Reparations for Century-Old Wrongs?

A government minister in Ireland is suggesting that pharma company GSK should make reparation payments to the families of individuals who were subject to unethical research practices in a series of vaccine trials conducted between 1922 and the late 20th century. This raises a couple of interesting questions about corporate identity and responsibility. For one thing, the trials weren’t conducted by GSK, because GSK as such didn’t come into existence until the year 2000 (through a merger between of Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham). Legally speaking (though we are not lawyers) GSK likely inherited the legal obligations of its component companies. But ethically, things are less clear. Keep in mind, too, that none of the people who actually did the bad things — back in the 1920’s or 30’s or 40’s, certainly — none of them would still be there at the company. So in essence, we are attributing responsibility (ethically, if not legally) to, well, to something else. This is something to consider, especially for those who are skeptical about corporate personhood. For what the Irish government is saying is that GSK, as a ‘person’ (as a legal and moral entity) bears responsibility, even if it is now “a different company”, and even if now it is staffed by entirely different people.

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LINK: GSK urged to consider reparations over vaccine trials at mother and baby homes

Pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has been asked to consider making reparations arising from the findings of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in relation to vaccine trials.

The commission found that two companies that now form part of GSK were involved in trials at the homes that did not comply with the standards at the time in relation to securing consent.

In a letter to GSK’s chief executive, Dame Emma Natasha Walmsley, Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman said he believed all relevant parties, including GSK, had a “moral and ethical obligation to take appropriate action” in response to the commission’s report….

What do you think?


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About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.

3 comments

  1. Interesting take. I wonder to what extent requiring the company to make financial reparations for harms requires actual moral accountability. If the company, in some form, is responsible for harms then it should, in some form, act to address those harms. However, moral accountability would suggest that the company should experience shame, regret, or remorse – all of which of course it cannot do as a reified entity without a corporeal form.

    So as I understand the situation, reparations does not require moral accountability, only legal responsibility. I believe the Minister in Ireland is only using the language “moral and ethical obligation to take appropriate action” to evoke a sense of guilt in current company executives (or their stakeholders) that would prompt action. I advocate the morality argument should be left out and the company either is, or is not, legally responsible for reparations.

  2. For what it’s worth, there’s no suggestion of *requiring* reparations here. Just a claim that ethically the company SHOULD make such reparations. The point of the posting above is that, minus corporate personhood, such a claim would be patently nonsense — but in fact, we suspect many people (including many who reflexively dislike the idea of corporate personhood) will be sympathetic to the idea that GSK ethically should pay.

    • Thanks – count me among “the many who reflexively dislike the idea of corporate personhood” or perhaps more accurately, critically disagree with a simplistic interpretation of it. Which is why I hold no reparations would be morally required of *the company*. If the law doesn’t require a company to atone for the harm it has done, perhaps we should get to the issue of fixing said laws (or Ireland should). That is likely to create a more just society, better outcomes for the harmed, and better practices (longterm) to which businesses can adhere. As opposed to depending on the sympathies of people to exert ad hoc social pressure based on who has the resources to get their story heard. Interesting topic – I appreciate the share and the response.

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