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Please cite this article in press as: McKernan JF. Deconstruction and the responsibilities of the accounting academic.

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Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Critical Perspectives on Accounting
j our nal homepage: www. el sevi er . com/ l ocat e/ cpa
Deconstruction and the responsibilities of the accounting academic
John Francis McKernan
The Business School, The University of Glasgow, West Quadrangle, Main Building, Glasgow, Scotland, G12 8QQ, United Kingdom
a r t i c l e i n f o
Article history:
Received 2 September 2008
Received in revised form
20 December 2010
Accepted 15 January 2011
Accounting Academics
a b s t r a c t
This paper draws onthephilosophyof Jacques Derridatoreviewandre-evaluatetherespon-
sibilities of the accounting community and in particular of the accounting academy. The
paper begins with a brief explanation of deconstruction and implications of responsible
deconstruction for truth in accounting. It is argued that Derridas philosophy is compatible
with a pragmatic approach to the pursuit of truth in accounting. In the second section of
the paper the responsible, and essentially ethical, nature of deconstruction is discussed and
the charge that it threatens to undermine institutions like accounting that rely of notions of
truth, reasons, objectivity and disinterestedness, is rebuffed. In the third part of the paper
responsibilities of the university as an institution, and accounting, are discussed drawing
on some of Derridas work on that theme, and in particular responsibility to and for reason.
Derridas analysis is applied to accounting and two competing orders of responsibility are
identied and contrasted: a traditional responsibility grounded in representationalismand
a new responsibility of openness to the others demand. In the fourth part of the paper
discussion of contrast and tension between types of responsibility is extended into a con-
sideration of the relationship between moral and ethical responsibilities, in the context
of accounting education. The paper concludes with reections on the responsibilities of
accounting educators.
2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Responsibility, accounting, and the academy
The University must not be a sclerophthalmic animal
, a hard-eyed animal (Derrida, 1983, p. 5).
1. Prologue
In this paper we reect on the responsibilities of the accounting community, and in particular accounting academia,
from the perspective of the philosophy of Jacques Derrida. Our aim is to help clarify the responsibilities, which Derridas
philosophy, essentially his deconstruction, calls us to, as accounting academics. Derridas critique of western metaphysics,
launched withthe publicationinFrenchin1967 of three texts, Speech and Phenomena (1967a), Of Grammatology (1967b), and
Writing and Difference (1967c), was a crucial element in the development of poststructuralism and an important inuence
on the emergence of postmodern currents of thought in the humanities and social sciences in recent decades (see Cooper,
1989). It has been an important background inuence on the linguistic turn taken by much critical thinking in the social
sciences (see e.g. Alvesson and Krreman, 2000), and on the increasing willingness of accounting researchers to approach
accounts as text to be interpreted (see e.g. Arrington and Francis, 1993; Graham, 2008).
E-mail address: john.mckernan@glasgow.ac.uk
Derrida notes the distinction Aristotle makes between those sclerophthalmic, hard-eyed, animals, lacking eyelids, and those, including human beings,
that have eyelids which they can use to close themselves off in thought: Man can lower the sheath, adjust the diaphragm, narrow his sight, the better to
listen, remember, and learn (Derrida, 1983, p. 5).
1045-2354/$ see front matter 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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Derridas poststructuralist view of signs and meaning certainly problematizes representation and is of clear critical
relevance to any line of accounting thought captivated by notions of representational faithfulness (FASB, 1980) and the
idea that our accounts can (re)present reality; make reality present.
This challenge has been recognized (see e.g. Arrington
and Francis, 1989; McSweeny, 1997; Macintosh, 2002; McKernan and Kosmala, 2007) and some times expressed in dramatic
if somewhat elusive terms. MacIntosh, perhaps the most prominent interpreter of Derridas work for accounting audiences,
has, for example, suggested that deconstruction proposes, that the very possibility of constructing some central textual
meaning for key accounting signiers, such as net income or capital is an impossible dream (p. 122). But surely Derrida
cant be saying anything so stupid
as that accounts, or texts generally, have no meaning or that they mean just what we
want them to mean? Given that the term deconstruction is somewhat ambiguous, and that Derridas work has received
relatively little direct and sustained consideration in the critical accounting literature, we begin with a very brief sketch our
view of Derridas philosophical project; deconstruction.
Derridas workcanbeunderstoodas aresponsetoandradicalizationof structuralist conceptions of languageandmeaning.
For Saussure, the pioneer of structural linguistics, language and meaning are an effect of difference:
In the language itself, there are only differences. Even more important than that is the fact that, although in general a
difference presupposes positive terms between which the difference holds, in a language there are only differences,
and no positive terms. Whether we take the signication or the signal, the language includes neither ideas nor sounds
existing prior to the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonetic differences arising out of the system. In a
sign, what matters more than any idea or sound associated with it is what other signs surround it (Saussure, 1916,
p. 118).
Saussure makes a distinction between la langue, language as a system of signs in which the one essential is the union of
sense and sound pattern (1916, p. 14), and parole as the realization of language in particular instances of its use. Because
language, on this view, is entirely relational, arbitrary (1916, p. 67), lacking natural connections between signiers (the
sound pattern or graphic equivalent) and signieds (the sense, concept or meaning), it has no essential core but is entirely
historical, entirely vulnerable to change, and must, Saussure argues, be studied synchronously (see Culler, 1985, p. 35) as a
whole structure existing at a particular point in time: as a system of pure values, determined by nothing else apart from
the temporary state of its constituent elements (1916, p. 80). When we study the state of a language we must rule out of
consideration everything that brought that state about, and pay no attention to diachrony (1916, p. 81).
Saussure insistence that the sign is arbitrary, that there are no ideas prior to the linguistic system and that language is
fundamentally a matter of difference, has more far reaching implications than Saussure himself, and structuralists generally,
were ready to recognize. Saussure held to the idea that within a language system we can have a union of sense and sound
pattern (1916, p. 14), a certain stability or xity in the relationship between signiers and signieds across a system at a
point in time. Derridean poststructuralism presses us to accept full consequences of the idea that meaning is an effect of
difference. Difference seems to be essentially innite. The meaning of every sign is an effect of its differences from every
other sign, so that meaning seems to be strung across an endlessly expanding web of signs, and never quite stabilized. It
becomes impossible to hold on to Saussures idea of the sign as an orderly unity of signier and signied: Impossible to quite
pin-down meaning, which is never fully present, stable or determined, but is constantly emerging in the play of signs in an
boundless dissemination (Derrida, 1972a) of differential interactions.
With structuralism we leave behind the idea meaning is imposed on signs by reality; the notion of a correspondence
between sign and reality. With poststructuralism we nd that we have lost even the security of a correspondence between
signier and signied. We nd that meaning/signication is a product of the interplay of signs, both signiers and signieds
in incessant circulation. As we try to grasp the signied, we inevitably nd that what we have caught hold of is always
more signiers. On the poststructuralist view that Derrida pioneers meaning is never fully present: Meaning, if you like, is
scattered or dispersed along the whole chain of signiers: it cannot be easily nailed down, it is never fully present in any
one sign alone, but is rather a kind of constant ickering of presence and absence together (Eagleton, 1996, p. 111). As the
chain of signiers unfolds in time meaning is always deferred in chain of signiers each carrying ramifying traces of other
signiers and contexts. Meaning is always caught in a play of difference and deferral, in diffrance (Derrida, 1972b, p. 1).
The fact that meaning is a complicated matter of difference and that we have to give up the idea that our signs can
have a simple correspondence with referents in reality, and even give up the idea of a simple bond between signier and
signied, does not mean that we should imagine that our signs are not in touch with a reality beyond language to which
they can refer
. The fact that we need to give up the correspondence, does not mean that we need to give up on truth.
Macintosh (2002), for example, argues that accounting faces a general crisis of representation, which he denes as a widespread loss of faith in the
belief that language, writing, discourse, discursive practices, and so on, can adequately bring the true meaning of some out-there thing-in-itself into our
presence (2002, p. 114).
They usually they charge me with saying that the text means anything . . . If I were saying such a stupid thing, why would that be of any interest?
(Derrida, 1999b, p. 79).
I never cease to be surprised by critics who see my work as a declaration that there is nothing beyond language, that we are imprisoned in language;
it is, in fact, saying the exact opposite. The critique of logocentrism is above all else the search for the other and the other of language. Every week I
receive critical commentaries and studies on deconstruction which operate on the assumption that what they call post-structuralism amounts to saying
that there is nothing beyond language, that we are submerged in words - and other stupidities of that sort. Certainly, deconstruction tries to show that
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Derrida regularly reafrms his commitment to truth: I have never put such concepts as truth, reference, and stability of
interpretive context radically into question if putting radically into question means contesting that there are and should be
truth, reference, and stable contexts of interpretation (Derrida, 1988, p. 150). He recognizes of course that the ties between
words between words, concepts, and things are never absolutely guaranteed. There is always some play of difference: A
stability is not an immutability; it is by denition always destabilizable (1988, p. 151). He insists that in relatively stable
contexts the ties linking words concepts and things are generally sufciently demonstrable for us to be able to condently
denounce errors, and even dishonesty and confusions when it occurs (1988, p. 151). Whilst deconstruction teaches us
a deep distrust of the danger of unbending, unyielding verities (Caputo, 1991, p. 337) but it is perfectly compatible with
pragmatic approaches to truth:
Meaning may well be ultimately undecidable if we viewlanguage contemplatively, as a chainof signiers ona page; it
becomes decidable, and words like truth, reality, knowledge and certainty have something of their force restored
to them, whenwe think of language rather as something we do, as indissociably interwovenwithour practical forms of
life. It is not of course that language then becomes xed and luminous: on the contrary, it becomes even more fraught
and conictual than the most deconstructed literary text. It is just that we are then able to see, in a practical rather
than academicist way, what would count as deciding, determining, persuading, certainty, being truthful, falsifying and
the rest and see, moreover, what beyond language itself is involved in such denitions. (Eagleton, 1996, p. 127).
