Justice is often defined as a process of treating others as they deserve. The word justice is notably absent from the ethics codes of the International Association of Business Communicators and similar organizations. A review of Western philosophy and rhetoric, however, suggests that a quest for justice is inherent in the formation of corporations and can powerfully affect corporate reputation. This entry covers transactional justice, its origins in human self-interest, and its role in building corporate reputation.
Philosophers from Aristotle to the postmodernists have noted the variety of definitions for justice, ranging from concepts that address social inequalities to enactments of retribution and more. Among the plethora of definitions, the concept of transactional justice would seem most appropriate for the functions of corporations. Transactional justice focuses on the security of personal property, both tangible and intangible, and fairness in the exchange of such properties or resources. Corporations engage in exchange relationships with a host of internal and external groups: employees, stockholders, customers, government regulators, community neighbors, and more.
One of the earliest causal connections between justice and reputation came from the Greek rhetorician Isocrates (436–338 b.c.e.), who defined justice as balanced and pervasive reciprocity: A just organization, such as the city-state of Athens, should treat individuals and other entities as it wishes to be treated, not only by the entities in question but also by other entities both more powerful and less powerful than the organization. Isocrates believed that reputation was built by continual enactments of this form of transactional justice, particularly when combined with moderation in wants and needs. Individuals and organizations with a reputation for justice, he asserted, were more credible and persuasive than competitors that lacked such a reputation. In Isocrates’s philosophy, a reputation for justice led to pleonektema (“competitive advantage”). Pleonektema, in turn, led to chremata (“material wealth”) and eudaimonia (“happiness”). For Isocrates, enactments of justice built reputation, which in turn built success.
Isocrates’s own enduring success tends to validate his belief in a causal link between enactments of justice and reputation. His school, based on his philosophy of justice and moderation, was larger and more profitable than those of his rivals, including Plato and Aristotle. Additionally, the later Roman rhetoricians, particularly Cicero and Quintilian, favored Isocrates’s justice-based rhetoric over the rival models of Plato and Aristotle.
Centuries later, Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) offered a compelling logic for Isocrates’s linkage of justice and reputation. Hume maintained that justice has its origins in humans’ self-interested desire for stable property and the reliable, peaceful exchange of personal property or resources. Such property-derived justice, Hume asserted, becomes the primary foundation of stable societies and their institutions, including corporations. Small societies had existed without governments, he noted, but no stable society of any size had existed without a form of justice that governed exchange relationships.
Given the location of transactional justice at the very core of societies and their institutions, Hume concluded that an organization’s respect for and enactments of transactional justice directly strengthened its reputation. Hume, in fact, maintained that the causal link between justice and reputation would, in circular fashion, grow progressively stronger: As the importance of reputation in communication-based societies grows, organizations seeking positive reputations will increasingly focus on enactments of justice; and as justice thus increases in importance and visibility, it will become an increasingly important ingredient in establishing and maintaining reputations.
With antecedents in classical Athens, the connection of justice to reputation and to consequent success is as old as Western civilization itself. Hume’s grounding of that vital connection in human self-interest offers a materialistic, nonidealistic explanation for the importance of justice in the establishment and maintenance of corporate reputation.
Marsh, C. (2014). Public relations as a quest for justice: Resource dependency, reputation, and the philosophy of David Hume. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 29(4), 210–224. doi: