Corporate Social Responsibility – Why should we?

Picture yourself at conference table, surrounded by other overworked executives who would rather be anywhere else than in this room at this moment. At the front of the room stands a heavily gesticulating guest speaker  –a philosopher, apparently. With a bit too much enthusiasm than you’re comfortable with, he lectures the spectators on the topic at hand: Corporate Social Responsibility, or ‘CSR’ for short, a form of business ethics. He looks out of place in this setting and most of what he says are things you or your company should be doing. “Be green and sustainable”, he tells you. “contribute to charity”. To those present it sounds more like “extra work” and “fewer targets met”.


Aside from wondering what budget paid for this frivolty, it is not the classical ethical question 'what should we do?' on the listeners' minds, but rather 'why should we?'. Why should a company try to make the world a better place and hand the market to its competitors in the process? To reach its intended audience, CSR would do well to shift its focus away from what ethicists call 'prescriptive ethics' –describing what we ought to do– to the so-called 'moral actor', i.e. the person or entity making the decision to act ethically (or not). What motivates him or her?

John Stuart Mill, a 19th-century philosopher, had similar questions to those of the executives above. He asked himself: ‘‘[for] any supposed moral standard: What is its sanction? What are the motives to obey to it? Or more specifically, what is the source of its obligation? Whence does it derive its binding force?’’[1]

Different systems of ethics, be it religiuos or philosophical in nature, have provided or hinted at varying answers to these questions of motivation. A Thai Buddhist might be motivated to behave morally in order to reach enlightenment or to produce good karma, which will bring rewards in later in this life or the next. A devout Christian could be motivated by the prospect of favorable judgment at the gates of heaven, and thus obey His commandments. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle claims we should cultivate a virtuous character and personality that derives pleasure from helping others. For a CEO, a motivation the company to practice CSR could be because it contributes to the company's financial success in the long term. In ethics, this is called ‘moral egoism’. Research, however, has produced conflicting conclusions regarding the 'rewards' of ethical business practices. Even if adhering to CSR benefits the company, be it through projecting a better image or receiving subsidies, the issue remains. When the image-boosting effect wears off or subsidies dry up, what then?

All these answers to the question of motivation have one weakness in common; if you’re not convinced by the argument behind the motivation, then you won’t be motivated to act ethically. Since we don’t all share the same religious or philosophical worldview, CSR has little hope of globally changing the way businesses operate. Or does it?

About halfway through his presentation, with attention spans around the room nearly depleted, the philosopher pulls out his joker, an 18th-century German philosopher named Immanuel Kant. Kant foresaw our problems with motivation and had a deceptively simple solution: If you need a seperate reason to do good (practice CSR) then you do not want it in the first place. The good should be a reason in itself. In his words: ‘‘For, in the case of what is to be morally good, it is not enough that it conform with the moral law but it must also be done for the sake of the law"[2]. Following Kant, we can then answer the question of motivation: Why should we promote sustainability? To promote sustainability. Why should we contribute to the wellbeing of our stakeholders? To contribute to the wellbeing of our stakeholders. The executives look puzzled for a moment, but then realize that what may sound like a blatantly obvious answer is actually more valuable. It’s the insight that their business has the chance to contribute to society by practicing corporate social responsibility –and that therefore they should.

[1] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, 3.1.1  (1863)

[2] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, AK, 4:390 (1785)