The fact that meaning is a matter of difference does not mean that we dont have any determinate meaning
. In fact
the problem is that we have too much determinacy too much closure on meaning and identity. Deconstruction resists
closure, closing down, closing off, and aims at openness, opening new possibilities, innovation and novelty. (Caputo, 1991,
p. 332). Deconstruction, in Derridas terms, is a deeply ethical activity: The deconstructive opening to new possibilities is
always responsible to, and responding to, what has been excluded, what has been closed out in the rush to determination
of the meaning of our texts, our institutions, and ourselves. It is often the least powerful voices and interests that are most
thoroughly excluded.
Rorty (1984) identies two distinct senses of the termdeconstruction: Inone sense of deconstruction, the termrefers
to a method of reading texts (p. 2)
. Rorty reminds us that Neither this method or any other should be attribute to Derrida
who was rather contemptuous of the very idea of method. In a second sense the word refers to the philosophical projects
of Derrida (p. 2). It is in this sense that we will deal with deconstruction in this paper; we have already begun to talk of his
projects. In this paper we will try to bring deconstruction in this second sense to notions of truth reason and responsibility
in the institutions of accounting and accounting education.
We begin by reecting on Derridas response to nding himself and his work the subject of what he uncompromisingly
describes as inventions, insinuations, lies, manipulations (1992a, p. 431) in the pages of the New York Review of Books
He castigates the magazine and the academics involved for what he sees as their abuse of power and indecent (1992a,
p. 426) violation of the principles that ought to guide both academics and journalists alike. He insists that, irrespective of
whether they are publishing in high circulation magazines or in peer-reviewed journals, academics and journalists have
much the same responsibility to maintain an ethics of discussion and the honesty of intellectual debates (1992a, p. 426;
see also 1988). They have essentially the same purpose and duty, for both:
the task is always in principle to render an account and to render reason. In both cases one should mark in the public
space and as rationally as possible ones respect for the principle of reason. This should be done in principle, which is
what implicitly at least both the academic and the journalist, the one no less than the other, promise to do there. Both
of them have a duty to do so through research, questioning, inquiry that seeks the true, analysis, presentation of
what is or exposition of the facts, historical narrative, discussion, evaluation, interpretation, and putting all these
propositions together thanks to what is called language, communication, information, pedagogy, and so forth. I insist
on these two motifs, the public space and the principle of reason, as I have often done. The media and academia have
the duty to respect, as their condition, the duty and the right on which they are founded, the principle of reason and
the spirit of Enlightenment . . . (Derrida, 1992a, p. 427)
We start from the position that the accountants mission and duty, especially insofar as her work involves the rendering
of nancial reports in the public sphere, is broadly the same as that of the journalist and academic: accountants are like
the question of reference is much more complex and problematic than traditional theories supposed. It even asks whether our term reference is entirely
adequate for designating the other. The other, which is beyond language and which summons language, is perhaps not a referent in the normal sense
which linguists have attached to this term. But to distance oneself thus from the habitual structure of reference, to challenge or complicate our common
assumptions about it, does not amount to saying that there is nothing beyond language (Derrida, 1984, p. 123124).
When I say that there is nothing outside the text, I mean there is nothing outside the context, everything is determined. . . . I would say that a text is
complicated, there are many meanings struggling with one another, there are tensions, there are over determinations, there are equivocations; but this
does not mean that there is indeterminacy. On the contrary, there is too much determinacy. That is the problem. (Derrida, 1999a,b, p. 79).
The method of deconstructive criticism aims to show how texts come to embarrass their own ruling systems of logic; and deconstruction shows this
by fastening on the symptomatic points, the aporia or impasses of meaning, where texts get into trouble, come unstuck, offer to contradict themselves
(Eagleton, 1996, p.116). Culler (1983) and Eagleton (1996) provide accessible introductions to the idea and method deconstruction.
Derridas full account of the affair can be found in Derrida, 1992a, pp. 422454.
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journalists (Solomons, 1991a, p. 287)
. And like the journalist
and the academic, the accountant has a duty to seek the
true, analysis, presentation of what is or exposition of the facts,: they have a responsibility to strive for the development
of accounting that truly tells it like it is (Solomons, 1989, p. 8)
Whilst mindful of these inspirational ideals, we need to acknowledge that accountants, journalists, and academics have,
in recent times, all too often failed to live up to the deontological rules, norms, and principles (Derrida, 1992a, p. 430) at
the heart of their implicit social contract (1992a, p. 430) with society
. The danger of misreporting has grown in recent
times along with the increase in complexity of the reporting environment and the material that needs to be reported upon.
Macintosh et al. (2000) showhowthe once apparently direct relationship between nancial accounts and the reality upon
which they report has become increasingly indirect and complex in this era of hyperreality (Baudrillard, 1988, p. 16).
The old certainties about what faithful representation might mean in accounting have been seriously challenged by the
development of the complexity of the commercial environment. Likewise, Derridas observes that much of the research in
the sciences and humanities, including his own work, the work of deconstruction, has brought Enlightenment principles
and certainties into question
: Not necessarily to criticize or contest them (that is even rarely the case), but in order to
think them better and especially to translate and transform them better in the light of what should be the Enlightenment of
our time, with its new scientic, technical, philosophical, ethical, juridical, political, and other demands (1992a, p. 428). In
such circumstances, he argues that the rst duty of the academic, the journalist, and we suggest the accountant, is to warn
readers that things are complicated, difcult, and that they are called upon to work (1992a, p. 429), and not too simply
accept the account, the report, or the article
: The worst obscurantism takes hold when real difculties and complications
are glossed over.
2. Responsible deconstruction
Deconstruction is seen by critics such as John Searle as essentially destructive, as a danger to those of our institutions
like the university, and accounting, that rely on conceptions of reason and truth. He argues that Derridas work threatens
our universities by opening the way for a an abandonment of traditional standards of objectivity, truth, and rationality
(1993, p. 72). This is a serious misunderstanding, or misrepresentation: Philosophers like Derrida do not urge us to abandon
standards of objectivity, truth, disinterestedness. They urge us, rather, to stop trying to make sense of these notions
in terms of the tradition of western metaphysics: What they deny is that these notions can be explained or defended by
reference to the notion of correspondence to mind-independent reality (Rorty, 1994, p. 69). They think that the only
way in which we can explain and defend these standards is by referring to the context of the practices through which we
use and cultivate them. Really we have no where else to turn to. After all, in terms of that famously badly understood slogan
of deconstruction there is nothing outside the text meaning just that there is nothing outside context (Derrida, 1988, p.
136). Nothing, that is, outside context understood in broad terms: the text is not the book, it is not conned in a volume
itself conned to the library. It does not suspend reference to history, to the world, to reality, to being, and especially not to
the other, since to say of history, of the world, of reality, that they always appear in an experience, hence in a movement of
interpretation which contextualizes them according to a network of differences and hence of referral to the other, is surely
to recall that alterity (difference) is irreducible (Derrida, 1988, p. 137).
Derrida insists that deconstruction has never opposed institutions as such, philosophy as such, discipline as such
(Derrida, 1997b, p. 5). Deconstruction always involves a degree of disruption; it requires that an institution like accounting
be opened to its own future (Derrida, 1997b, p. 6). Impediments to change need to be challenged and if necessary swept
, but the opening of an institution to its own future entails a respect for institutional tradition and inheritance. It
requires the maintenance of a tension between disruption and conservation. This afrmative deconstruction that Derrida
calls us to bring to our institutions must hold the tension between memory, delity, the preservation of something that has
been given to us, and, at the same time, heterogeneity, something absolutely new, and a break (Derrida, 1997b, pp. 56).
We recognize, of course, that nancial reporting in capitalism is susceptible to biases and distortions (Tinker, 1991, p.301). We appreciate that the
ideal of truth in accounting can never be perfectly achieved, but insist that accountants have a duty to resist the temptation to become partisan.
See Soffer (2009) and Ward (2009) for recent reviews of debate concerning objectivity and truth in journalism, and see Ward (1999) for discussion of
a pragmatic approach to journalistic objectivity.
We can agree with Solomons that the pursuit of representational faithfulness . . . is central to accountings mission (1991b, p. 312), subject to an
insistence that commitment to representational faithfulness in accounting need not rely on any particular philosophical presupposition and certainly does
not necessitate a commitment to a correspondence theory of truth (See Rorty, 1994).
Just as Solomons urges that the accountant must retain neutrality as her guiding light even if perfect neutrality of information can never be achieved
(Solomons, 1991a, p. 295), Derrida acknowledges that respect for these rules and principles can never be guaranteed and is in fact not always possible:
what we are talking about here is something like an innite task or a regulating idea (Derrida, 1992a, p. 430).
It has raised questions concerning, for example, the history and foundation of the principle of reason, the history and foundation of the value of truth,
of the interpreted language as communication or as information; of the structure of public space, and so forth) (Derrida, 1992a, pp. 428429).
