Three Approaches to Corporate Responsibility
– Gain a broad understanding of the three approaches to Corporate Social Responsibillity using the lens of A Civil Action
According to the traditional view of the corporation, it exists primarily to make profits. From this money-centered perspective, insofar as business ethics are important, they apply to moral dilemmas arising as the struggle for profit proceeds. These dilemmas include: “What obligations do organizations have to ensure that individuals seeking employment or promotion are treated fairly?” “How should conflicts of interest be handled?” and “What kind of advertising strategy should be pursued?” Most of this textbook has been dedicated to these and similar questions.
While these dilemmas continue to be important throughout the economic world, when businesses are conceived as holding a wide range of economic and civic responsibilities as part of their daily operation, the field of business ethics expands correspondingly. Now there are large sets of issues that need to be confronted and managed outside of, and independent of the struggle for money. Broadly, there are three theoretical approaches to these new responsibilities:
– Corporate social responsibility (CSR)
– The triple bottom line
– Stakeholder theory
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
The title corporate social responsibility has two meanings. First, it’s a general name for any theory of the corporation that emphasizes both the reponsibility to make money and the responsibility to interact ethically with the surrounding community. Second, corporate social responsibility is also a specific conception of that responsibility to profit while playing a role in broader questions of community welfare.
As a specific theory of the way corporations interact with the surrounding community and larger world, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is composed of four obligations:
The economic responsibility to make money. Required by simple economics, this obligation is the business version of the human survival instinct. Companies that don’t make profits are—in a modern market economy—doomed to perish. Of course there are special cases. Nonprofit organizations make money (from their own activities as well as through donations and grants), but pour it back into their work. Also, public/private hybrids can operate without turning a profit. In some cities, trash collection is handled by this kind of organization, one that keeps the streets clean without (at least theoretically) making anyone rich. For the vast majority of operations, however, there have to be profits. Without them, there’s no business and no business ethics.
The legal responsibility to adhere to rules and regulations. Like the previous, this responsibility is not controversial. What proponents of CSR argue, however, is that this obligation must be understood as a proactive duty. That is, laws aren’t boundaries that enterprises skirt and cross over if the penalty is low; instead, responsible organizations accept the rules as a social good and make good faith efforts to obey not just the letter but also the spirit of the limits. In concrete terms, this is the difference between the driver who stays under the speed limit because he can’t afford a traffic ticket, and one who obeys because society as a whole is served when we all agree to respect the signs and stoplights and limits. Going back to John Travolta racing his Porsche up and down the rural highway, he sensed none of this respect. The same goes for the toxic company W. R. Grace Incorporated as it’s portrayed in the movie: neither one obeys regulations and laws until the fines get so high they’ve got no choice. As against that model of behavior, a CSR vision of business affirms that society’s limits will be scrupulously obeyed, even if the fine is only one dollar.
The ethical responsibility to do what’s right even when not required by the letter or spirit of the law. This is the theory’s keystone obligation, and it depends on a coherent corporate culture that views the business itself as a citizen in society, with the kind of obligations that citizenship normally entails. When someone is racing their Porsche along a country road on a freezing winter’s night and encounters another driver stopped on the roadside with a flat, there’s a social obligation to do something, though not a legal one. The same logic can work in the corporate world. Many industrial plants produce, as an unavoidable part of their fabricating process, poisonous waste. In Woburn, Massachusetts, W. R. Grace did that, as well as Beatrice Foods. The law governing toxic waste disposal was ambiguous, but even if the companies weren’t legally required to enclose their poisons in double-encased, leak-proof barrels, isn’t that the right thing to do so as to ensure that the contamination will be safely contained? True, it might not be the right thing to do in terms of pure profits, but from a perspective that values everyone’s welfare as being valuable, the measure could be recommendable.
The philanthropic responsibility to contribute to society’s projects even when they’re independent of the particular business. A lawyer driving home from work may spot the local children gathered around a makeshift lemonade stand and sense an obligation to buy a drink to contribute to the neighborhood project. Similarly, a law firm may volunteer access to their offices for an afternoon every year so some local schoolchildren may take a field trip to discover what lawyers do all day. An industrial chemical company may take the lead in rehabilitating an empty lot into a park. None of these acts arise as obligations extending from the day-to-day operations of the business involved. They’re not like the responsibility a chemical firm has for safe disposal of its waste. Instead, these public acts of generosity represent a view that businesses, like everyone in the world, have some obligation to support the general welfare in ways determined by the needs of the surrounding community.
Taken in order from top to bottom, these four obligations are decreasingly pressing within the theory of corporate social responsibility. After satisfying the top responsibility, attention turns to the second and so on. At the extremes, the logic behind this ranking works easily. A law firm on the verge of going broke probably doesn’t have the responsibility to open up for school visits, at least not if the tours interfere with the accumulation of billable hours and revenue. Obviously, if the firm does go broke and out of business, there won’t be any school visits in any case, so faced with financial hardship, lawyers are clearly obligated to fulfill their economic obligations before philanthropic ones.
More difficult questions arise when the economic responsibility conflicts with the legal one. For example, to remain profitable, an industrial plant may need to dispose of waste and toxins in barrels that barely meet legally required strengths. Assuming those legal limits are insufficiently strict to guarantee the barrels’ seal, the spirit of the law may seem violated. The positive economic aspect of the decision to cut corners is the ability to stay in business. That means local workers won’t lose their jobs, the familial stresses of unemployment will be avoided, suppliers will maintain their contracts, and consumers will still be served. The negative, however, is the possibility—and the reality at Woburn—that those toxins will escape their containers and leave a generation of workers’ children poisoned.
Knowing what we do now about those Woburn children, there’s no real conflict; anything would have been better than letting the toxins escape. If necessary, the company should have accepted bankruptcy before causing the social damage it did. At the time of the decision, however, there may have been less certainty about exactly what the risks and benefits were.
Even among individuals promoting a strong sense of corporate responsibility for the surrounding community, there may have been no clear answer to the question about the proper course of action. Regardless, corporate social responsibility means every business holds four kinds of obligations and should respond to them in order: first the economic, then the legal, next the ethical, and finally the philanthropic.