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Philosophical Definition of Justice: The Role of Accounting

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Published: Thu, 01 Mar 2018

What is Justice?

Justice means different things to different people. It is very much a culturally determined concept that requires an innate understanding of a particular person or group of people. For the purpose of this research paper justice is defined as “the judgment and process involved with making something that is wrong or bad, right and good.” Justice helps us as a society distinguish wrong from right and corrects what is wrong by making it right. But what is right and what is wrong? What is fair and what is just? If something is wrong or unfair, how should society make it right?

Such questions have been asked since the beginnings of human interaction. Perhaps under a monarchy justice, for right or wrong, is more easily determined as it is simply what the supreme ruler (or monarch) feels is just or fair. Under a monarchy or aristocratic rule, there is only one ruler and what that individual feels is right, just, or fair, simply is and often cannot be questioned. However, within the realm of more contemporary political systems such as democracy, the ideology of justice, while arguably more fair, can be much more difficult to establish and understand. Democracy, at least in theory, grants the power to the people and therefore places the burden of justice or defining what is fair or equal upon the masses. Since different people have different belief systems they are often in disagreement on what is right or what is fair and have differences of opinion when it comes to justice. Without the aristocracy, justice becomes a very argumentative and ambiguous concept.

Philosophy, the Various Schools of Thought, and their Influence on the Ideology of Justice

Disagreements over what is fair (or just) have been around since the beginning of time, almost certainly since the very first of human interactions. At first glance we probably think we have a fairly uniform understanding of what justice might or should be. For example if someone commits premeditated first degree murder, most would probably agree the individual should be jailed and, depending on your belief system, either face a life sentence in jail or the death penalty. If someone embezzles money from their company, most would insist the individual should be forced to make restitution and face additional criminal or civil penalty.

But even in the seemingly straightforward examples above, and within the realm of a relatively homogenous audience (those reading this paper), one can already start to see how complicated the ideology of justice can be. For example, some have very strong feelings about the death penalty and insist that no crime, even murder, would justify ending another person’s life. Additionally, some feel that crimes such as embezzlement are a form of “victimless crime” and would never warrant a punishment as severe as jail time since “no one individual had been harmed.” (Hanlin 2004, pp. 527) Within the relatively straightforward scenarios above, one can already begin to imagine the diversity of opinions as to what is just and fair. Should the murder be murdered? Should the embezzler be jailed? What if he only stole the money to pay for chemotherapy for his dying wife?

Luckily, numerous philosophers and historians have provided us with rich literature that helps us decipher the complex ideology of justice. In fact, it is only after studying and critically evaluating several of these philosophers, their different schools of ethical and moral thought, and the way they define justice that one can start to understand the differences in perceptions of justice around the world. The next sections provide brief introductions into several of the various schools of ethical and moral thought and provide some insight into the individual philosophers that have undoubtedly helped to shape ours and others’ understanding of justice. It is only after considering the various schools of thought that we can start to understand the differences in the perception of justice that exist around the world.

Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a utilitarian and insisted that justice is doing “what will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.” (Justice a Reader pg. 9) The utilitarian school of thought considers the principle of utility as the basis of moral law. Bentham defines utility as “whatever promotes pleasure or prevents pain.” (Justice A Reader pg. 9) The major criticism / objection to Bentham’s utilitarian principals come from the perspective that “maximum utility, or collective happiness, may come at the expense of violating individual rights.” (Justice A Reader pg. 9)

In order to refute some of the criticisms of Bentham’s utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) argued that the idea of justice “rests ultimately on utilitarian considerations” but also requires a respect for individual rights. (Justice A Reader pg. 9) But even with Mill’s approach to justice, it becomes extremely difficult to choose and/or decipher between individual rights and the majority or maximum utility. This often leaves us with questions of where to draw the line between the greatest good for the majority and the protection of individual rights.