The duty, the categorical imperative, I would say, as much for the academic as for the journalist, and for both of them when they are the same person, is to
mark humbly and clearly that things are still more complicated - and that the reader ought to be aware of that (Derrida, 1992a, p. 429).
So, you see, I am a very conservative person. I love institutions and I spent a lot of time participating in new institutions, which sometimes do not
work. At the same time, I try to dismantle not institutions but some structures in given institutions which are too rigid or are dogmatic or which work as
an obstacle to future research (Derrida, 1997b, p. 8).
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Deconstruction afrms, above all, the other: the other that is always to come never present. Indeed, we might describe it
as an openness towards the other (Derrida, 1984, p. 124). In so far as the other is other, it is of course radically other, wholly
, radically heteronymous; inassimilable to the same. The deconstructive relation with the other is then a relation
without relation, one in which the other remains absolutely transcendent (Derrida, 1997b, p. 14); an impossible relation.
Deconstruction then is an impossible openness to the in-coming, the in venir, the invention of the other: the invention of
that which did not appear to be possible; otherwise it only makes explicit a program of possibilities within the economy
of the same (Derrida, 1987, p. 60). Derrida equates deconstruction, this impossible invention of the other, with justice
Deconstruction is possible as an experience of the impossible, there where, even if it does not exist, if it is not present, not
yet or never, there is justice [il y a la justice] (1994, p. 243).
The afrmation of the wholly other, then, requires more than an openness to the other that we can see coming; the other
as an extension of the same, an extension of the present, the future present. It entails an openness to an absolute future
(Derrida, 1993a, p. 90), an openness to the coming of the other that we are unable to predict or know in advance. It is an
afrmation of the other beyond the horizons of the present, beyond our plans, our anticipations, and calculations: Once
you relate to the other as the other, then something incalculable comes on the scene, something which cannot be reduced to
the law or to the history of legal structures. That is what gives deconstruction its movement, that is, constantly to suspect,
to criticize the given determinations of culture, of institutions, of legal systems, not in order to destroy them or simply to
cancel them, but to be just with justice, to respect this relation to the other as justice (Derrida, 1997b, pp. 1718).
3. The responsibility the university and accounting
Inour explorationof the responsibilities of the accounting academia we will take as our starting point Derridas reections
on the nature of responsibility, and in particular academic responsibility, as expressed especially in two lectures: The rst,
Mochlos; or the Conict of the Faculties (1980) given at Columbia University to mark the centenary of the founding of
the Graduate School, and the second, which will be our main source, The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes
of its Pupils, (1983), given at Cornell University. In these lectures Derrida develops his analysis of responsibility through a
reading of relevant works of Leibnitz, Kant, and especially of Heideggers Der Satz vom Grund (1957).
Derrida begins his Lecture at Cornell by noting the associations, recognised in Aristotles Metaphysics, between sight, and
knowledge, learning and teaching. He insists, however, that for knowing how to learn, and learning how to know, sight,
intelligence and memory are not enough (1983, p. 4). We must also know how to listen and, metaphorically at least, we
must knowhowto close our eyes in order to listen well: listen for the other: Opening the eyes to know, closing them or at
least listening in order to know how to learn and to learn how to know: here we have a rst sketch of the rational animal
(1983, p. 5). The university, he insists, must not be sclerophthalmic: Indeed, no institution, whether it be the university
itself, accounting, or accounting education, that is concerned with knowing and learning how to know, should allow itself
to become frozen in unreective reliance on an unblinking vision of what is. Such an institution must nd ways, guratively
speaking, to close its eyes, become master of its own diaphragm (Derrida, 1983, p. 5), listen, inwardly reect on its reasons
for being andonthevalueandmeaningof its most basic activities, andadjust its view, (re)set its sights, set another heading
(Derrida, 1990). This process, Derrida argues, must centre upon the institutions reection on its vision of its raison dtre,
what it can see or not see of its own destination, of that in view of which it stands its ground (Derrida, 1983, p. 5).
The Universitys, raison dtre, as Derrida sees it, has always been reason itself (1983, p. 7). The University and very
many of our institutions, including we suggest modern accounting, exist to render reason, to explain effects through
their causes, rationally; . . . to ground, to justify, to account for on the basis of principles or roots (1983, p. 8): They exist in
response to the principle of reason
. Derrida argues that there are generally consideredto be two elements to the principle
of reason, rstly the principle of non-contradiction and secondly the principle of rendering reason. This latter principle of
reddere rationem, which we might translate as give an account, says that for any truth for any true proposition, that is
a reasoned account is possible (1983, p. 7), and furthermore entails that that reason must be rendered (1983, p. 8). He
sees this imperative, this must, as governing our relationship to the principle of reason: a relationship of requirement,
debt, duty, request, command, obligation, law, the imperative
(1983, p. 8). A relationship that demands that: Whenever
reason can be rendered (reddi potest), it must (1983, p. 8). This must entails responsibility, it requires that we respond to
the call, or in Heideggers term the Anspruch, of the principle of reason. The call is not something seen, it has to be heard
and listened to (Derrida, 1983, p. 8). And it is a call that our institutions, whether the university or accounting, may fail to
hear. In order to hear clearly the call to respond to the principle of reason, to render accounts, the institutions must close
their eyes in thought.
Every other is wholly other: tout autre est tout autre (Derrida, 1992b, p. 87).
Deconstruction is justice (Derrida, 1994, p. 243).
Not only does that principle constitute the verbal formulation of a requirement present since the dawn of Western science and philosophy, it provides
the impetus for a new era of purportedly modern reason, metaphysics and technoscience (1983, p. 8).
Derrida argues (1983, p. 8) that we do not get to the bottom, or origins, of this must simply by thinking of it in terms of Kants categorical imperative.
Indeed he suggests that it could be shown that Kants critique of practical reason itself relies upon the principle of reason and its must. This must, this
command, refers to responsibility that should no longer necessarily rely on codes inherited from politics or ethics (Derrida, 1980, p. 14).
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Derrida begins his Lecture at Columbia University (1980) by speaking of exactly this call to responsibility. Aresponsibility
that originates when we, we in the university, nd certain questions imposing themselves upon us, demanding a response:
where are we? And who are we in the university where apparently we are? What do we represent? Whomdo we represent?
Are we responsible? For what and to whom? (Derrida, 1980, p. 1). The questions raised here concerning the responsibility
of the university can surely be applied, with equal pertinence, to the institution of accounting, we who are involved in
accounting education and practice, we the accounting community: Who are we? What do we represent? Whom do we
represent? Are we responsible? For what and to whom? To whom and for what do we owe an account? This responsibility
of the accounting community begins withthe emergence andrecognitionof these questions andwiththe demandthey make
of a response. The community might refuse to face its responsibility, refuse to respond, but the structure of this appeal to
responsibility is such so anterior to any possible response, so independent, so dissymetrical in its coming from the other
within us that even a nonresponse is charged a priori with responsibility (Derrida, 1980, p. 1).
Derrida distinguishes between accounting to the principle of reason and accounting for the principle of reason. We render
reason to reason when we give an account or rational explanation. Any efforts we make, however, to account for, or ground,
the principle of reason, itself a grounding principle, in terms of reasons and principles will lead us in fruitless circles: the
principle of reason says nothing about reason itself (1983, p. 9). That it is impossible for the grounding principle of reason to
ground itself, leaves it, and the institutions it itself grounds, suspended above the abyss, the hole, the Abgrund, the empty
gorge (1983, p. 9).
The new type of responsibility (Derrida, 1980, p. 6), the possibility of which Derrida tries to think in the Columbia and
Cornell lectures, and whichwe are beginning to explore here, contrasts sharply withthe traditional or juridico-egological
(1980, p. 6) forms of responsibility that continue, for the most part, to dominate thinking about responsibility. The traditional
discourse of responsibility relies on a conception of the responsible subject, the ego, the conscious, intending, and rational
agent required to judge, decide, and act on its responsibility understood in ethico-juridical terms, in terms of a code. This
new responsibility, a demand imposing a need to respond, a demand that ultimately needs no egological mediation, is
novel insofar as it is conceived anew, through what some would call a crisis of responsibility in its juridico-egological form
(1980, p. 6), a crisis has manifest itself with some force in the institution of accounting, and older insofar as it is the ground
. . . on which the juridico-egological values of responsibility were determined, attained, imposed (1980, p. 6).
In the modern juridico-egological conception of responsibility, the principle of reason is tied to, and expressed in a certain
representationalism, in which responsibility, and being itself, is interpreted in terms of objects made present as representa-
tions before a knowing subject that thus ensures his own technical mastery over the totality of what is (Derrida, 1983, p.
10), mastery of all it surveys: The re- of repraesentatio also expresses the movement that accounts for renders reason to
a thing whose presence is encountered by rendering it present, by bringing it to the subject of representation, to the know-
ing self (1983, p. 10). This representational relation, associated with the principle of reason and the rendering of accounts,
dominant in traditional forms of responsibility, does not reduce to knowing, nor to a metaphor of sight, sclerophthalmic or
otherwise. Nevertheless, it is true that a caricature of representational man . . . would readily endow him with hard eyes
permanently open to a nature that he is to dominate, to rape if necessary, by xing it in front of himself, or by swooping down
on it like a bird of prey (Derrida, 1983, p. 10). The traditional accountant who makes the horizon of his responsibility the
rendering of accounts, faithful representations, in the service of a rapacious and ideologically xated capitalism is surely
the paradigm case of this caricature of representational man.
