Why the "S" in "CSR"?

Why the "S" in "CSR"?

A couple of weeks ago, I asked Why the "C" in "CSR"? After all, not all companies are corporations, and most people interested in CSR seem really to be interested in the ethical responsibilities of companies quite generally. Today's question: Why the "S" in CSR? What's so social about Corporate Social Responsibility? The short answer, presumably, is that CSR is intended to get managers to think not just about their responsibilities to shareholders, but to society more generally.

Indeed, much of the debate over CSR has focused on whether managers are a) can (i.e., are they qualified to), and b) should (are they justified to), use shareholders' resources to achieve social objectives.

But (echoing part of my point from 2 weeks ago) most CSR advocates don't seem to want to define the scope of CSR narrowly: they generally want CSR to cover the full range of ethical issues in business, and perhaps even for CSR to supplant (or engulf) business ethics.

But it's worth noting that many ethical issues in business simply can't straightforwardly be cast in terms of social obligations. Here are three examples that come quickly to mind:

1) Responsibilities to employees. What are an employer's responsibilities in terms of workplace health and safety? Whatever they are, surely they constitute a central ethical issue for businesses, and a crucial set of responsibilities. But in what sense are they "social?" The need to act responsibly toward employees is a good example of why "social" isn't a good stand in for "beyond-shareholders."

2) Environmental ethics. If you believe that the environment is important only because it's useful to humans (the "anthropocentric" point of view), then it could make sense to think subsuming environmental issues under the heading "social responsibilities." But if (as many people believe) the environment is important in its own right, independent of human needs (the "ecocentric" point of view) then environmental issues have to stand on their own, and the needs of ecosystems could in theory conflict with social needs.

3) Obligations to avoid Conflict of Interest. In business settings, conflict of interest arises when someone has a private or personal interest sufficient to appear to influence the objective exercise of his or her official duties. So, imagine you work in Human Resources for a major corporation. You're involved in a hiring decision, and your sister is applying for the job. In order to avoid Conflict of Interest, you should not take part in the hiring process. That's an obligation you owe to your employer — part of your obligation to make sure the best person is hired — and an obligation you owe to other job applicants, an obligation to make sure the hiring process gives everyone a fair chance. It's not in any obvious way a "social" obligation.

Feel free to think up other examples.

Now, again, none of this is intended to say that corporations don't have social obligations; nor is it an answer to (difficult) questions regarding what the extent of such obligations might be. I'm just pointing out that regardless of the answers to those questions, the notion of "social" obligations simply cannot capture most of what we think is ethically important in corporate behaviour.

Submitted, with Consent to Distribute, by Chris MacDonald of The Business Ethics Blog on July 20th 2009