Libertarianism

Milton Friedman and other libertarian thinkers were “advocates of free markets and critics of government regulation.” (Justice A Reader pg. 49) “Underlying their (libertarians) laissez-faire stance is the idea that each of us has a fundamental right to liberty – a right to do whatever we want with the things we own, provided we do not violate other people’s rights to do the same.” (Justice A Reader pg. 49) Contrary to utilitarian thought, libertarians would never sacrifice individual rights for maximum utility or the benefit of the majority.

According to the Libertarians, only a minimal government is necessary. In essence the government should only be put in place such that it “enforces contracts, protects private property, and keeps the peace.” (Justice A Reader pg. 49) Justice would ensure that “we own ourselves and the fruits of our labor,” and therefore, “as the proprietors of our own person, each of us has the right to decide what to do with our bodies and our labor, with the money we earn, and the goods we possess.” (Justice A Reader pg. 49) Justice would be the protection of those rights as well as the individual rights of others.

The biggest challenges to libertarian policy usually come in the form of paternalist and/or redistributive laws. Paternalist and redistributive laws typically are enacted such that a society can tax the rich to help the poor. While utilitarian principles strongly favor such laws, Libertarians typically argue that “such laws are a form of coerced charity that makes every person the property (perhaps even the slave) of the majority.” (Justice A Reader pg. 49) Pure Libertarianism teaches that welfare is a violation of individual rights. Liberationists believe that while the poor should have every right to better themselves, that right should not come at the expense of anyone’s individual right to what they own or produce.

Egalitarian

A third school of thought that attempts to define the role of justice in society is egalitarianism. John Rawls (1921-2002) was often described as “an egalitarian liberal” (Justice A Reader pg. 263) and defined justice as “fairness.” Rawls believed that justice is a “social contract in which people come together to choose the basic principles that will govern their society” and proposed that the “way to think about justice is to ask what principles would be chosen by people who came together behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ that temporarily deprived them of any knowledge about where they would wind up in society.” (Justice A Reader pg. 203) Accordingly, Rawls’ moral reasoning requires us “to be abstract from the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves” (Justice A Reader pg. 203), and “justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” (Justice A Reader pg. 203)

Rawls rejected utilitarianism and “believed that certain individual rights are so fundamental that utilitarian considerations should not override them.” (Justice A Reader pg. 203) However, contrary to Freidman and the libertarians, Rawls did not believe that the results of a free market are necessarily fair and was not opposed to the taxation of the privileged to help the poor. In Rawls opinion it would be acceptable, under certain circumstances, to take from the privileged as long as it were helping the underprivileged.

Accounting and Justice

Regardless of how you define justice or what school of thought you most closely relate to, it is clear the accountant plays a significant role in the establishment and preservation of justice for society. Accounting is “the language of business” (Bloomfield, 2008) and without it justice cannot exist. Since the beginnings of specialization, when humans stopped being self sufficient and started specializing, bartering, and trading, accounting has become a critical part of human interaction. In today’s society accountants serve in many roles critical to the defense and preservation of justice. For example, in the U.S., IRS accountants ensure that citizens pay the appropriate amount of tax, forensic accountants provide investigative services for criminal and civil proceedings, and many of the FBI’s anti-terrorist agents use their accounting backgrounds to trace terrorist funding.

History of the Spanish Empire

One only has to look back a few hundred years to see a perfect example of how the role of an accountant can protect and help preserve, or fail to protect and preserve, an entire civilization. In his book “For Good and Evil – The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization,” Charles Adams describes how tax fraud lead to the demise of one of the largest and most wealthy empires found in modern times – Imperial Spain. Around the time Christopher Columbus discovered the new world (the 14th and 15th centuries), the Spanish Empire was the strongest empire in the world “which has never been equaled in terms of size or money.” (Hanlin 2004, pp. 529) It controlled significant portions of Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania (Australia and the Pacific Islands), and at its peak Spain’s “conquered overseas empire was the largest the world has ever known.” (Hanlin 2004, pp. 529)