This traditional conception of responsibility and the principle of reason that grounds it is securely installed only in
so far as the abyssal question (Derrida, 1983, p. 10) of what grounds the ground, what motivates, justies, authorizes
and gives meaning to the grounding principle of reason itself, is occluded, blocked-out. The traditional accountant, lost
in his responsibility to faithfully represent the objects before him, has been paradigmatically resolute in his denial of any
questioning of the grounding of the grounds of his practice. The traditional accountant as representational man has been
resolute in his resistance to the new type of responsibility that Derrida asks us to think, and resistant to its requirement
that we study and question how our traditional conceptions of responsibility came to be forged determined, attained,
imposed (1980, p. 6), or we might even say arrested (Derrida, 1991a, p. 288). Take, for example, Solomons at rejection of
Tinkers (1985) insistence that accounting educators ought to encourage a recognition of responsibilities beyond the faithful
reporting of economic realities, responsibilities beyond those as traditionally conceived: The idea that accountants should
take on the task of looking beyond market appearances to the underlying social reality is, to say the least, farfetched. It
is difcult enough to get consensus as to what constitutes economic reality (Solomons, 1991a, p. 289).
Thinking beyond our present realities, beyond what is, is difcult of course, sometimes too difcult. Derrida calls us to
work towards loosening our hold of the present, enough to allowour futures to be something other than more of the same,
enough to overcome the difculties that are always associated with responding to the demands of the other, the demands
of justice. This is the task of deconstruction, which starts out from a willingness to allow coming of the event, the new, the
wholly other. This does not mean that we should allow everything and anything (Derrida, 1993b, p. 11): We must go on
pursuing progress and emancipation, and that means that we must work against the return of the worst (1993b, p. 22).
That worst for Derrida is closure against the event, the other, the future; its an ineducable repetition compulsion in the
death drive and radical evil, a history without progress, a history without history (1993b, p. 22).
Accountants have not been alone in nding it difcult to move on from the comfort and constraints of traditional con-
ceptions of their responsibilities. Nor are they alone in nding that they are under some pressure to do so. Derrida suggests
that we might all be tempted to feel a certain nostalgia for a time when it seemed that, given the right kind of intelligent
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application and debate, we might quite clearly determine our responsibilities as academics, as accountants, and so on: A
nostalgia for the kind of clarity, certainty, that an academic, such as Solomons, could once have concerning the accountants
responsibility to faithfully represent. We might be tempted to be nostalgic for a time when we could at least pretend
(1980, p. 3) to know the terms in which we must debate responsibility, a time when the agencies and elements invoked in
debate truth, knowledge, the public interest, accountancy, the university, and so on held a place in discourse that was
guaranteed, decidable, and, in every sense of this word, representable; and a common code could guarantee, at least on
faith, a minimum of translatability for any possible discourse in such a context (1980, p. 4). Derrida suggests the problems
we now seem to have in nding a common language in which we can debate and know our responsibilities is now endemic
in our society, something more than a malady or a crisis (1980, p. 4). This problemis exemplied in the exchange, we have
previously referred to, between Tinker (1991) and Solomons (1991a,b) concerning the responsibilities of the accountant,
conceived respectively as incorrigibly partisan and as ideally neutral. There is some vague appreciation that representa-
tional faithfulness is at the root of their differences (Solomons, 1991b, p. 311), but ultimately it is clear that there is
little understanding between them
, and in particular that Solomon is quite honestly unable to make any sense of Tinkers
critique of neutrality in accounting, his insistence that: truth is not merely a scholastic or technical artifact, but an element
that is unavoidably integral to social action (1991, p. 310).
Tinkers critique of a neutral truth in accounting explicitly draws inspiration from Derridas work. Derrida insists that
we must not separate academic work, knowledge work, from reection upon the political and institutional conditions and
location of that work. Such reection can no longer (be) an external complement to teaching and research; it must make its
way through the very objects we work with, shaping them as it goes, along with our norms, procedures, and aims (1983, p.
3). He is critical of Kants attempts: to make a line of demarcation pass between thinkers in the university and businessmen
of knowledge or agents of government power (1980, p. 14). He suggests that whilst it might once have been possible
to imagine realms of pure academic discipline in the university, shielded from power and solely concerned with basic
research . . . knowledge, truth, the disinterested exercise of reason, under the sole authority of the principle of reason (1983,
p. 12), we now know what must have been true for all time, that this opposition between the basic and the end-oriented
is of real but limited relevance (1983, p. 12).
Derrida rejects Kants efforts to somehow separate knowledge and truth from power and action, and limit the university
to the former, to: a power-to-think-and-judge, a power-to-say, though not necessarily to say in public, since this would
involve an action (1980, p. 10)
. Kants efforts involve an attempt to demarcate a responsibility for truth and responsibility
for action, that itself entails a demarcation, that Derrida nds untenable between: two languages, between one of truth and
one of action, between one of theoretical statements and one of performatives (1980, p. 11). Following much the same line,
Tinker rejects as schizophrenic (1991b, p. 305) Solomons attempts to justify a demarcation of responsibilities for truth
and action in relation to accounting. Solomons seeks to maintain a distinction in linguistic terms, between responsibilities to
report and to advise (1991b, p. 312): For Solomons, the responsibility to report truthfully on what is, is the accountants
responsibility qua accountant. What Tinker takes to be an unhealthy and ultimately untenable division, Solomons sees as
vital to the integrity and practical value of accounting: What Tinker calls schizophrenia I call professional integrity (1991b,
p. 312).
Derrida argues that it is now, more than ever, impossible to hold the kind of distinctions that Kant wanted between on
the one hand pure science and rationality and on the other technology; between truth and action, between the informational
and the performative and rhetorical values of language: we can no longer dissociate the principle of reason from the very
idea of technology (1983, p. 12). It is in facing up to the collapse, or impossibility, of these demarcations, to the integration
truth and action pure rationality and the technical, he insists, that an ultimate responsibility would be, if such a thing
were possible, there for the taking today (1980, p. 11). Derrida suggests that this integration of the basic to the oriented,
the purely rational to the technical (Derrida, 1983, p. 14), and the challenges it presents in terms of responsibility, is
perhaps most obvious in relation to the concept of information and information technology. Nevertheless, the dominant
representationalist interpretation of the principle of reason retains a tight grip on many elds of information work, including
Those who make the instrumental and informational value of language the essential focus of their attention and studies,
including the existing mainstreamof accounting and accounting research, will always tend to work within and reinforce the
boundaries of the dominant representationalist construal of the principle of reason. In contrast there is work that address
the poetic as distinct from the informational value of language, studies which engage with the effects of the undecidability
of language, and work that seeks understanding of how the values, norms, and assumptions that underpin our professional
activities have been constructed: such work is at the core of the academic project of critical accounting. Research that takes
such approaches to language and to tradition will tend to test, and challenge, the limits and hegemony of the dominant inter-
At the end of this debate, we are as far apart as ever Solomons (1991b, p. 311).
Derrida sees as inherently untenable, for example, the idea that the demarcation might be maintained by the restriction of the publication of the
discourse, or language, of truth: Reducing publication so as to save a rigorous discourse, i.e. a rational, universal and unequivocal discourse, in science
and in conscience - this is a double bind, a demand in contradiction with itself, intrinsically in conict with itself, as if, within the Kantian text, it were
already not translatable from itself into itself. This contradictory demand was not satised in the time of Kant. How could it be today . . .? (Derrida, 1980,
pp. 1112).
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pretation of the principle of reason. Derrida advocates this kind of work as a basis for efforts to dene new responsibilities
in the face of . . . subjection to the technologies of informatization (1983, p. 14). Derrida is quick to insist that such efforts to
work out new responsibilities need not entail a refusal of reason and certainly must not become a plunge into obscurantist
(1983, p. 14).
Derrida argues that this work of deconstruction and reconstruction of responsibilities is properly the task of what he calls
a community of thought in the broad sense (1983, p. 16)
. It needs to be able to uncover the orientations buried in appar-
ently pure unoriented research. The implication here is not that orientation is bad in itself and that it must be combated,
far from it (Derrida, 1983, p. 16). It is rather that we must put ourselves in a position to adequately recognize and evaluate
the ends to which our work is directed: I am dening the necessity for a new way of educating students that will prepare
them to undertake new analyses in order to evaluate these ends and to choose, when possible, among them all (Derrida,
1983, p. 16). A central plank of the educational project of critical accounting is, and must be, the building of a community
of thought that supports students in a wariness towards traditionalist dreams of accounting neutrality Solomons (1991a),
and helps them come to a mature relation with the inevitably partisan (Tinker, 1991) nature of accounting.
This deconstructive thought must not be irresponsible, not simply destructive. Rather than destroy what exists, our
traditions and values, its task is to enable us to think about their possibility from another point (Derrida, 1991a, p. 286)
The newresponsibilities that Derrida calls us to engage with are extremely precarious and threatened and difcult to meet
precisely because they must at once keep alive the memory of a tradition and make an opening beyond any program, that
is, towards what is called the future (1983, p. 16)
. When we try to think about the responsibility of an institution like the
university from another point we do not need to not set ourselves up in opposition to the principle of reason (1983, p.
. The (re)thinking
of the responsibilities of institutions like the university and accounting must take place between
two poles: Thought requires both the principle of reason and what is beyond the principle of reason (1983, p. 1819). The
mediation between the two is always difcult, and can never be made a matter of mere institutional routine. This thought
must hold memory, inheritance, and tradition and yet maintain an openness to chance, to the anarchy of the future: The
provocation to think brings together in the same instant the desire for memory and exposure to the future (1983, p. 20).
