Honest Organizations

Tollefsen receives grant to research what makes an honest, or dishonest, organization – the organization, or the people within it?


Dr. Deborah Tollefsen has received an $79,564 subgrant through the Honesty Project. The Honesty Project is funded by a $4.4 million dollar grant from the Templeton Foundation. The aim of the Honesty Project is to foster philosophical and psychological research on honesty. This subgrant will provide the opportunity for Tollefsen to spend an academic year dedicated to researching the following questions: 

  • Are honesty and dishonesty traits of individual human beings only or can organizations, such as corporations, be honest or dishonest?
  • If organizations can be dis/honest, is this simply a function of the honesty or dishonesty of its members? Is an honest organization simply a collection of honest people?
  • If honesty is a virtue, understood as a disposition to behave in a certain way and for the right reasons, are there forms of group agency that would constitute an honest organization?
  • If honesty requires a certain type of motivation, can groups have the appropriate motivation or could their members share the appropriate motivation?
  • Dishonesty, broadly understood, encompasses a number of different acts such as lying, cheating, stealing, promise-breaking, and misleading. Is it appropriate to attribute these actions to organizations, such as corporations? Can organizations lie, for instance?
  • Can we trust organizations or is trust a relation between people only? 

Actions typically associated with the vice of dishonesty—lying, fraud, cheating, stealing, and deceiving—are routinely attributed to organizations such as governments, religious and educational institutions, and corporations. In particular, our legal system attributes fraud and various other dishonest actions to corporations themselves. Honesty, too, is attributed to organizations—though perhaps less frequently. JD Power and Associates, a consumer intelligence company founded in 1968, describes itself as committed to truth finding.[1] Forbes magazine offers rankings of the most trustworthy corporations in the US.[2] And honesty and integrity are traits commonly found on corporate mission statements. At the very least, honesty stands as an ideal to which we appeal to in assessing organizations.

But how can the virtue of honesty or the vice of dishonesty be realized by an organization? After all, honesty is typically understood as a character trait found in persons. It presupposes certain psychological states such as intention and motivation. Although many organizations such as corporate firms are legal persons, one might argue that they do not have minds of their own that could form the intention or motivation to act in ways that are either honest or dishonest. Indeed, one might deny that organizations act at all.

Surely, if honesty and dishonesty are appropriately attributed to organizations it is, in part, in virtue of the character of the members within the organization. But, Tollefsen will argue that honest members are not sufficient for an honest organization.   

Tollefsen is the author of over 50 peer reviewed articles, book chapters, and book reviews on topics such as joint action, shared agency, group agents, collective epistemology, and collective responsibility. Her book Groups as Agents (2015, Polity Press) offers an opinionated introduction to debates regarding the agency of groups and is used in upper division undergraduate and graduate courses around the world.  She has recently co-edited (with Saba Bazargan-Forward) the Routledge Handbook of Collective Responsibility (2020).

For more information on this project, contact Tollefsen at dtollfsn@memphis.edu.