However, in the 17th century “the vast empire started to disintegrate.” Contrary to conventional wisdom, it “was not the English fleet defeating the Spanish Armada that brought down the Empire,” rather it was tax evasion and revolt by the masses against the “patronage system” that ultimately lead to the bankruptcy of the empire. After several revolts from within the empire, and long civil war, the Spanish Empire was forced to increase taxes to pay soldiers to put down the various rebellions. As a result, many of the people in the colonies “engineered what was probably the best system of fraud and evasion that history has ever known.” (Hanlin 2004, pp. 530) When the Spanish authorities tried to tax goods that passed through the major ports, the “Spanish businessmen created complicated schemes to have silver and gold shipped to alternate ports away from the customs officials, even laundering it through foreign countries.” (Hanlin 2004, pp. 530) In order to avoid the “Royal Fifth” – a 20% customs tax and a 35% convoy tax on good from the colonies, the Spanish businessmen transformed commerce into “one massive smuggling operation” by avoiding the authorities and therefore the taxes. (Hanlin 2004, pp. 530) The Empire tried to stop the smuggling and division of money and goods away from the taxing authorities but simply did not have the means to control and stop the smuggling and tax evasion. As a result, the overseas empire could not defend itself and “stealing the colonies of Spain became an international sport” as most of the colonies were lost to the British, Dutch, and eventually the United States.

Contemporary Accounting and Justice

Given its role as the “language of business,” accountings integral role in society continues to grow as global economies grow and become increasingly interconnected. World GDP has grown from $1.34 trillion in 1960 to $60.6 trillion in 2008. (The World Bank, 2009). The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners estimates that in the U.S. 7% of total GPD is lost to fraud and injustice. (ACFE, 2008) When applied to a global GPD of $60.6 trillion loses resulting from fraud and injustices are estimated to have been $994 billion in 2008. $994 billion is a staggering number but in fact may be understated as many developing countries face an even higher percentage of fraud due to the lack of infrastructure and the ability to combat fraud. According the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), the U.S. ranks 19th (with 1st indicating the least amount of corruption) out of 182 countries surveyed for the amount of perceived corruption within a particular country indicating that, on a global scale, losses probably well exceed the trillion dollar mark annually.

So who is best equipped to protect and defend the innocent from the injustices of fraud? The answer is simple, the accountants around the world. Accountants understand the “language of business” better than anyone and therefore are best suited to be the “defenders of justice” and fight the injustices that exist across the globe. Just or unjust, they may have even been able to preserve the Spanish Empire.

Distributive Justice

Another manner in which accountants play an integral role in society is through distributive justice. Utilitarian principles have led to many governments and societal systems that incorporate and rely upon paternalist or redistributive laws. For example, the U.S. and many other countries tax their wealthy citizens and use the funds to run social support programs for the poor such as welfare, unemployment, section 8 housing, etc. Such programs are a form of distributed justice.

Robert Nozick describes distributive justice as follows: “In contemporary political theory, distributive justice is primarily about the allocation of income, wealth, and opportunity.” (Justice A Reader pg. 263) If distributive justice does represent the allocation of income and wealth, than who other than that accountant, who understands the language of business and taxation, would be best equipped to establish and preserve distributed justice?

Another example of distributive justice and the role that an accountant plays is the concept of price gauging. Michael Sandel uses a great example in his teachings at Harvard when discussing the events that often transpire in the aftermath of a hurricane. Often, in the days following a major hurricane, for example Hurricane Charley in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, local retailers charge prices for common goods such as bags of ice and gas powered generators in excess of 1000% of their normal price. (Justice, 2009) Should such practices be considered simply the effects of supply and demand or is it injustice on the part of the retailer in the form of price gauging?

Regardless of your opinion on price gauging laws, it is evident the accountant is best equipped to understand and determine whether or not price gauging exists and how to best allocate monies. Who other than the accountant would understand all the transactions taking place between retailers and consumers? In both cases above, the enforcement of paternalistic laws and analysis of price gauging activities, accountants are the ones that ensure monies are appropriately being collected and allocated, thereby defending justice as a society sees fit.