The accountant and the accounting academic must think, and act on, their responsibilities, in the space between the
principle of reason and what is beyond reason, between memory, tradition, and the future, and between professional rigour,
competence, and respect for professional rules and principles and the willingness to put those rules, principles and pro-
fessional values into question. Appreciation of this difcult situation, and the inevitable tensions and aporias involved, is
not always evident in the critical accounting research. It is lacking for example in the literature which sees the ethical
accountant, the accountant who respects the rules, and values professional competence, as the problem. We see the eth-
ical accountant as part of such a tradition, committed to the principle of reason, the possibility of which we need to think
differently but which we certainly should not be setting out to destroy. Accountants need to rethink, but not abandon, the
goal of telling it like it is. It is clear, however, that the new responsibility Derrida is calling us to will take us out over the
, into difcult territory where: Not only must one [il faut] calculate, negotiate the relation between the calculable
and the incalculable, and negotiate without a rule that would not have to be reinvented there where we are thrown, there
where we nd ourselves; but one must [il faut] do so and take it as far as possible, beyond the place we nd ourselves and
beyond the already identiable zones of morality, politics, or law.. (1994, p. 257).
4. Responsibility beyond the already identiable zones
Deconstruction is motivated by a heightened sensitivity and responsibility to the singular claims of the other; the same
sense of responsibility to the singularity of the wholly other that for Derrida is of the essence of morality
. This morality
places ones singular responsibilities to the particular other, ones moral responsibilities, above or beyond ones responsibil-
ities to society in general, above ones ethical responsibilities: The ethical then appears as a threat to moral responsibility.
Derrida suggests that in fact there is a good deal of irrationalismto be found in the reactions that the approach he advocates has provoked fromcertain
academic guardians, in both the humanities and positive science, of the dominant interpretation of the principle of reason (Derrida, fall 1983, p. 15).
Acommunity at large - rather than a community of research, of science or philosophy, since these values are most often subjected to the unquestioned
authority of a principle of reason (1983a, p. 16).
The possibility of such deconstructive thinking is threatened by any extreme professionalization, especially one that regulates thought according to
the supply and demand of the marketplace and according to a purely technical ideal of competence (Derrida, 1983, p. 17). Accounting academics are
familiar with such pressures, reected as they are, for example, in the demands of professional accreditation, and research assessment exercises. We need
to guard against the constraints that a professionalized environment may put on our thinking: Beware of ends; but what would a university be without
ends?(Derrida, 1983, p. 19).
There is self-consciouslyemancipatoryintent inthis insistence onthe maintenance of exposure tothe future: I have never felt that all those declarations
about the end of the great emancipatory or revolutionary discourses were true (1993b, p. 22).
We may continue to assume within the university, along with its memory and tradition, the imperative of professional rigor and competence (Derrida,
1983a, p. 17).
At the core of deconstruction and of this thought is a messianicity without messianism that deprives us of a horizon, or limit, of expectation but
insists that we keep open our relation to the other who is perhaps coming, but about whom we must know nothing in advance (Derrida, 1993b, p. 13).
Nothing, that is, except that justice, in the most enigmatic sense of the word, is at stake (Derrida, 1993b, p. 13).
Where we nd that our grounding principle in accounting and the university the principle of reason is itself ungrounded.
We might even say religion, that is Derridas religion without dogma and institutions, his religion without religion (Caputo, 1997).
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Decision-making in response to the idiosyncratic claims of the other always entails an undecidability of responsibility. There
are always other others, each making their competing, and incompatible, claims. In responding to one other we inevitably
deny the claims of other others or of society in general. Commitment to moral action, like religious faith
, then always
entails the passionate embrace of an objective uncertainty (Kierkegaard, 1846, p. 182). It lies beyond proof, beyond closure
through rational calculation, and the reasonable assessment of probabilities. It sets us out upon the deep, over seventy
thousand fathoms of water (1846, p. 182).
The moral imperative to suspend and go beyond the rule-governed universality of the ethical, in the name of a singular
responsibility to the other, the wholly other, has begun to nd some recognition in the critical accounting literature. Some
critical reection on that literature will help clarify the implications of the Derridean viewof morality and moral responsibil-
ity, we have described, and highlight some of the difculties associated with its implementation in the context of accounting
and accounting education.
There is perhaps no clearer recognition of the threat that the ethical can pose to the moral, in an accounting context,
than McPhails paper The threat of ethical accountants (1999). McPhail deplores the existing regime of accountancy and
accounting education, which he argues engenders a narrow, rationalistic, view of ethics in terms of which the economic
good becomes coextensive with the moral good. He calls on accounting educators to help their students to question and
challenge accountings economistic ethic and to help them develop an active emotional sensitivity to the call of the other.
McPhails position on accounting ethics is premised on David Humes view that morality is not fundamentally grounded in
reason but in sentiment: Hume appeals to sentiment rather than reason because he rmly believed that moral judgement
did not essentially depend on reason but rather that it was grounded on feelings and passions (McPhail, 1999, p. 834).
McPhail argues that accounting, and in particular the rationalistic, indeed narrowly economistic, ethic it currently reects
and reproduces, is deeply implicated in the maintenance of the prevailing capitalist hegemony. He suggests that that hege-
mony reinforces and reproduces itself by exclusion of the other; other knowledges and other interests. McPhail recommends
Foucaultianstrategies of resistance to this capitalist hegemony that threatens to dominate humanity; threatens to lock it into
an impoverished sameness
. In particular, he recommends resistance through the cultivation of openness and responsive-
ness to the call, the demand, of the other. The impoverished ethic reected in accounting practice and education, insulates
anddistances the accountant fromthe needs anddemands of the other, the singular other, andthus has a pernicious inuence
on the moral responsibility of their behaviour. The ethic that currently dominates accounting, and accounting education,
inures the ethical accountant to his or her singular moral responsibility to respond to the unmediated, unrationalizable,
non-contractual demand of the wholly other. The ethical accountant learns to be deaf to moral claims that do not fall within
the narrow scope of an accounting ethic that makes the moral good equivalent to the economic good: learns to be deaf to
the others unreasonable demand. By acting ethically the accountant reinforces the hegemony of the same, and maintains
the exclusion of the other, the new, anything that threatens the reproduction of the self-same, the current order. McPhail
argues that the greater danger to humanity comes not fromthe minority of accountants who behave unethically but rather
from the majority of accounting professionals who appear to behave ethically! (1999, 836). He recognizes the ethical as a
threat to the moral.
McPhail argues that accounting students are encouraged to build their ethical identities around a stultifying economistic
model of ethical behaviour and responsibility that tends to foster anxiously narcissistic, instrumentally rational, selves, who
can present no challenge to capitalist economism and its concomitant injustices (1999, p. 836). He calls for a pedagogic
resistance tothe rationalistic models of ethical identity, conventionally propoundedby accounting education, tobe grounded
in subjugated emotional/aesthetic knowledge (1999, p. 839). He argues that accounting educators have a responsibility
to give students resources to help enable them to resist the subjection of their identities to an instrumentally rationalist
capitalist order, closed to the other and entrenched in sameness: to resist the subjugating rationalistic modes of subjection
through constructing an emotional sense of obligation towards the other (1999, p. 852).
McPhail suggests that the economistic ethic that now dominates accounting can best be resisted, and the emotional
dimension of students ethical sensitivity most effectively developed, through the dissemination of a Levinasian ethic of
the other. He relies heavily on Bauman (1989, 1993) interpretation of Levinas ethics. Bauman nds in Levinas ethics a
repersonalization of morality: a reformulation that lets morality out of the stiff armour of the articially constructed ethical
codes (1993, p. 34). On Baumans view, the Levinasian reformulation of ethics restores sentiment, inexplicable intuition,
and feeling to their proper place at the base of any moral life: It recognizes that it is the primal and primary brute fact of
moral impulse, moral responsibility, moral intimacy that supplies the stuff from which the morality of human cohabitation
is made (Bauman, 1993, p. 35).
McPhail responds to this perspective by advocating resistance through an educating for the other, consisting of studies
that raise awareness of the needs and demands of others and enhance sympathetic identication with the other. McPhail
Where belief is objectively secured there is no faith, no venturing of belief beyond the comfort of the known and possible, no qualitative leap into
the rationally opaque. For Derrida, as for Kierkegaard, religion is a matter of paradox (1846, p. 191) and impossibility. Their work makes unmistakably
plain the gulf that divide(s) the subjective orientation of the religious consciousness, that refuses to be contained by reason, fromthe detached perspective
characteristic of objective thought and enquiry (Gardiner, 1988, p. 101).
Resistance, on McPhails Foucaultian view of things, must become a way of life rather than a one-off event (1999, p. 854). It becomes a continuous
movement of resistance to the status quo, to the present, a perpetual refusal of what we are.
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suggests that ideally an adequate moral education may require a kind of, gazing in the face of the other (1999, p. 858).
Accounting education, he argues, is presently far from this ideal. As he sees things, this is in part due to the nature of
accounting itself. As presently constructed accounting tends to treat self and other instrumentally, it is an instrument of
management at a distance, and by distance, it creates and uses moral distance (Funnell, 1998; Roberts, 1991). In modern
accounting practice the face of the other does not confront us! (McPhail, 1999, p. 859). McPhail suggests that one way of
overcoming, or resisting, the de-humanisationof accounting (p. 859), its negationof the other, would be to employ creative
educational strategies that would encourage an imaginative and compassionate recognition, and empathetic instatement
or construction of an emotional sense of obligation towards the other (1999, p. 852).
