Ethics Jargon Goes Political

Last week I blogged about business ethics jargon. I was reminded of this when I saw Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, on the news this morning. Harper is on a tour of South America. Yesterday he was in Chile, where he vaguely defended Canadian gold mining company Barrick against charges that one of its Chilean mines was causing undue environmental damage and threatening the livelihoods of an indigenous population.

Harper defended the Canadian company on TV, saying “Barrick follows Canadian standards of corporate social responsibility.” But wait: did Harper mean “corporate social responsibility,” or did he mean “Corporate Social Responsibility?” The term “corporate social responsibility” (uncapitalized) might reasonably be taken to refer to a corporation’s social responsibilities, whatever those happen to be, and if that’s what Harper meant, then the claim that Barrick followed Canadian standards of corporate responsibility might be a very thin claime to have made. After all, as a right-leaning politician, Harper might hold the view that corporations have relatively few social responsibilities beyond producing goods & services, paying their taxes, and so on. But if Harper meant “Corporate Social Responsibility,” (“CSR”) then he’s making a much stronger claim, namely that Barrick lives up to the high standards proposed by CSR advocates. And maybe that’s a claim that Barrick does indeed live up to. I have no idea. But it’s a good illustration of the problem implied by using a nice, general term like “corporate social responsibility” to designate a particular view about what a corporation’s responsibilities are. Now that the term CSR is practically trademarked, it simply can’t be used in the kind of generic way in which Harper — pretty reasonably — was probably trying to use it.

Here’s Barrick’s environment page.

Details of the environmental criticisms aimed at Barrick can be found in the sidebar of this story from the Toronto Star.

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