Corporate Social Responsibility Begins with Individuals

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Jake Van Der Kamp recently published a piece in the South China Morning Post titled Social Responsibility Should Begin and End with the Law argues that if certain activities are unacceptable then they should just be made illegal.

As you can probably guess I quite strongly disagree, and here’s why.

He defines CSR as:

The idea is that corporations have an obligation beyond any imposed on them by law to promote social harmony and equality and to pioneer environmental protection practices.

Here are some things Van Der Kamp says:

Corporate social responsibility, as commonly understood these days, is an arrogant, false notion.

. . . from where does this obligation stem? Did God come down from heaven and inscribe it on an ineradicable titanium plaque? Let’s leave the philosophical point aside . . .”

What is it you are obligated to do if your company’s business is selling lamps? Aside from resolving to sell lamps honestly, how does a lamp sales company promote social harmony?

I take a simple view of these matters. The law is the benchmark. Anything that any corporation does must be deemed socially responsible if it complies with the law.

If society comes to frown on a certain corporate activity then it is time to change the law. If there is not enough support for this change of law then we ought to reconsider whether this activity is really quite as reprehensible as some of us think.

I also have in mind is my local supermarket, which sources tens of thousands of grocery items from all over the world, exerts close quality control over them and then makes them easily available to me every day in a bright attractive environment for a profit margin to itself of less than 1 per cent per item on average. It feeds me. What a wonderful socially responsible corporate activity this truly is. And must my grocer then still prance about at CSR events or grovel to CSR gurus for not satisfying their notions of what “stakeholders” require?

He ends with:

The supreme arrogance of it astounds me. Who do these people think they are to adopt such enormous moral hubris? CSR is do-gooder hot air. Don’t trouble yourself with it.

I would like to make a few points in response.


There are certain behaviors that while socially unacceptable we cannot legislate.

It is not an acceptable solution to simply state that we ought to make all bad things illegal and then we don’t have to worry about being moral we can just follow the law. Traditionally philosophers distinguish between the sphere of morality and sphere of law. Kant for example says that the sphere of rights is a small subset of right actions that we can legitimately force people to do. We want people, and corporations, to not merely follow the laws but actually above and beyond what the law requires.

This would be true even in a world were all the truly horrible and bad things were illegal. We can’t make it illegal for people to not help old ladies across the street but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be people out there reminding people that they should help old ladies across the street. And similarly, we can’t make it illegal for corporations to treat their employees kindly but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be people out there reminding corporations that they should treat their employees kindly.

The law does not always represent what ought to be done and people often need to do the right thing on their own before laws can be changed. 

This has traditionally the role or civil disobedience movements and civil rights activists. If you know something is wrong it doesn’t make sense to keep doing the wrong thing until the law catches up with the standard of morality.

The issue is complicated in business where there legitimately are situations where one needs all persons involved to follow a rule or live up to a certain standard to make it financially feasible for you or your company to do so. If it is a case where you business will literally be unprofitable and go out of business then it is obviously a difficult decision. However if it is just a matter of losing some portion of your profit margin by doing the right thing then you ought to do the right thing. Acting morally often means sacrificing something that is valuable to oneself. It is not wrong to ask corporations to sacrifice some portion of their profit for the general good.

I think in the case of corporate interests and the law it is especially important that corporations take social responsibility seriously because corporations and business interest often times control the policy direction which laws are ultimately passed. It would certainly be morally dubious to claim no other responsibility other than to follow the law and then spend obscene amounts of money influencing which laws get passed so that you can avoid be socially responsible. So, because corporations have such enormous influence in which laws get passed social responsibility is of paramount importance for them in same way social responsibility is more important for an individual who is a billionaire than someone who has very little influence and wealth. The old adage “to whom much is given much is expected” applies here.

Morality is not arbitrary

Van Der Kamp seems to be skeptical of the entire discipline of philosophy known as moral philosophy. He is dismissive of moral claims calling them “do-gooder hot air” and “arrogant,” and says that they are unfounded saying, “Did God come down from heaven and inscribe it on an ineradicable titanium plaque?”

Being a philosopher I find these claim particularly obnoxious, of course maybe I’m just being defensive because this is what I do for a living. That being said, philosophers, since 2500 years ago or so, do not think moral commandments are proscribed by God, they think they are commands of reason accessible to all rational beings and that by rational discourse we can gain legitimate moral knowledge about which actions are right and wrong.

It is probably worth noting that modern civilization and modern laws with its systems of laws and legal rights has its foundation in the work of philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke ascribing to just the view I described above.

But maybe this is all just “CSR do-gooder hot air?”

(You can also seem my response to Milton Friedman’s claim that corporations don’t have any obligation other than making money for their shareholders here.)

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