy and the whistleblower the good guy, which is what I thought, the whistleblower was the bad guy. Why? Because he was disloyal. What I discovered was that in most of the literature it was taken that whistleblowing was an act of disloyalty. My moral intuitions told me that axiom was mistaken. Nevertheless, since it is accepted by a large segment of the ethical community it deserves investigation. In his book Business Ethics, Norman Bowie, who presents what I think is one of the finest presentations of the ethics of whistleblowing, claims that “whistleblowing … violate(s) a prima facie duty of loyalty to one’s employee.” According to Bowie, there is a duty of loyalty that prohibits one from reporting his employer or company. Bowie, of course, recognizes that this is only a prima facie duty, that is, one that can be overridden by a higher duty to the public good. Nevertheless, the axiom that whistleblowing is disloyal is Bowie’s starting point. Bowie is not alone. Sisela Bok, another fine ethicist, sees “whistleblowing” as an instance of disloyalty.
The whistleblower hopes to stop the same; but since he is neither referee nor coach, and since he blows the whistle on his own team, his act is seen as a violation of loyalty. [italics mine] In holding his position, he has assumed certain obligations to his colleagues and clients. He may even have subscribed to a loyalty oath or a promise of confidentiality … . Loyalty to colleagues and to clients comes to be pitted against loyalty to the public interest, to those who may be injured unless the relevant is made.5

Bowie and Bok end up defending whistleblowing in certain contexts, so I don’t necessarily disagree with their conclusions. However, I fail to see how one has an obligation of loyalty to one’s company, so I disagree with their perception of the problem, and their starting point. I want to argue that one does not have an obligation

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of loyalty to a company, even a prima facie one, because companies are not the kind of things that are properly objects of loyalty. To make them objects of loyalty gives them a moral status they do not deserve, and in raising their status, one lowers the status of the individuals who work for the companies. Thus, the difference in perception is important and because those who think employers have an obligation of loyalty to a company fail to take into account a relevant moral difference between persons and corporations. But why aren’t companies the kind of things that can be objects of loyalty? To answer that we have to ask what kind of objects are proper objects of loyalty. John Ladd states the problem this way, “Granted that loyalty is the wholehearted devotion to an object of some kind, what kind of thing is the object? Is it an abstract entity, such as an idea or a collective being? Or is it a person or group of persons?”6 Philosophers fall into three camps on the question. On one side are the idealists who hold that loyalty is devotion to something more than persons, to some cause or abstract entity. On the other side are what Ladd calls “social atomists,” and these include empiricists and utilitarians, who think at most one can only be loyal to individuals, and that loyalty can ultimately be explained away as some other obligation that holds between two people. Finally, there is a moderate position that holds that although idealists go too far in postulating some super-personal entity as an object of loyalty, loyalty is still an important and real relation that holds between people, on which cannot be dismissed by reducing it to some other relation. The chief exponent of the idealist position is Josiah Royce, Royce writes the following:
Loyalty, then, fixes our attention upon some one cause, bids us look without ourselves to see what this unified cause is, shows us thus some one plan of action, and then says to us, “In this cause your life, your will, your opportunity, your fulfillment.” … Loyalty has its domestic, its religious, its commercial, its professional forms, and many other forms as well. The essence of it, whatever forms it may take, is as I conceive the matter, this: Since no man can find a plan of life by merely looking within his own chaotic nature, he has to look without, to the world of social conventions, deeds, and causes. Now a loyal man is one who has found, and who sees, neither mere individual fellowmen to be loved or hated, nor mere conventions, nor customers, nor laws to be obeyed, but some social cause, or some system of causes, so rich, so well knit, and to him so fascinating, and withal so kindly in its appeal to his natural self-will, that he says to his cause: “Thy will is mine and mine is thine.”7

Clearly for Royce the object of loyalty is not other individual persons but a cause that transcends individuals. Norman Bowie uses this passage of Royce to suggest that it might fittingly describe an employee’s loyalty to a company. “With some proper changes in wording, Royce’s characterization of virtue would serve as the basis for a corporate executive’s speech on the importance of employee loyalty to the company where he or she works.”8 What Bowie asserts is true in one sense. If an executive could get his employees to give the kind of loyalty that Royce describes, a loyalty without thought to himself or his fellow man, but to the will of the company, the manager would have the ideal kind of corporation from an organizational standpoint. As Paul R. Lawrence, the organizational theorist says, “Ideally, we would want one sentiment to be dominant in all employees from top to bottom, namely a complete loyalty to the organizational purpose.”9

