Business Ethics vs. CSR

(I don’t actually know who reads my blog, so it’s hard to target an audience. So I try to make sure some of the postings are “educational”, for the benefit of readers who don’t know much about academic business ethics, and other postings merely informative in a here’s-something-neat kind of way. Today’s posting is of the former variety. I hope.)

This posting is actually in response to an e-mailed enquiry I received from a student doing an Executive MBA, in Austria no less. She wanted to know the difference between “business ethics” and “CSR” (Corporate Social Responsibility). Here’s roughly what I told her:

Unfortunately, there are no clear, widely-accepted definitions available for these terms. “CSR,” in particular, is used MANY different ways by different groups.

The way I explain the difference to my own students is this: Business Ethics is the VERY broad field of study concerning good ethical decision-making in commercial contexts. CSR is more narrowly about a company’s SOCIAL obligations…that is, a company’s obligations to society in general. So, business ethics is concerned with not just social obligations, but also obligations to employees, customers, suppliers and competitors. CSR is about the extent to which companies owe something to “society at large” (i.e., those who do not have a direct involvement with the business).

7 comments so far

  1. Puneet Mulchandani on

    Dear Chris , Thanks for clarifying on this topic. I had the very same question about CSR and ethics. Now i have a clearer idea. Short n Sweetly put. CheersPuneet MulchandaniUndergraduate Student , RMIT University, (Singapore Institute of Management, Singapore)

  2. padmalatha on

    Hi Prof,

    Thank you for putting it briefly.


  3. Riste Ichev on

    Business ethics is more about “good” or “bad” conduct according to moral standards ,
    CSR : integrating economic, social and environmental targets in one strategy…

    Chris’s answer is correct, but I think the other two factors (economic,environment) should be included too.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Economic and environmental factors? Of course ethics includes those. Economic and environmental factors are clearly ethical issues. Economics is centrally concerned with human wellbeing, and the environment is of clear ethical significance.

  4. Melanie Wightman on

    Chris, i’m currently writing an assignment on business ethics for a BA degree, quoting your blog:

    “CSR is about the extent to which companies owe something to “society at large” (i.e., those who do not have a direct involvement with the business).”

    Do you believe that those who do not have a direct involvement with the business are relevant and influential stakeholders and can make a difference, whether it be negative or positive, to profitability?

  5. Samson on

    Thank you the brief notes on these two confusing terms which sometimes are used interchangeably.

  6. amjad ali on

    Is CSR an umbrella concept of which business
    ethics is a part? Alternatively, is business ethics an umbrella concept of which CSR is a part? Do
    they refer to different and non-overlapping ways in which companies or business people should

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