Justice and the Role of the Accountant Globally

Increasingly, corporations and businesses are taking on the global environment. This requires that accountants and auditors be able to identify the different risks associated with international interconnectedness and be able counteract these risks with the necessary precautions. The global environment adds additional complications for the role of the accountant and actually increases the responsibilities as the defender of justice. In a global spectrum, there are many different laws and regulations and thus, the role of the accountant changes depending on the environment in which the rules are generated. Culture is a huge influence on accounting regulation. Additionally, culture is intertwined within the market and political forces that help to shape the resulting accounting system. The different interaction of these forces in an environment helps to determine the place of the accountant in the economic system, which has a direct effect on the accountant’s role as the defender of justice. Justice can only prevail in a society that embraces it.

Perceived levels of corruption can be indicative of the state of the economy of a particular country which can help to define or determine the role of the accountant. If there are very few cases of fraud, but high levels of corruption perception it can be an indication that the appropriate level of justice is not being achieved. If enforcement of laws and regulation is inconsistent then a tougher approach may be needed to combat corruption. Transparency International states that in order to minimize corruption there needs to be strong oversight by governments, law enforcement, media, and the society. If a country is lacking oversight, corruption can continue to get worse. As a result, the role of the accountant in these environments would be limited since rules, laws, and regulations are not embraced and enforced.

Regulation is only part of the battle. Change will only be effective if it comes from a commitment that is made by businesses and governments of all sizes. Stronger institutional oversight is needed across the world. There needs to be strict legal frameworks and more alert regulation by enforcement agencies in addition to accountants and auditors that ensure lower levels of corruption. As noted in an article issues by Transparency International, “persistently high corruption in low-income countries amounts to an ongoing humanitarian disaster.”

According to the CPI index, China has improved over last year showing that their efforts to reduce corruption by enacting reforms, the implementation of forceful investigation, and intense sentencing have created less perceptions of corruption than before, but still remains a very serious problem. Norway’s score indicates that as a result of some serious scandals that have emerged over the last few years there is a significant problem in the private and public sectors. However, a growing number of cases being investigated and prosecuted demonstrates that they are at least trying to make headway. Italy is declining in the corruption index because of severe fraud and corruption that exist in the public health system and because of the recent arrests of politicians and public officials in the Abruzzo region. France also has also seen several cases of public officials that were connected to corrupt activities surface recently. Somalia, having the lowest CPI score highlights that there is a link between economic and political collapse. Additionally, Iraq’s score of 1.3 shows the importance of establishing solid and functioning institutions capable of preventing corruption and implementing the rule of law. In all cases, the examples provide insight and indicate a need for regulation and an increased role for accountants because justice is not being found.

Accounting Regulation Globally

Accounting rules can indicate a lot about a country. Accounting rules are created in such a way that they fit the environment that they exist in, which varies across countries and cultures. If society wishes to protect the investor, the accounting system will have disclosure rules that enable investors to gain information and protect themselves. While some countries are developing regulations that contain investor protection improvements, in many cases much more work needs to be done. The manner in which markets function and the way politics are conducted greatly affect accounting systems and often lead to drastic differences across countries. The role of the accountant and, furthermore, the way that justice is enforced will also vary greatly amongst countries.

Common law countries differ from codified law countries because common law countries have an independent body to interpret the law. Accounting rules in common law countries are determined by the private sector and require lengthy disclosure since there are no close relationships with corporations. However, code law countries require that corporations be heavily involved the government. The government often includes banks, labor unions, and major suppliers in rule-making decisions. As a result, transactions in these countries tend to be focused more on private information.

