II: Philosophical perspectives

Basic concepts in accountability research: Key accountability theorists and issues

Key accountability theorists and issues1

Introduction: Key accountability thinkers shaping modern accountability

This chapter explores some of the dominant Western beliefs about humanity’s relationship with the environment, and how current environmental issues have been shaped by government policies in the past 20 years. The chapter provides some succinct summaries of prominent theorists who have influenced accountability research. I explore ideas from key theorists such as Bentham (1816), Habermas (1975), Mill (1874), and Rawls (1971) all of whom have influenced critical accountability theory. More specifically, the chapter explores how these theorists have been adapted in the various works of Gallhofer, Gray, Haslam, Owen, and Tinker to name a few prominent theorists. This chapter uses communication, concepts of systems, lifeworld and steering in the public sphere to deliberate about the development of society towards a more accountable, just and free system. This chapter explores the dominant western beliefs about humanity’s relationship with the environment, and how current environmental issues have been shaped by government policies in the past 20 years. The chapter provides summaries of ideas from Bentham (1797), Habermas (1975), Mill (1874), and Rawls (1971) who have influenced critical accountability theory. Ideas are applied by Gallhofer & Haslam (1994, 2019), Gray, Owen, and Maunders (1987), and Bryer (2013a, 2013b) as well as Tinker (1985) to name a few major theorists. Have times changed, and is accountability still relevant in an increasingly globalised world?

Bentham and Mill

Bentham: Gallhofer-Haslam (2019) to Goodin (1992) and back again

In this section, I shall use Gallhofer and Haslam’s (2019) work on emancipatory accounting. Also, Robert Goodin’s (1992) early work will be used to introduce a utilitarian approach to critical accountability. In the context of critical accountability research, utilitarian theorists, Gallhofer and Haslam (1997,2006), are inspired by Bentham (1789). These theorists offer an interesting departure from a classical liberal view on the natural environment. Moreover, liberal and utilitarian reasoning has been criticised for limiting practical reasoning to instrumental considerations. Utilitarianism is said to have had little to say about ‘intrinsic value’, much less authenticity. That is not the case with Goodin. His view, however, gives rise to an instrumental conception of authenticity where it is important that we assign weights to the different options that confront us. Nature, according to Goodin, has an intrinsic value which affects the weight humans apply to it. Humans are constantly balancing their own interests against Nature’s interests (Svoboda, 2011, pp. 25-36, 2016).

Gallhofer and Haslam are concerned to elaborate upon the Bentham’s accounting texts with the primary aim of arriving at insights which can contribute to and enhance a critical questioning of the institution and practice of accounting and accountability today. They explained that Bentham’s utilitarianism ‘advocated openness [transparency] to as many people as possible so that governance would come to operate in the general interest’ (Gallhofer & Haslam, 2003, p. 43). They also assumed that humanity had the technological capacity to solve the problems confronting it. Of course, they recognised the negative dimensions of his work that I explore in Chapter 8 but found that his view of modernity and his work on modern accounting as worthy of rescue. Gallhofer and Haslam (2003) argued:

Bentham’s mobilising of accounting can, for example, be interpreted in terms of seeking to better align accounting with progressive and emancipatory social change. And through the historical analysis of Bentham’s writings one might discover potentialities of modernity more generally, consistent with an approach that sees value in attempting to rescue the modern. As well as being a context of import in the formation of many modern institutions and practices, the context in which Bentham intervened was also an environment in which the professional accountancy bodies of today had not yet formally manifested, (p. 25).

The utilitarian approach, as developed by Bentham (1789), posits that rather than an act being right or wrong, the strongest and most prominent issue is that it maximises the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Utilitarianism can take two forms known as act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism; in the former case, the consequences of an action are examined, in the latter case the consequences of choosing a rule to follow is assessed. The rule form of utilitarianism leads to it being situated within what Chapter 1 referred to as instrumentalism. Nevertheless, act utilitarianism takes a teleological approach to ethics where the focus is on how

Basic concepts in accountability research 117 good or bad an action is as opposed to developing procedures and rules to adjudicate the rightness or wrongness of those actions.

However, utilitarianism is often criticised because it has the potential to ignore the plight of the least advantaged and glosses over the politics of the good. That is, the greatest happiness principle has been widely criticised because it has the potential to glide over structural and social inequalities in the social system. I shall also argue that in moving from utilitarianism to a form of postmodernism, the work of Gallhofer and Haslam point towards further limitations in critical accountability. How do we judge the worth of various moral claims?

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