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.

9 comments so far

  1. Shel Horowitz, author, Principled Profit on

    Having just read and commented on the “C” post, I’ll jump in here as well.

    I would submit that labor policies are in fact social, as they impact the wider society. But the term CSR doesn’t sufficiently address the environmental aspects, which, as you point out, go well beyond our need to protect the ecosystem for other humans.

    Yes, we need something newer and broader and very memorable that embraces both the social and environmental, both the corporate and non-corporate, and perhaps even both the responsibilities and privileges of running a “conscious” entity.

    Shel Horowitz, award-winning author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First
    and founder of the Business Ethics Pledge

  2. Chris MacDonald on


    Thanks for your comments.

    I don’t think we can call all labour-related obligations “social” obligations. A particular company’s labour practices typically affect its employees (and, indirectly, their families, of course). There’s no clear, direct impact on society as a whole — at least not for most companies. And in fact, a company’s obligations to its employees can easily conflict with its obligations to society as a whole. (Note for example that the interests of Walmart employees are, in some ways, in tension with the interests of society as a whole — higher pay for them would mean higher prices for low-income families.)

    And just to be clear, I didn’t say that environmental obligations go beyond human interests — I just said that lots of people think they do, which is enough to cast doubt on CSR’s quick assumption that all ethical issues are social issues. 🙂


  3. DarryleHuffman on

    In one of my ethics classes at Duquesne we discussed this very fact. It was a very lively discussion. Some thought the company owed nothing to no one. They were there to generate profits.
    I argued that in order to draw more profits that the enterprise must have some aspect of social responsibility. I would say that some aspects are mandated by law. An example of this is the wage they must pay has been floored at 7.25 with no cieling. Thier hiring practices are regulated. Things that it does for the employee such as insurance ,which is not mandated, or offering the employee an ESOP option are done from the social program.This has no direct impact on society as whole just one specific sector thier employees.
    For society they may help with a Habitat For Humanity or even help local school work on a football field. They may sponsor Earth Day the thiongs they can do for society are numerous. I am wondering if such activities can be in conflict witrh the law if they sponsor a group that are in the extremes.

  4. davidcoethica on

    I can’t wait to see if you’re going to tackle the ‘R’ of CSR to round things off nicely!

  5. Chris MacDonald on

    Naturally, David. Stay tuned!

  6. […] responsibility” (CSR). I’ve asked, rhetorically, whether the “C,” the “S,” and the “R” make sense. I’ve argued that, no, in each case the word those letters […]

  7. […] I asked Why the “C” in “CSR”?. Two weeks later I followed up with, Why the “S” in “CSR”? In both cases, my complaint was basically that the words the letters stand for (i.e., […]

  8. […] the right thing in business. Not all businesses are corporations. Not all business obligations are social ones. And we’re interested not just in the responsibilities of business, but also […]

  9. […] ethically? Why try to shoehorn all the good stuff listed above into the little box of specifically social […]

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