DURHAM — I found the most striking showdown during the State of the Union address not between the two parties seated in front of President Barack Obama, to his right and left, but between the president and the third branch of government - nine men and women in black robes - seated directly in front of him.
During one of those rare occasions when all three branches of government are packed into the same room, the president said, "With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign corporations - to spend without limit in our elections."
Breaking with decorum, in front of the television cameras, Justice Samuel A. Alito shook his head and appeared to say, "No, it's not true." The president then called on Congress to pass new laws to replace the restrictions on corporate political spending that were struck down by the court.
But nobody is under any illusions that these new laws will emerge any time soon and certainly not before the coming election cycle. For the foreseeable future, "corporate citizens" have a right to speak their minds and to spend as much as it takes to get you to hear their message.
But should they? Is it ethical to actually exercise these rights - for example, to spend money to try to defeat a candidate who would tighten regulations on the firm or its industry?
It is time to shine more light on a realm of corporate responsibility that tends to get overlooked when we are focusing on more obvious irresponsible behaviors like pollution, sweatshops or excessive risk taking.
Two years ago, a colleague and I conducted a survey in which we clicked on the "corporate citizenship" tabs in corporate Web sites. Not once did we learn anything about the most deeply resonant feature of citizenship activity: namely, the citizen's engagement in politics and government. (I say "deeply resonant" because this has been the core virtue of citizenship from Greek and Roman times right up to the founding of the American republic and beyond.)
We learned about the number of trees the company planted, or the amount of free product it donated to local schools. But never about, say, how much it paid to lobbyists, or what it was lobbying for or why. On rare occasions these details were available elsewhere on a company's site or in investor information, but they were never presented as something relevant to its "corporate citizenship."
If corporations are going to enjoy many of the rights of citizenship now, we old-fashioned "non-corporate" citizens can insist they behave like good citizens when they get involved in politics.
All citizens enjoy rights, but good citizens also assume duties and responsibilities. First and foremost, the virtuous citizen acts for the public good, not merely to advance his or her personal good. The public benefits from a corporation's success when the firm produces a better product, at a better price, than its rivals.
When a firm succeeds because it has lobbied for legal loopholes that allow it to pass along costs to third parties (e.g., costs of pollution) or because it has arranged for legal barriers to competition, corporate success does not translate into public benefit.
Not only should corporations commit themselves to the public good, they also should back up this commitment with maximal transparency about any engagements in the political or regulatory process. The model here should be the conflict-of-interest disclosures that public servants and others routinely file. We should be able to click on a "corporate citizenship" tab on any company's Web site and see who it is lobbying, what it is trying to achieve, who it is campaigning for or against, which candidates or PACs its senior officers have contributed to and what briefs it has submitted to regulatory agencies.
All of these types of political activities by corporations can legitimately be in the public interest. Firms have, famously, lobbied for smarter and stiffer regulations. But the public, and the firm's shareholders, will not be able to judge that to be the case if they don't know what a firm's political activities are, or which firms are bankrolling certain political campaigns.
With great power comes great responsibility - or at least, to begin with, we might hope, a little transparency.
Wayne Norman is the Mackowski professor of ethics at Duke University. His writings on citizenship and business include (with co-author Pierre-Yves Néron) "Citizenship Inc.: Do we really want businesses to be good corporate citizens?" in Business Ethics Quarterly (2008).