There are institutional differences between all countries. Institutional differences enable economic and accounting systems to differ, thus the role of the accountant and the justice that results will differ amongst these countries. Accounting regulation in Germany allows more discretion on the accountant because it is written in more general terms. However, in France the regulation is more rigid, enables less discretion, and thus provides less wiggle room on the part of corporations. In Switzerland there are very few disclosure requirements, which can facilitate the reporting of “smooth” earnings through the usage of hidden reserves. Further, some accounting systems are difficult to compare because they do not fit within any particular mold. For example, the accounting system in Finland was created specifically for use by the foresting industry.

By looking at international comparisons of accounting systems, it is evident there is no single way of performing accounting. As a result, the accounting rules are different and change to become an integral part of the markets and politics of each country and culture. Market demand affects the financial statements because the corporations must pay to prepare them. The political environment is important because the government has the ability to control regulators and possibly interfere with regulation. In order to perform and understand the different accounting processes, accountants must be aware of the different forces that exist in a particular country. By being aware of the different forces, accountants will be able to more aptly ensure that justice prevails in the country they operate.

As evidenced above, accounting regulations vary across countries, time, and cultures which causes significant variations in the role of the accountant. While countries have been extending efforts to strengthen accounting rules and oversight, this alone cannot and will not prevent future fraud. (Leuz, 2002). But there are many benefits to implement strong laws and enforcement in order to protect shareholders rights. U.S. firms are not the only ones experiencing problems, as many firms globally are suffering from accounting irregularities. Some countries experience self-dealings and misappropriations of profits because of weaker legal measures. Weak legal measures create a greater incentive to manipulate the financial statements to conceal poor business performance. Manipulation is less apparent in places where outside investors have legal rights to vote out corrupt managers. However, manipulation is predominant in places like Austria, Italy, Germany, Southeast Asia, South Korea and Taiwan, because they do not have investor protection.

East Asian Perspective

The East Asian countries, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand can help accountants see the way that accounting standards interact with the incentives of managers and auditors. (Ball, Ashok, et al, “Incentives versus standards…”) The accounting standards in these countries come from a common law environment. Common law countries generally create high quality financial reporting. However, in these countries the preparer’s incentives generate low quality financial statements. The preparer incentives again, depend on the market and political forces and how these forces interact with one another. Market forces are dependent on the demand for high-quality financial reporting. The political forces depend on the government involvement in the creation and enforcement of the regulation. The interaction of these forces with the accounting system can drastically change the role of the accountant in these countries. The standards themselves are viewed as high-quality, but the institutional structure creates incentives for preparer’s incentives to issue low-quality financial reports.

Financial reporting in East Asia generally exists with an incentive structure that is similar to a code-law model. However, the East Asian countries do not follow that model. Their governments have code-law reporting incentive features, but also have indications that the environment reduces the financial reporting quality. The large amount of family-owned businesses and enterprises is a cause for the low need of quality financial statements. One family generally owns investments that are inter-related. These networks are commonly referred to guanxi networks. These networks attempt to take away the demand of required disclosures and timely loss recognition and it also reduces the communication required with stakeholders.

The extent of government involvement in the standard setting and the financial reporting practice differs across these countries. Political factors can create an incentive to hide large profits and losses. The political environments in these East Asian countries have a tendency to want companies to succeed, so they recommend companies hide losses. They also are afraid of other countries becoming involved in their practices because they do not want to be held accountable for any misstatements. The companies are also expected to report smooth earnings, which reinforces the desire to report, cover, and hide losses. Litigation is minimal in these countries since there is a large incentive to hide earnings, which the government reinforces. There have been very few cases of judicial actions in these countries. Audit quality in these countries is poor primarily due to lack of auditor independence. The influence and independence of the accounting profession is an indicator of ineffective enforcement of accounting standards. Considering the financial incentives for managers and auditors there is a greater incentive for reduced timeliness and conservatism in accounting earnings.