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But because it is true that such a speech could serve as a basis for extolling loyalty in one’s employees, it does not follow that it should serve in such a capacity. Rather I would argue it should not be used. There is a price to be paid for the type of loyalty that Royce subscribes to. Ladd tells us that Royce’s view has been criticized because “it has the ethical defect of postulating duties over and above our duties to individual men and groups of men. The individual is submerged and lost in this superperson for it tends to dissolve our specific duties and obligations to others into ‘superhuman’ good.”10 Such a devotion to a cause is frightening because one sees over and over in history the brutalization of individuals for the sake of causes. It is the kind of perversion that makes man for the Sabbath and not the Sabbath for man, or man for the law and not the law for man. Individual persons should be the ultimate beneficiaries of morals and virtues. If not, ethics and virtue gets perverted. One ought not to “identify one’s will” with anything. Such a surrender constitutes the age old sin of Idolatry, unless of course the object of unity were God. But even then God would need to be a person and to be worthy of total surrender would have to be the perfect manifestation of good. Short of such a summum bonum there is nothing that should be the object of devotion as Royce describes. It is precisely this kind of identification of one’s will with causes that the atomists, who include the liberal individualists, rail against. The railing is justified because such identification with causes allows us to justify the slaughter of the Albigensians, to exterminate the Jews, to lead people on death marches or to destroy a village to save it. It seems then, that if the object of loyalty is a cause or abstract entity, loyalty ought to be jettisoned. A fortiori if the object of loyalty in business is some cause it, too, needs to be repulsed. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a view of loyalty that is so extreme. According to Ladd, “ ‘loyalty’ is taken to refer to a relationship between person—for instance, between a lord and his vassal, between a parent and his children, or better friends. Thus the object of loyalty is ordinarily taken to be a person or a up of persons.”11 This raises a problem that Ladd glosses over. There is a difference between a person or a group of persons, and, besides instances of loyalty, which relate to two people such as lord/vassal, parent/child, or friend/friend, there are instances of loyalty relating a person to a group such as a person to his family, a person to his team and a person to his country. Families, countries and teams are presumably groups of persons. They are certainly ordinarily construed as objects of loyalty. But in such a group to what am I loyal? In being loyal to the group am I being loyal to the whole group or its members? It is easy to see the object of loyalty in the cases of an individual person. It is simply the individual. But to whom am I loyal in a family? Am I loyal to each and every individual or to something larger, and if to something larger, what is it? We are tempted to think of a group as an entity of its own, an individual in its own right, having an identity of its own. Thus Plato can see the state as a unified organism made up of the individual, citizens, and in the Crito has Socrates compared the state to a parent? Given the comparison Socrates then insists that he has a duty of loyalty to the state. Think of the group as a being in its own right, though, we create a problem. To whom do we owe the loyalty, to the group, which now counts as an individual, or to