WewelcomeMcPhails recognitionof thedanger that ethics presents tomoral responsibility, but havecertainreservations
concerning his analysis. We are sympathetic to his call for development of the emotional dimension of students ethical sen-
sitivity as a way forwardfor accounting ethics. However, the idea that that ethics canbe groundedinpassions andempathy
seems, to us, to be at odds withthe purity of the Levinasianapproachwhichresists any the articulation/explanationof ethical
responsibility. The empathetic approach may impose a sameness on the other: By articulating the nature of our obligation
to the other (e.g., in empathetic terms) the others demand is domesticated and rendered in our terms. McPhails recourse to
emotion and empathy seems like a prescription for the effacement otherness, a prescription for its translation into sameness
via the ego that empathizes, knows, represents and is responsible.
From our Derridean perspective, however, the primary problem with the analysis presented by McPhail (1999), is that
it fails to adequately address, even from within a Levinasian perspective, the relationship between morality and ethics. The
relationship between ones singular and absolute responsibility to the particular other and ones social responsibilities. The
issue here can be conceptualised in terms of howone deals with the introduction of the third party; other others. For Levinas
the third party redresses the asymmetry of the subjects absolute responsibility for the other. The third party allows a limit
on the subjects responsibility for the other, and facilitates a transition from singular absolute responsibilities to universal
social justice. Levinas treats as relatively unproblematic the transition from on the one hand the absolute, incalculable,
singular responsibility owed to the other, to on the other hand, the limitable, calculable, rationalizable, and generalizable,
responsibilities of a social justice owed to all others. In Levinas view the thirds disruption of the subjects singular relation
of responsibility for the other makes space for a social justice, albeit a social justice grounded in ones responsibility for the
McPhails reading of Levinas ethics is however strongly channelled through Bauman (1989, 1993). Bauman takes his
inspiration and lead from Levinas, but his analysis appears as essentially a sustained attack or critique of the ethical
and the political. Bauman presents the relationship between the moral and the ethical, between the singular face-to-
face relation of responsibility for the other and the universals of reason and law, as essentially one of simple threat and
opposition. He gives his analysis added rhetorical impact through his account of the history of the Holocaust, which he
presents as a paradigmatic case of the damage that reason, law and bureaucracy can do to morality of the face-to-face.
He argues that by serving to neutralize morality, social processes, such as accounting, played a crucial part in facilitating
the Holocaust
. Levinas too is concerned by the totalizing pressures in philosophy and politics in the 20th century, and
clearly identies the potential for a tyrannous collapse of moral to the ethical, the political: politics left to itself bears a
tyranny within itself; it deforms the I and the other who have given rise to it, for it judges them according to universal
rules, and thus as in absentia (Levinas, 1961, p. 300). Levinas, however, constantly emphasizes, in a way that Bauman
does not, that we need both the moral and the ethical, the political, and that we need to make bridges between them.
Responsibility, he insists, in the immediacy of the face-to-face relation, with the other comes before all questions of reason,
equality and justice. The existence of the third, other others, forces such questions, the questions of ethics and politics,
upon us. Forces us to move on from the ground of moral responsibility to ethical and political reason, regulations and
Comparison is superimposed onto my relation with the unique and the incomparable, and, in view of equity and
equality, a weighing, a thinking, a calculation, the comparison of incomparables, and, consequently, the neutrality
presence or representation of being, the thematization and the visibility of the face in some way de-faced as the
simple individuation of an individual; the burden of ownership and exchange; the necessity of thinking together
under a synthetic theme the multiplicity and the unity of the world; and, through this, the promotion in thought of
intentionality, of the intelligibility of the relation, and of the nal signifyingness of being; and, through this, nally,
the extreme importance in human multiplicity of the political structure of society, subject to laws and thereby to
Empathy The power of mentally identifying with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation, The New Shorter Oxford English
Baumans analysis relies heavily on his viewof the holocaust as made possible by the rise of instrumental reason and bureaucracy in modernity. On this
view, accountinginmodernitycanbeseenas oneamongmanytechnologies of modernitythat createdistancebetweenself andother andtherebyundermine
the proximity on which morality relies. For Bauman, the holocaust became possible because the culture of bureaucracy along with its technologies such as
accounting, medicine and lawallowed Nazi administrators to both distance themselves fromtheir victims and to separate technical and moral judgments
(Neu & Graham, 2004, p. 578). The historiography of the holocaust is vast and contested (see e.g., Stone, 2008; Marrus, 1994). Whilst Baumans focus on
bureaucracy and the technologies of instrumental reason is given support by many scholars of the holocaust (see Hilberg, 1961; Arendt, 1963), others are
attracted to different analyses and explanations. Some historians, for example, emphasize the role of the ideology of anti-semitism (see e.g., Herf, 2006),
whilst others focus on the issues of group psychology (see e.g., Browning, 1992; Goldhagen, 1996).
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institutions where the for-the-other of subjectivity or the ego enters with the dignity of a citizen into the perfect
reciprocity of political laws which are essentially egalitarian or held to become so. (Levinas, 1984, p. 168)
It seems to us that Bauman goes too far in his critique of reason, law, the ethical, and that his powerfully emotive analysis
is not adequately balanced. His view fails to mediate of the demands of the moral and the ethical. In his writings the ethical
easily appears as entirely pernicious, nothing more than a threat to morality. All our efforts to develop ethical codes, systems
of rules, and structures of accountability, then appear as essentially nothing more than mechanisms for the undercutting,
silencing, and suppression of moral responsibility: Such efforts, as we see it now, may take no other form than that of the
substitution of heteronomous, enforced-from-outside, ethical rules for the autonomous responsibility of the moral self (and
that means nothing less than the incapacitation, even destruction, of the moral self) (Bauman, 1993, p. 12).
Bauman argues that morality has become substantially subordinate to instrumental reason
in modernity, and that
modernity was the necessary condition (1989, p. 13) for the holocaust whichitself was instrumentally rational. The remedy
Bauman prescribes for the eclipse of morality in modernity is a return to an immediate morality of personal judgement help
separate from rationality
, law, ethics, and rules, separated, that is, from the corrupting inuence of social organization
Bauman follows Arendt in using the case of the war criminal Adolf Eichmann to give some empirical substance to his
analysis. Eichmann famously defended himself by claiming that he acted in accordance with the law, and presenting him-
self as simply a functionary caught within, and victim of, a dehumanizing bureaucratic system. It is obviously difcult to
think and act independently in totalitarian societies and there would be no right to try, condemn and execute Eichmann
unless there was some justication for conceiving of disciplined behaviour, totally conforming to the moral norms in force
at that time and in that place, as criminal (Bauman, 1989, p. 177). Bauman follows Arendt and condemns Eichmann
arguing that we all have a moral responsibility for resisting socialization (1989, p. 177). Bauman goes on to quote Hannah
What we have demanded in these trials, where the defendants had committed legal crimes, is that human beings be
capable of telling right from wrong even when all they have to guide them is their own judgement, which, moreover,
happens to be completely at odds with what they must regard as the unanimous opinion of all these around them. . . .
The(se) few who were still able to tell right from wrong went really only by their own judgements, and they did so
freely; there were no rules to be abided by, under which the particular cases with which they were confronted could
be subsumed. They had to decide each instance as it arose, because no rules existed for the unprecedented. (Arendt,
1963. pp. 294295)
Baumanis clear that themoral foundationfor resistancetosocial norms, andfor tellingright fromwronginsuchcases, can-
not itself be social. Social laws andnorms, whether international or local, are essentially morally irrelevant andirreparably
relative (1989, p. 178):
This relativism, however, does not apply to human ability to tell right from wrong. Such an ability must be grounded in
something other than the conscience collective of society. Every given society faces such an ability ready formed, much
as it faces human biological constitution, physiological needs or psychological drives. (1989, p. 178)
For Bauman, this asocial, context-transcending, capacity for distinguishing good and evil, is one of the stubborn realities
(p. 178) of the human condition. As he sees things, Eichmanns guilt and hope for a moral society lie in this universal
human capacity which entails certain principles and the ability to resist (p. 178). From the perspective of Derridas
poststructuralist critiqueof metaphysics, aperspectivefromwhichweaccept that thereis nothingoutsidethetext meaning
that there is nothing outside the context (1999b, p. 79) the problem with Baumans conception of morality is obvious. He
conceives of morality, right and wrong, as an entirely contextless universal and requires that social subjects, like Eichmann,
somehow manage to make present in their judgements the thing-in-itself of morality, right and wrong, good and evil. From
the poststructuralist, perspective there just is no morality outside of context.
In order to have substance the moral impulse
must be mediated by an engage with socio-political context:
Bauman seems to be suggesting that to counterbalance the failure of modernity and to deny determinism human
beings should create alternative cognitive and contextual frameworks of their own. This de-politicisation of morality,
whichmanifests itself inanoppositionbetweenabsolute responsibility andabsolute non-responsibility, fails to recog-
Habermas theory of communicative action (1981a,b) offers a more balance critique of the progress of rationality in modernity.
From the perspective of the rational order, morality is and is bound to remain irrational. (Bauman, 1993, p. 13).