Fraud is continuing to go undetected in Hong Kong. Although there is a 22% incidence of fraud, much more is expected to be going on given the different forces that are currently having an effect on the country. As a result, currently more scrutiny is being given to the monitoring of financial transactions and corporations are beginning to make it a priority. There are currently programs that are offered for certification in forensic accounting, which is having an impact on fraud detection. Most of the fraud cases that exist in Hong Kong are internet banking fraud, computer fraud, misuse of corporation’s credit card, and electronic funds transfer fund.

There is a need for more forensic accountants in Singapore in order to ensure sufficient justice as many significant fraud cases are going undetected. Two important fraud cases involved Fibrechem Technologies and Oriental Century. In the Fibrechem Technologies audit, Ernst & Young Singapore were not certain of the cash and trade debtor balance. KPMG had the same problem with Oriental Century. Another notable case is one in which a Singapore monk, who was in charge of Singapore’s well-known charities, received 10 months in prison for committing fraud.

In Malaysia, the role of accounting in the fight for justice is very small. Crimes are beginning to become more and more complicated and controlled but forensic accounting is viewed as a service that only larger companies can afford. This makes catching fraud more difficult. Cases that are investigated are generally handled by the Bukit Aman Commercial Crime Division. This group was able to catch a large fraud that involved the CEO and two others of Transmile Group Bhd for publishing misleading financial statements and has often been called Malaysia’s Enron.

Fraud and forensic accounting is a relatively new topic in Thailand. According to an Ernst & Young’s global survey, more than half of the companies in Thailand have suffered significant fraud. The management of the corporations was responsible for over half while employees ranked second, responsible for 45% of the fraud incidents reported. Asset misappropriation was the biggest concern. (MPA Program: Forensic accounting project) The commercial crimes in Thailand are becoming more and more complicated and organized. Forensic accounting is used to combat this to an extent, but is only utilized in the public sector. It is also noted in Thailand that there remains an enormous amount of well documented corruption related to the government amounting to billions of US dollars. There are many cases where Thailand’s auditor general, Jaruvan Maintaka, was able to bring about cases against members of the government but there are even more cases linked to the military involving loans from politicians.

Chinese Perspective

This accounting profession is still at the early stage of development in China, and a lack of skilled professionals creates problems for regulators. To a large extent the accounting standards and practices in China lack conservatism Doupnik and Perera note in their International Accounting textbook. There are also no sound interpretations of the relevant requirements that need to be implemented to have an effective accounting system. The theory of true and fair presentation and transparency may not be clearly understood by Chinese accountants. Until the 1980s, those who carried out accounting work were not held in high regard which had a very negative effect on the development of the accounting profession in China. Unlike in other countries, accounting and auditing have taken different paths in their development as rival disciplines with the support of different government agencies. However, there has been some growth in the accounting profession due to the recent economic reform program and the demand for financial information from investors has increased.

There are many fraud cases evident in China. One high-profile case that deserves mentioning was with Zhu Xiaohua who was the chairman of state-owned company, Everbright Group. Zhu was convicted to 15 years in prison for taking $500,000 in bribes. These bribes were taken between 1997 and 1999. The bribes were for the purchase of shares in a company that resulted in large losses. Another example of fraud in China was when a business woman, Du Yimin, was sentenced to death for running a Ponzi scheme that cheated investors out of YUAN700m ($102 million). (Lin, 2009) According to Lin, “the Chinese Ministry of Public Security has been stepping up such prosecutions and says there are now 1,416 similar cases open, involving YUAN10bn ($1.5 billion) in investors’ money”. In China it is still possible to receive the death penalty for fund-raising fraud, however, if a Chinese person is charged with collecting money illegally from private investors, the maximum sentence is 10 years in prison. In China is evident that ethics are not being followed across the board.

Japanese Perspective

Japan also differs from other cultures and has a different role of the accountant and effectively different need for justice. The Japanese attitudes towards external auditors and the audit function are different from others. This is due to the cultural value orientation of not trusting someone from outside the group. Companies are not under pressure from their main providers of finance to disclose information publicly and companies are reluctant to provide information voluntarily. As a result, the a


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