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the individuals in the group? Is the group for the sake of the individual or the individual for the stake of the group? The problem we had with Royce crops up all over again. To avoid the problem of individuals being for the sake of the group, the atomists insist that a group is nothing more than the individuals who make it up, nothing other than a mental fiction by which we refer to a group of individuals. It is certainly not a reality or entity over and above the sum of its parts, and consequently is not a proper object of loyalty. Under such a position of course no loyalty would be owed to a company because a company is a mere mental fiction, since it is a group. One would have obligations to the individual members of the company, but one could never be justified in overriding those obligations for the sake of the “group” taken collectively. A company has no moral status except in terms of the individual members who make it up. It is not a proper object of loyalty. But the atomists go too far. Some groups like a family have a reality of their own, where as groups of people walking down the street don’t. From Ladd’s point of view the social atomist is wrong because he fails to recognize the kinds of groups that are held together by “the ties that bind.”12 The atomist tries to reduce these groups to simple sets of individuals bound together by some externally imposed criteria. This seems wrong headed. There do seem to be groups where the relationships and interactions create a new force or entity. A group takes on an identity and reality of its own, which is determined by its purpose, and this purpose defines the various relationships set up within the group, the various roles. There is a division of labor into roles necessarily for the fulfillment of the purposes of the group. The membership, then, is not of individuals who are the same but of individuals who have specific relations to one another determined by the aim of the group. Thus we get specific relationships like parent/child, coach/player, etc., that don’t occur in other groups. It seems then that an atomist account of loyalty that restricts loyalty merely to individuals and does not include loyalty to groups might be inadequate. But once I have admitted that we can have loyalty to a group do I not open myself up to criticism from the proponent of loyalty to the company? Might not the proponent of loyalty to business say, “Very well. I agree with you. The atomists are short sighted. Groups have some sort of reality and they can be proper objects of loyalty. But companies are groups. Therefore, companies are proper objects of loyalty.” The point seems well taken, except for the fact that the kinds of relationships that loyalty requires are just the kind that one does not find in business. As Ladd says, “The ties the bind the persons together provide the basis of loyalty.”13 But all sorts of ties bind people together to make groups. I am a member of a group of fans if I go to a ball game. I am a member of a group if I merely walk down the street. What binds people together in a business is not sufficient to require loyalty. A business or corporation does two things in the free enterprise system. It produces a good or service and makes a profit. The making of a profit, however, is the primary function of a business as a business for if the production of the good or service was not profitable the business would be out of business. Thus non-profitable goods or services are a means to an end. People bound together in a business are bound together not for mutual fulfillment and support, but to divide labor to make

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a profit. While we can jokingly refer to a family as “somewhere they have to take you in no matter what,” you cannot refer to a company in that way. If you do not produce in a company or if there are cheaper laborers around, a company in order to fulfill its purpose should get rid of you. A company feels no obligation of loyalty. “You can’t buy loyalty” is true. Loyalty depends on ties that demand self-sacrifice with no expectation of reward. Business functions on the basis of enlightened self-interest. I am devoted to a company not because it is like a parent to me. It is not, and attempts of some companies to create “one big happy family” ought to be looked on with suspicion. I am not “devoted” to it at all, or should not be. I work for it because it pays me. I am not in a family to get paid, I am in a company to get paid. I might have a job I find fulfilling, but that is accidental to my relationship to the company. For example, I might go to work for a company as a carpenter and love the job and get satisfaction out of doing good work. But if the company can increase profit by cutting back to an adequate but inferior type of material as procedure, it might make it impossible for me to take pride in my work as a carpenter while making it possible for me to make more money. The company does not exist to subsidize my quality work as a carpenter. As a carpenter my goal might be good houses, but as an employee my goal is to contribute to making a profit. “That’s just business!” The cold hard truth is that the goal of profit is what gives birth to a company and forms that particular group. Money is what ties the group together. But in such a commercialized venture, with such a goal there is no loyalty, at least none need be expected. An employer will release an employee and an employee will walk away from an employer when it is profitable to do so. That’s business. It is perfectly permissible. Contrast that with the ties between a lord and his vassal. A lord could not in good conscience wash his hands of his vassal nor could a vassal in good conscience abandon his lord. What bound them was mutual enrichment, not profit. Loyalty to a corporation, then, is not only not required, it more than likely misguided. There is nothing as pathetic as the story of the loyal employee who having given above and beyond the call of duty is let go in the restructuring of the company. He feels betrayed because he mistakenly viewed the company as an object of his loyalty. To get rid of such foolish romanticism, and to come to grips with this hard but accurate assessment should ultimately benefit everyone. One need hardly be an enemy of business to be suspicious of a demand of loyalty to something whose primary reason for existence is the making of profit. It is simply the case that I have no duty of loyalty to the business or organization. Rather I have a duty to return responsible work for fair wages. The commercialization of work dissolves the type of relationship the requires loyalty. It sets up merely contractual relationships. One sells one’s labor but not one’s self to a company or an institution. To think we owe a company or corporation loyalty requires us to think of that company as a person or as a group with a goal of human fulfillment. If we think of it in this way, we can be loyal. But this is just the wrong way to think. A company is not a person. A company is an instrument, and an instrument with a specific purpose, the making of profit. To treat an instrument as an end in itself, like a person, might not be as bad as treating an end as an instrument, but it does give the instrument a moral