All social organization, big or small, global-societal or local and functionally specic, consists in subjecting the conduct of its units to either instrumental
or procedural criteria of evaluation. More importantly still, it consists in delegalizing and forcing out all other criteria, and rst and foremost such standards
as elide the legislating authority of the totality, and thus render the behaviour of units resilient to socializing pressures. Among such standards marked for
suppression, pride of place is kept by moral drive the source of a most conspicuously autonomous (and hence from the vantage point of the organization
unpredictable and inimical to order) behaviour. As we have argued before the autonomy of moral behaviour is nal and irreducible: morality escapes all
codication, as it does not serve any purpose outside itself and does not enter a relationship with anything outside itself; that is, no relationship that could
be monitored, standardized, codied (Bauman, 1993, p.124).
Bauman ignores the contextual status of morality, by insisting that it belongs to a separate pre-determined, pre-social sphere of consciousness
(Waxman, 2009, pp. 99100).
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nise that there is no such thing as an independent context. It fails to recognise that morality will always be mediated
by political or social life. (Waxman, 2009, p. 101)
Baumans critique of modernity, has been clearly picked up by accounting theorists who have come under the inuence
of his writing. Funnells (1998) grounds his analyses of the part played by accounting in the Holocaust, in Baumans view
that in that situation: Morality was set aside and replaced by rationality (Funnell, 1998, p. 437). Funnell then present
the Holocaust as an example of the application of accountings functional rationalist technology (Funnell, 1998, p. 440). A
totalitarian extreme in which morality came close, no doubt, to being entirely reduced to politics, legality and rationality,
then stands as a warning about the damage that politics, reason and accounting, can do. The almost obvious lesson, and the
one that Bauman seems to invite us to draw from such events, is that we ought to retreat from politics to the face-to-face of
morality, retreat from reason, retreat from legality, retreat from the pursuit of objectivity and neutrality in public spheres.
The truth is however, that such a retreat is not an option. As Levinas clearly recognizes we must face up to the question of
the political. We cannot dream away the third party and the political question it poses:
Doubtless, responsibility for the other human being is, in its immediacy, anterior to every question. But how does
responsibility obligate if a third party troubles this exteriority of two where my subjection of the subject is subjection
to the neighbor? The third party is other than the neighbor but also another neighbor, and also a neighbor of the other,
and not simply their fellow. What am I to do? What have they already done to one another? Who passes before the
other in my responsibility? What, then, are the other and the third party with respect to one another? Birth of the
question. (Levinas, 1984, p. 168)
We welcome the warning given by Bauman and Funnell that the ethical is dangerous to morality, but regret their relative
neglect of real practical challenge involved: The challenge that arises with the birth of the political question. That is, how in
institutions, like accounting, can we preserve a heritage of reason, regulation, and the pursuit of neutrality and objectivity,
whilst at the same time resisting any totalizing tendency, any tendency for the morality to become reduced to politics.
We sympathize then with McPhails identication of ethical accountants as a moral threat. We recognize the temptation
of the ethical (Kierkegaard, 1843, p. 115), which, even whilst it appears as a call to responsibility, threatens to undermine
ones absolute responsibility before the other: We recognize that the ethical can therefore end up making us irresponsible
(Derrida, 1992b, p. 61). Nevertheless, it seems to seems to us that McPhails analysis is ultimately unbalanced in much
the same way as Baumans. From the outset McPhail makes it clear that his position is premised on the view that moral
judgement is grounded on feelings and passions rather than in reason
. For McPhail there is morality, a matter of moral
sense and emotions, arising in ones face-to-face encounter with the other. The moral responsibilities arising here, from
the others wholly asymmetric call on the self, are singular, incalculable, and not open to reason or modication. Reason
and regulation then appear in McPhail (1999) as essentially nothing more than dangers to morality, as mechanisms for
the exclusion of feelings, passion and emotion from the moral process, and it then seems vital that accounting educators
challenge the hegemony of rationality within accounting education (1999, p. 860). For McPhail the ethical accountant, the
accountant who constructs him or herself in relation to an ethos or telos
of respect for reason and rules, is the problem.
McPhail, like Funnell, has nothing to say about the bridge between the moral and the ethical, the moral and the political, in
the sense that we have discussed it above, nothing to say about the transition to the ethical.
Shearer (2002), in contrast, does deal very explicitly with the relation between the moral and ethics in accounting, and
we now turn to a critical consideration of some aspects of that paper. Shearer recognizes that without the organization of
politics and technology our capacity to be for the other would be drastically impaired: Indeed, without these political and
technological structures of organization we would not be able to feed mankind (Levinas, 1986b, p. 28, cited by Shearer p.
566). She is also keenly aware of the totalizing potential of the economic and the political, the threat it poses to the ethical,
and is very concerned to nd a practical mediation, a bridge, between the moral and the ethical
: The question, then, is
how we might put the economic system of means and ends more in the service of the other (Shearer, 2002, p. 566). She
suggests that we might best make accounting more responsive to the other, give it a moral dimension, through an enhanced
social reporting for employee groups, customers, suppliers, and other parties with whom the economic entity contracts, as
well as environmental concerns and others with whom the entity does not contract (Shearer, 2002, p. 568).
Whilst we have sympathy for Shearers objective, we have some doubts concerning the conceptual coherence of her
position and the practical viability of her suggestion. She points out that her proposal is not new, and notes that The Corporate
Report (ASSC, 1975) recommendedthat the annual reports of corporations reect the entities accountability to a wide range
of affected parties (Shearer, 2002, p. 568). Surely it is clear that this kind of approach would constitute an essentially ethical,
or political, rather than a moral intervention. It requires that the others claim be articulated, defended, justied in terms
McPhail takes this view from Shaftsbury via David Hume, and nds it echoed in Baumans analysis of postmodern ethics.
McPhail (1999) primarily uses the term ethics, a Foucaultian sense, to refer to the selfs action, or work, upon the self.
The usage of the terms morality and ethics in this paper, is transposed in Shearer (2002) and in Levinass work generally. Levinas uses the termethics
to refer to the face-to-face relation with the other, and he uses the term morality to refer to the regulation of social and political life: Ethics, as the
extreme exposure and sensitivity of one subjectivity to another, becomes morality and hardens its skin so soon as we move into the political world of the
impersonal third - the world of government, institutions, tribunals, prisons, schools, committees, and so on (Levinas, 1986b, p. 29, cited by Shearer p.
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that the system will recognize and accept. The claims involved here are essentially social claims, group claims, and they
involve a certain symmetricality, a reciprocality, with each other entitled to an account by justication of their relation
with the accounting entity, what they bring to it as employees, how they are affected by it as the public, and so on, that is
entirely foreign to face-to-face asymmetricality of ones distinctly moral responsibility for the other, for the interests of
the other. What seems to be envisaged here is an expanded accountability, essentially towards interest groups, rather than
responsibility towards a face. This expanded accountability in its own way could be/become totalising in its exclusion of
the claims of those who have no right to an account.
Shearer herself recognizes that accountability, whether economic, or of the expanded variety she proposes, is essentially
a social, or political, matter; a business of holding entities to account in accordance with agreed standards: To be sure,
any wider structure of accountability that is imposed by accountants will necessarily be removed from the immediacy of
the face-to-face ethical obligation that it seeks to recognize (Shearer, 2002, p. 570). She seems to be proposing this wider
accountability she advocates do something that she knows it simply cannot do: there clearly is no form of accounting that
can capture the unwilled response to the other that forms the genuine ethical relation to the other (2002, p. 570). We would
go further and argue that we should not even aspire to have accounts of moral responsibility at the face-to-face level, the
articulation of such responsibilities, their charge and discharge, could only serve to undercut them and objectify the other
drawn into the rationalization and articulation of its demands.
Shearer is aware that her suggestion is problematic. She acknowledges that an expansion of the scope of accounting of the
kind she calls for might proliferate the objectication of the other (Shearer, 2002, p. 569). She seems, however, to rather
narrowly associate this problem with economic appropriation: It arises she thinks because extant accounting practices are
informed by an economic rationale that admits of the other only on condition of the others appropriation in exchange or in
use (2002, p. 569). In fact, the problem is very general and arises with any requirement that the other articulate his or her
need, demand, in terms that we can make sense of. Through such requirements, and any associated accounts, we are liable
to objectify the other in our own image, in the image of the same.
Shearer underplays, to the point of dismissal, the moral dimension of economic accountability; the moral and ethical
power and value of monetary and market based accounts. Her call for more social, environmental, and emancipatory
accounting is motivated by her view that: the accountability enacted in economic accounts reduces to an accounting-
for-itself that is inadequate to the ethical requirement of accountability to the Other (Shearer, 2002, p. 567)
. Economic
accounts are, of course, accounts of an entitys activities undertaken in its own interests, for-itself. However this is not all
they are: they are also accounts of transactions. Levinas recognizes that economic activity is driven by interestedness, the
drive to acquire goods and services, the things that money can buy, including through wages possession of the very men
who work (Levinas, 1987, p. 203). But he reminds us that economic activity is at the same time intensely social, entailing
as it does encounters, exchanges, between men and women. Money plays a mediating role in those exchanges: In money
one can never forget this interhuman proximity, transcendenceand sociality that already runs through it, from one to one,
fromstranger to stranger, the trans-action fromwhich all money proceeds, that all money animates (Levinas, 1987, p. 203).
