Are institutions subject to moral standards? Two well known paradigms are based on the assumption that institutions operate in an amoral sphere: capitalism and realism. Even those who admit that individuals are subject to objective moral standards can simultaneously believe that institutions are not. This is a contradiction that needs to be addressed.
Institutions have to be subject to moral standards if their actions can ever be labeled qualitatively as good or bad. If institutions truly operate in amoral spheres like the international system, then the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, fire bombing of Dresden, the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, genocide in Rwanda, and the terrorist attacks of September 11th are all equally acceptable on a moral level. If they operate in amoral spheres like the free market, then secret pollution, sweatshops, child labor, and false advertising are all equally acceptable. The reality is that governments, organizations, and companies are all subject to moral standards.
It is not only possible to apply these moral standards, it is imperative that we do. Institutions are made up of individual people and if we admit that individuals are subject to moral standards, then it is illogical to believe that they shed all moral responsibility when those individuals act as policymakers or agents for an institution. Even more importantly, the actions taken by institutions have moral consequences. The examples in the paragraph above illustrate how institutional actions can have moral consequences. If actions have moral consequences, then the actions themselves can be judged qualitatively in a moral framework. Not only can they be judged, they must be.
Divorcing morality from institutional decision-making would be an incredible mistake. That type of absolutist amoral paradigm would justify any action that a country or company could get away with and profit from, no matter what pain and suffering it inflicted in the process. Individuals acting as agents of an institution are not completely free from any sense of morality. That type of repudiated mindset should have died along with those who used it as a defense at the Nuremberg Trials.
However, it would also be a mistake to pretend that individual moral standards directly translate into institutional ones. Obviously, the two categories are governed by different standards. Institutions are different because they are comprised of a diverse group of individuals and because they exist for specific purposes. For a micro example, legal ethics requires individual attorneys acting as a part of the judicial system to behave in ways that may seem contradictory to some basic moral standards for individuals. The system exists to provide justice, which can best be insured when all the individual agents in that system act in prescribed ways according to their roles. As cogs in the system operating under an altered view of morality, individual attorneys help insure the best possible justice system. Another major example deals with domestic governmental policy; some argue that the government should act under the same moral framework as individuals, but this is not possible or advisable.
Can Kant’s Categorical Imperative or other sources of universal law help devise a comprehensive framework for determining institutional morality? That is a much longer discussion; however, it is clear that institutional morality exists, but it is different from individual morality. This simple argument is a major foundational critique to the capitalist economic system and the realist international paradigm.