‘Doing the Right Thing:’ A Brief Guide to the Jargon

Everyone agrees that business should “do what’s right,” even if they disagree over what the right thing is. One significant barrier to even talking about doing the right thing is vocabulary. The vocabulary applied to “doing the right thing” is messy and varied. Here’s a brief critical guide to the most common terminology:

  • Business Ethics. This is the most general term, and the one that can be defined more or less uncontroversially. As a field of study, business ethics can be defined as the critical, structured examination of how people & institutions should behave in the world of commerce. There are two problems with the term. One is that the word is too often associated with scandal. I once had a business group ask me to come speak to its members, but could I please not use the word “ethics.” The second problem is that people sometimes (wrongly) associate the word “ethics” with a narrow range of questions about personal integrity, or about professional standards.
  • Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). This is an incredibly popular term, but generally poorly defined. Most definitions you’ll find don’t actually look like definitions. If you look around online, you’ll find that CSR is generally thought to have something to do with giving back to the community, and making a social contribution. But it’s too narrow a term to cover the full range of issues involved in doing 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 permissions, duties, rights, entitlements, and so on.
  • Sustainability. The word “sustainability” has roots in environmentalism, where it nicely picks out the issue of how we as a society can continue to make use of resources in a way that makes sure there continues to be enough, especially for enjoyment by future generations. But the term is badly abused in the world of business. Sometimes it just refers to the ability to sustain profits, which is pretty far from its original meaning. Other people try to pack too much into the word. I recently had a sustainability consultant tell me that the word “sustainability” no longer means, you know, sustainability…it just means “all the good stuff.” But lots of “good stuff” in business has nothing to do with sustaining anything. It takes tortured logic and wishful thinking to say that all matters of doing the right thing in business can simply be boiled down to sustainability.
  • Corporate Citizenship. Citizenship is essentially a political notion, having to do with the relationship between the individual and the state. The term “corporate citizenship” is evocative. It reminds us that businesses aren’t free-floating; they exist in a social and political context, and that context brings obligations. But just as all of your obligations are not citizenship obligations, not all of a corporation’s obligations are obligations of corporate citizenship.
  • Triple Bottom Line. Luckily, this one seems to be dying out. The Triple Bottom Line (3BL) is rooted in the very sane idea that business managers should manage not just the financial performance of their companies, but also their social and environmental performance. Unfortunately, the term implies something much bolder, namely that each of those areas of performance can be boiled down to a “bottom line.” And that’s simply not true. (Just try asking a company what their social “bottom line” was last year.) The result is that the term sounds tough-minded, but usually ends up being just the opposite. For more about the problems with 3BL, see here.

So choose your words wisely. We shouldn’t be scared off by the varied terminology. But we ought to recognize that each of these terms has its problems. Different constituencies will find different vocabularies attractive, and perhaps congenial to their interests. And also keep in mind that each of these terminologies is promoted by a different set of consultants and gurus, all eager to tell you that thinking in terms of their favourite vocabulary is the key.

5 comments so far

  1. Paul Chippendale on

    I’ve added a link to this article from our articles page: http://www.minessence.net/articles/Articles.aspx if that’s OK with you. Great article 🙂

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Sure, that’s fine. Glad you’re finding the article useful.


  2. Duncan on

    I’d be interested in people’s thoughts about how this definition of business ethics touches on non-profit organisations such as charities. Charities can interact with the world of commerce, but not always. They can be as big as some businesses, but most are pretty small. Few would see themselves as a business, but most are a workplace to their employees.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      The definition applies pretty straightforwardly to charities, as long as we’re not too narrow in our use of the word “commerce.” Charities are there to provide a service, just like any business. The only difference is the flow of benefits. Some have pointed out that a charity is just a business where the ‘customers’ who pay are not the same ‘customers’ who make use of the product (i.e., donors pay so that someone else can enjoy the product/service). Charities face almost all the same ethical issues as a for-profit business, plus a few extra ones.


  3. […] of the time. And many businesses today proclaim their commitment to ethics (sometimes labelling it Corporate Social Responsibility or some such). A few companies (such as The Body Shop) have done well by loudly proclaiming their commitment to […]

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