Furthermore, Levinas insists that the totality of the economic order driven, as it is by inter-estedness and dependent on
exchange, is not entirely totalizing of humanity it does not resemble the formal structure or logic of a sum of parts,
without remainder (Levinas, 1987, p. 205). The remainder is the human capacity for disinterested concern for the other, the
capacity for self sacrice, for sacrice of ones own interests: Beyond the axiology of inter-estedness, beyond the appetite
for being, beyond the restlessness of each for his restfulness, for his being-there, for his share in existing, beyond the concern
for that which has so admirably been called Da-sein, the concern that we decipher in the needs that money can satisfybut
as much in the possible cruelties of the struggle for life is not man also the astonishing possibility exception to the edict
of all modes of being! of giving his place, the Da, to sacrice himself for the other, to die for the stranger? (Levinas, 1987,
p. 205).
Perhaps a full accountingfor-the-other, anaccountingthat attends tothe axiologyof dis-inter-estedness . . . the goodness
of giving must essentially be an account of an entitys giving, or a confession of its failure to give. An account of self sacrice
for the other: Should we insist on the importance that looks so similar, in the axiology of disinterestedness, to the nancial
activity concerned with giving? (Levinas, 1987, p. 205). The economic accounts we already have are primarily accounts of
an entitys transactions with third parties, published, generally in compliance with be legal requirement, for the benet of
third parties including market participants. In transactions both parties give and take something, and economic accounts of
transactions give an, albeit imperfect, indication of what the entity has done for-the-other. They give an indication of the
social signicance of the entity as an employer, as a tax-payer, as a supplier and customer. They are addressed to the other
and for the benet of the other: We might say that imperfect as they are they are for the other they are produced for the
interests of the other not the entity itself. They are accounts of an entitys giving and taking in inter-human proximity and
Shearers insistence on the moral inadequacy of economic accounts also suggests that she visualizes a more denite
partitioning between the moral and the ethical than Levinas conceives and, in our view, actually exists. Justice, itself the
driving force of the ethical, is required, demanded, inviewof the moral dignity of the other andother others Justice is needed
This is clearly not the place to engage in a thorough debate the value and viability of social, environmental and emancipatory accounts, but clearly any
accounting that lacks the relative homogeneity that a common measurement unit can give faces real valuation, reliability and comparability problems.
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in the very name of their dignity as unique and incomparable (Levinas, 1987, p. 206). Levinas is clear that when we, as we
necessarily must, in justice, compare and make judgments, between unique others, when we compare the incomparable,
that we must do so on the ground of some homogeneous basis: to compare the incomparable is, undoubtedly, to approach
people by returning to the totality of men in the economic order, in which their acts are measured in the homogeneity
immanent to money, without being absorbed or simply added up in this totality (1987, p. 206). The doing of justice, and
its reection in accounts, is both an ethical and a moral requirement. The danger that ethical, or the economic, systems
become totalizing, constraining of our moral responses, is always present. This does not mean that we should turn our back
on justice, the ethical. But it does present a challenge: it requires that we constantly make an effort to keep some play and
movement in the system. We must at the same time . . . follow the rule and to invent a new rule (Derrida, 1997b, p. 6);
and in Levinas terms cultivate a way of being, a saintliness even, such that it heralds response, in mercy and charity, to
the face of the Other; but it also appeals to Reason and law (1987, p. 206).
We accept that the ethical, entailing as it does calculation, rationality and compromise, is dangerous to the moral. Yet
justice requires that we somehow make the transition from the moral to the ethical, from the singular to the general.
This transition to social justice is necessarily difcult. It requires that one calculate with the incalculable (Derrida, 1994,
p. 244)
. It requires that one judge and decide between incommensurable singular claims. Justice, equity, requires that
we: have comparison and equality: equality between those that cannot be compared (Levinas et al., 1986a, p. 82). If we
abandon calculation and rationality we abandon justice. Practical justice requires that we maintain a balance, it requires
that we maintain the cycles of reason and calculation, including economic cycle, the cycle of debt and credit, that we give
economy its chance (Derrida, 1991b, p. 30), without letting thembecome entirely stiing. The moral andethical accountant
must go on rendering reason, and far fromaiming to shatter, break, or abandon the cycles of calculation, must maintain them
whilst at the same time working to keep themsufciently loose and mobile to allowa space for the impossible
to happen,
space for the new to come in, space for the gift and forgiveness
5. Conclusion
The present economic crisis opens special opportunities for change. In this Kairos moment (Casey, 2004), this small
window of opportunity, accounting academics who recognize the need for change bear special responsibilities. Firstly, they
have some responsibility to engage with the political and accounting establishments and in particular to ght for space in
which accountants and auditors might exercise their moral and professional judgement: ght for example for the realization
of a more judgement based accounting. This is clearly a difcult responsibility to meet: Francis (2004) argues that academic
research has had little impact on the process of reform of nancial reporting regulation and policy-making. He nds that in
the post-Enron period reform originated in a process of political competition: In the hasty passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley
Act . . . there was no serious academic input as both Democrats and Republicans fell over themselves in their haste to pass
the legislation and seek political advantage in a highly charged election year (2004, p. 359).
The accounting academic has a responsibility to play a part through critique, in transforming both the institution of the
university and the institution of accounting: a responsibility to open the institution to its own future (Derrida, 1997b, p.
56). Theopeningof aninstitutionalways involves akindof violence, andrisk, entailingas it does themaintenanceof atension
betweenfaithfulness to the inherited institutional traditionand the absolutely new: That is what deconstructionis made of:
not the mixture but the tension between memory, delity, the preservation of something that has been given to us, and, at
the same time, heterogeneity, something absolutely new, and a break (Derrida, 1997b, p. 6). The tradition, the institutional
inheritance, here includes the principle of reason, the rendering of accounts that tell it like it is. The responsibility that
accounting academics, and especially critical accounting academics, have to become more engaged with the public sphere
has troubled sections of the community for many years (see, for example, Reiter, 1995; Gallhofer and Haslam, 1997). It is
clear that the achievement of real political impact will require that personal inclinations to privacy and even safety to some
extent be overcome; it will require courage (see Sikka and Willmott, 1997).
Perhaps the primary responsibility the academic accounting community is to facilitate the development of students,
future accountants, who will be able and willing to hold the moral and the ethical, the conditional and the unconditional, the
Law is not justice. Law is the element of calculation, and it is just that there be law, but justice is incalculable, it demands that one calculate with the
incalculable; and aporetic experiences are the experiences, as improbable as they are necessary, of justice, that is to say of moments in which the decision
between just and unjust is never insured by a rule (Derrida, 1994, p. 244).
I will even venture to say that ethics, politics, and responsibility, if there are any, will only ever have begun with the experience and experiment of the
aporia. When the path is clear and given, when a certain knowledge opens up the way in advance, the decision is already made, it might as well be said that
there is none to make: irresponsibly, and in good conscience, one simply applies or implements a program. Perhaps, and this would be the objection, one
never escapes the program. In that case, one must acknowledge this and stop talking with authority about moral or political responsibility. The condition
of possibility of this thing called responsibility is a certain experience and experiment of the possibility of the impossible: the testing of the aporia from which
one may invent the only possible invention, the impossible invention (Derrida, 1990, p. 41).
Derrida explores the notion of doing the impossible in, for example his works concerning hospitality (1997a), the gift (1991b, 1992b), and forgiveness
(1999a). In those works we nd an exploration of the difculty involved in doing the impossible, in nding a balance between the moral and the ethical;
loosening, and putting into motion, the circle of the economic; but not breaking it.
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possible andthe impossible
inanactive tension. We have to insist that the pole of the unconditional cannot initself provide
a sound foundation for just institutions, for a just accounting: It is not enough that accountants be moral, that they retain
their capacity to respond to the singular and absolute call of the other, that they maintain an openness to the wholly other.
Accountants must also be ethical, they must be rational, neutral and just. They must be alive to their ethical responsibilities,
their social role, their responsibility to present unbiased truthful accounts that give economy its chance (Derrida, 1991b,
p. 30). The ethical accountant must maintain a proper respect for calculation, rationality, and truth in the simple sense of
careful, fair and impartial reporting in terms of the applicable reporting framework and rules. The ethical accountant must
respect the conditional truth. The moral accountant must be prepared, as part of the accounting community, to work to
maintain the openness of the institution of accounting to its future, to maintain its openness to the innite, demands of the
wholly other, to set it on another heading
. The good accountant must be both moral and ethical.
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But there is no responsibility that is not the experience and experiment of the impossible. As we said just a moment ago, when a responsibility is
exercised in the order of the possible, it simply follows a direction and elaborates a program. It makes of action the applied consequence, the simple
application of a knowledge or know-how. It makes of ethics and politics a technology. No longer of the order of practical reason or decision, it begins to
be irresponsible. . . . Nevertheless, one will always be able de jure to ask what an ethics or a politics that measures responsibility only by the rule of the
impossible can be: as if doing only what were possible amounted to abandoning the ethical and political realms, or as if, inversely, in order to take an
authentic responsibility it were necessary to limit oneself to impossible, impractical, and inapplicable (Derrida, 1990, pp. 4445).
How does one respond? And above all, how does one assume a responsibility that announces itself as contradictory because it inscribes us from the
very beginning of the game into a kind of necessarily double obligation, a double bind? The injunction in effect divides us; it puts us always at fault or in
default since it doubles the if faut, the it is necessary: it is necessary to make ourselves the guardians of an idea of . . . , but of a . . . that consists precisely in
not closing itself off in its own identity and in advancing itself in an exemplary way toward what it is not, toward the other heading or the heading of the
other, indeed-and this is perhaps something else altogether-toward the other of the heading, which would be the beyond of this modern tradition, another
border structure, another shore

(Derrida, 1990, p. 29).

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