Do we have moral duties towards institutions (like the Red Cross)? Do institutions have moral rights?

I often find the words "duty" and "rights" confusing outside of legal contexts, because they're weighted with theoretical overtones that don't always help us think clearly about how we should act and what we should do. So let me refocus the question: are the things we should and should't do when it comes to institutions? I think the answer is yes.

Suppose that I find a way to hack into the Red Cross bank accounts and steal money. I shouldn't do that. It's not just that it's against the law (though it certainly is). It's just wrong. It's not wrong just because it may hurt the CEO of the Red Cross, or any of the people who work for the Red Cross. Those people come and go, and it may even be that they aren't actually harmed by my act of theft. What I'm doing is wrong because (dare I say?) it harms the Red Cross itself. We could provide lots of related examples. And when it comes to the fundamental question, that's a pretty good way to answer it, I think. We can do things that help or harm organizations and institutions. Depending on the organization or institution's purposes, nature and so on, at least some of those are things we should or shouldn't do (say, not stealing from them) and some are things it might be good to do even if we aren't strictly obliged (say, donating money to them.) We could recast some of this in terms of rights and duties, and that might be just fine. I'm just skeptical about how much it will help to start with those more rarified concepts.

We also hold organizations responsible. It's true in law, of course: we can sue corporations. But we also make moral judgments. I might think that Doctors Without Borders is a commendable organization. I might think some shady organizations are despicable even if it they never break. the law. This reinforces the common-sense thought above that yes, there really are ways we should and shouldn't behave toward organizations.

We could have an interesting discussion about the metaphysics behind our moral attitudes here. I'd expect one of the conclusions to be that in some ways, organizations are a lot like persons. That's why in law we have a concept of legal personhood that includes things like corporations. I think we'd also come to the conclusion that persons are more like organizations tan we might have thought: they don't have some pure, unified metaphysical core. If that's right, it suggests that there's no good way to make a really sharp break between persons and organizations when we think about how we ought to act.

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