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status it does not deserve, and by elevating the instrument we lower the end. All things, instruments and ends become alike. The treat a company as a person is analogous to treating a machine as a person or treating a system as a person. The system or company or whatever instrument gets as much respect and care as the persons for whom they were invented. It is important to remember that the primary purpose of business is to make profit. It is then seen clearly as merely an instrument and needs to be used and regulated accordingly. I owe it no more loyalty than a word processor. As a corollary to what I have said, the claim that “business ethics” is an oxymoron is not unjustified. Business as an instrument is just that, an instrument and hence amoral. To treat corporations as people whether by treating them as objects of loyalty or thinking they are moral agents because they haw responsibility is misguided. Ultimately, the commercialization of everything—the buying of loyalty, for example, gets the tail wagging the dog. Of course if everyone would view business in this way things might become more difficult for the smooth functioning of the organization since businesses could not count on the “loyalty” of their employees. Business itself is well served at least in the short run if it can keep the notion of a duty to loyalty alive. It does this by comparing itself to a paradigm case of an organization one shows loyalty to, the team. Remember that Roche refers to the “management team” and Bok sees the name “whistleblowing” coming from the instance of a referee blowing a whistle in the presence of a foul. What is perceived as bad about whistleblowing in business from this perspective is that one blows the whistle on one’s own team, thereby violating team loyalty. If the company can get its employees to view it as a team they belong to, it is easier to demand loyalty. Then the rules governing teamwork and team loyalty will apply. One reason the appeal to a team and team loyalty works so well in business is that businesses are in competition with one another. Effective motivation turns business practices into a game and instills teamwork. But businesses differ from teams in very important respects, which makes the analogy between business and a team dangerous. Loyalty to a team is loyalty within the context of sport, a competition. Teamwork and team loyalty requires that in the circumscribed activity of the game I cooperate with my fellow players, so that pulling all together, we might win. The object of (most) sports is victory. But the winning in sports is a social convention, divorced from the usual goings on of society. Such a winning is most times a harmless, morally neutral diversion. But the fact that this victory in sports, within the rules enforced by a referee (whistleblower) is a socially developed convention taking place within a larger social context makes it quite different from competition in business, which, rather than being defined by a context, permeates the whole of society in its influence. Competition leads not only to victory but to losers. One can lose at sport with precious few consequences. The consequences of losing at business are much larger. Further, the losers in business can be those who are not in the game voluntarily (we are all forced to participate) but are still affected by business decisions. People cannot choose to participate in business. It permeates everyone’s life.

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The team model, then, fits very well with the model of the free market system, because there competition is said to be the name of the game. Rival companies compete and their object is to win. To call a foul on one’s own teammate is to jeopardize one’s chances of winning and is viewed as disloyalty. But isn’t it time to stop viewing the corporate machinations as games? These games are not controlled and are not over after a specific time. The activities of business affect the lives of everyone, not just the same players. The analogy of the corporation to a team and the consequent appeal to team loyalty, although understandable, is seriously misleading at least in the moral sphere where competition is not the prevailing virtue. If my analysis is correct the issue of the permissibility of whistleblowing is not a real issue since there is no obligation of loyalty to a company. Whistleblowing is not only permissible but expected when a company is harming society. The issue is not one of disloyalty to the company, but the question of whether the whistleblower has an obligation to society if blowing the whistle will bring him retaliation. I will not argue that issue, but merely suggest the lines I would pursue. I tend to be a minimalist in ethics, and depend heavily on a distinction between obligations and acts of supererogation. We have, it seems to me, an obligation to avoid harming anyone, but not an obligation to do good. Doing good is above the call of duty. In between we might under certain conditions have an obligation to prevent harm. In whistleblowing can prevent harm then it is required under certain conditions. Simon, Power and Gunnemann set forth four conditions: need, proximity, capability, and last resort. Applying these, we get the following: (1) There must be a clear harm to society the can be avoided by whistleblowing. We don’t blow the whistle over everything. (2) It is the “proximity” of the whistleblower that puts him in the position to report his company in the first place. (3) “Capability” means that he needs to have some chance of success. No one has an obligation to jeopardize himself to perform futile gestures. The whistleblower needs to have access to the press, be believable, etc. (4) “Last resort” means just that. If there are others more capable of reporting, more proximate and they will, then one does not have the responsibility. Before concluding, there is one aspect of the loyalty issue that ought to be disposed of, my position could be challenged in the case of organizations who are employers in non-profit are, such as the government, educational institutions, etc. In this way my commercialization argument is irrelevant. However, I would maintain that any activity that merits the blowing of the whistle in the case of non-profit and service organizations is probably counter to the purpose of the institution in the first place. If there were loyalty required, in that case, whoever justifiably blew the whistle would be blowing it on a colleague who perverted the end or purpose of the organization. The loyalty to the group would remain intact Elsberg’s whistleblowing on the government is a way of keeping the government faithful to its obligations. But that is another issue.

