The Uses and Abuses of Agency Theory

Business Ethics Quarterly 19 (4):497-528 (2009)
Abstract
The use of agency theory remains highly controversial among business ethicists. While some regard it as an essential tool for analyzing and understanding the recent spate of corporate ethics scandals, others argue that these scandals might not even have occurred had it not been for the widespread teaching of agency theory in business schools. This paper presents a qualified defense of agency theory against these charges, first by identifying the theoretical commitments that are essential to the theory (in order to distinguish between agency theory itself and certain incorrect interpretations that have been widely promulgated), and second, by specifying more clearly the different ways that agency theory can be used to analyze relations within the firm. The recommendation that follows from this analysis is that agency theory be used as a critical-diagnostic tool, to identify the points at which both firms and markets will be vulnerable to breakdown in the absence of moral constraint
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