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* “Whistleblowing and Employee Loyalty,” Contemporary Issues In Business Ethics, edited by Joseph DesJardins and John McCall (Belmont CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co. 1984) pp. 142–147.
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Maxwell Glen and Cody Shearer, “Going After the Whistle-blowers,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Tuesday, August 2, 1983, Op-ed Page, p. 11A. Norman Bowie, Business Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice Hall, 1982), p. 140. For Bowie, this is just a preliminary definition. His fuller definition reads, “A whistle blower is an employee or officer of any institution, profit or non-profit, private or public, who believes either that he/she has been ordered to perform some act or he/she has obtained knowledge that the institution is engaged in activities which (1) are believed to cause unnecessary harm to third parties, (2) are in violation of human rights or (3) run counter to the defined purpose of the inspection and who inform the public of this fact.” Bowie then lists six conditions under which the act is justified. pp. 142–143. Glen and Shearer, Ibid. James M. Roche, “The Competitive System, to Work, to Preserve, and to Protect,” Vital Speeches of the Day (May 1971), 445. This is quoted in Bowie, p. 141, and also in Kenneth D. Walters, “Your Employee’s Right to Blow the Whistle,” Harvard Business Review, 53, no. 4. (1975), p. 26. Sisela Bok, “Whistleblowing and Professional Responsibilities,” New York University Education Quarterly, Vol. II, 4 (1980), p. 3. John Ladd, “Loyalty,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 5, p. 97. Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, Inc., 1908), pp. 42–48, as quoted in Bowie, op. cit., p. 14. Bowie, op. cit., p. 14. I ought to make it clear at this point that I thoroughly agree with Bowie’s conclusions. His excellent treatment of whistleblowing is one of the best around. He is just a bit uncritical in adopting Royce’s position, but he does qualify his acceptance of it with the following statement: “Nevertheless, loyalty to something. Suppose that one is loyal to an immoral cause or end. There is even loyalty among thieves. One should be loyal; but the object of one’s loyalty should be morally appropriate. The virtue of loyalty does not require that one accept blindly the person or cause to which one is loyal. To be loyal to an employer does not require that the employee should do what the employer says come what may. Regrettably, however, it is just this kind of blind loyalty that some employers demand.” p. 14. Bowie is correct that loyalty is loyalty to something, and that the object of one’s loyalty should be morally appropriate. I concur with this. But I disagree that an appropriate object of loyalty, moral or otherwise, is a cause. Bowie does not distinguish carefully enough between loyalty to persons or causes. Thus he talks willy nilly about loyalty to an employer, a company or a person, all different things as we will see. This flaws an otherwise excellent treatment of whistleblowing. Paul R. Lawrence, The Changing of Organizational Behavior Patterns: A Case Study of Decentralization (Boston: Division of Research, Harvard Business School, 1958) p. 208, as quoted in Kenneth D. Walters, op. cit. Ladd, op. cit., p. 97 Ibid. Ladd says this about the mistake of the atomists: The social atomists fails to recognize the special character of the ties that bind individuals together and provide the basis of loyalty. Loyalty is not founded on just any casual relationship between persons, but on a specific kind of relationship or tie. The special ties involved arise from the two fold circumstance that the persons so bound are comembers of a specific group (community) distinguished by a specific common background and sharing specific interests, and are related in terms of some sort of role differentiation within that group. A friendship, a family, or such a highly organized group as a political, priestly, or military community illustrates the presence of these conditions. Special ties of this sort provide both the necessary and sufficient conditions for a person to be a proper object of loyalty, p. 97.

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John B. Simon, Charles W. Powers, and Jon P. Gunnemann, The Ethical Investor: Universites and Corporate Responsibility, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972).…...

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