Archive for the ‘CSR’ Category

Academic Business Ethics and the Corporation as Political Actor

I’m returning home today after spending the weekend at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Business Ethics, the world’s foremost association for academics engaged in the study and teaching of issues related to business ethics, corporate social responsibility, and so on. (It was a fantastic meeting and anyone with a professional interest in these issues should consider joining SBE.)

One of the dominant themes of this year’s meeting was the role of the corporation in the political realm. It’s an old topic, one revitalized by the US Supreme Court’s decision last year in the Citizens United case. Corporate involvement in the political sphere takes many forms (from lobbying to campaign donations to participation in collaborative approaches to regulation). Such involvement is probably inevitable, but definitely controversial, and so there’s lots to sort out regarding how we should understand corporations in the political realm, and what rights and responsibilities they should have in that world. Among several dozen scholars presenting their research at the SBE meeting, a striking proportion of them presented work related to this set of topics.

David Ronnegard and Craig Smith, for example, presented work that elucidated the connection between competing theories of business ethics, on one hand, and competing theories from political philosophy, on the other.

Anselm Schneider and Andreas Scherer presented their work on the changes in corporate governance necessitated by (what I would call) the quasi-governmental responsibilities that corporations sometimes take on in the international sphere.

Pierre-Yves Néron presented work arguing that the way we think of corporations in the public sphere ought to be strongly influenced by thinking about the kinds of corporate behaviours (including regulatory lobbying, for example) that can either improve or frustrate market efficiency.

Waheed Hussain presented his work on what it might look like to “civilize” the corporation to make its participation in the political realm less worrisome — essentially, by fostering among corporations a “public interest” ethos, and insisting that lobbying etc be framed in terms of the public good.

Wayne Norman encouraged his fellow business ethicists to pay more attention to regulation, rather than focusing (as the typically do) on the corporate ethical obligations that go “beyond mere compliance”.

I myself presented some of my current thinking on the various ways we might think of corporations in their interactions with government. In particular, I argued that while, in some cases, it makes sense to conceptualize the corporation as an agent in its own right, there are other cases (perhaps many more cases) in which it makes sense to think of the corporation as a tool or technology used by citizens to advance their goals. (This is something I’ve touched on before, informally, in a blog entry.)

Although I don’t want to speak for my colleagues, it seems safe to say that the scholars whose work is noted above share an interest in better understanding what it means, and what it should mean, for corporations to be political agents. They are part of a trend — I don’t yet want to say movement — that sees scholars attempting to take seriously the complexity of the practical and philosophical problems raised by having limited-liability, joint-stock corporations participate in a realm that is generally thought of as being rightfully the place of flesh-and-blood citizens.

The “BlackBerry Riots” — What Should RIM Do?

The intersection of social media with social unrest is a massive topic these days. Twitter has been credited with playing an important role in coordinating the pro-democracy protests in Egypt, and Facebook played a role in helping police track down culprits after the Vancouver hockey riots.

But the mostly-unstated truth behind these “technologies of the people” is that they are corporate technologies, ones developed, fostered, and controlled by companies. That means power for those companies. And, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

Fast-forward to early August 2011. London is burning, and the riots have spread to a couple other major UK cities. The British government has called in a few thousand extra cops. And again, social media is playing a role. But this time the focus is specifically on Research in Motion’s (RIM’s) BlackBerry, and its use as a social networking tool. There have been all kinds of reports that the BlackBerry’s “BBM” messaging has been the tool of choice for coordination among London’s rioters. RIM is probably asking itself right now whether it’s really true that ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity.’

Distancing itself from its role in the “BlackBerry Riots,” RIM issued (via Twitter) the following:

We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.

The “in any way we can” part is intriguing. So, what can, and what should, RIM do? One thing they can do is to help authorities identify those inciting violence by breaking through the security of the BBM messages. But as reported here, “RIM refused to say exactly how much information it would be sharing with police.” The other, much more dramatic, thing that RIM could do would be to temporarily shut down all or part of its network. Whether that would be at all useful is open to question. It would certainly make a lot of people angry, including millions of people who are not involved in the riots, or who are relying on their BlackBerries to keep in touch with loved ones during this crisis. But I point out this option just to illustrate the breadth of options open to RIM.

The question is complicated by questions of precedence. Tech companies have come under fire for assisting governments in, for example, China, to crack down on dissidents. Of course, the UK government isn’t anything like China’s repressive regime. But at least some people are pointing to underlying social unrest, unemployment etc., in the UK as part of the reason — if not justification — for the riots. And besides, even if it’s clear that the UK riots are unjustifiable and that the UK government is a decent one, companies like RIM are global companies, engaged in a whole spectrum of social and political settings, ones that will stubbornly refuse to be categorized. Should a tech company help a repressive regime stifle peaceful protest? No. Should a tech company help a good and just government fight crime? Yes. But with regard to governments, as with regard to social unrest, there’s much more grey in the world than black and white.

Two Problems With CSR

There’s plenty of confusion about what CSR is. Indeed most of the definitions you’ll find online don’t even read like definitions. They’ll tell you what CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) is “about,” or what it “relates to,” but they won’t tell you what it is. Any definition worth its salt ought to take the words in the term seriously, and note that the term “CSR” refers to some kind of responsibility, and then explain just what kind of responsibility it is. But good luck finding such a definition. And this failure of definition isn’t just a matter of semantics. It’s critically important, because a sloppy understanding of the term gives the appearance of unifying under a single banner people who actually hold vastly different views of what a corporation’s responsibilities are.

Various definitions out there seem to coalesce around the idea that business should be “giving back” to the community — and typically not via antiquated methods like corporate philanthropy. The goal, generally, is to make sure that a company’s net impact on society is positive. Let’s take that as our point of departure.

The following two problems form the Scylla and Charybdis of CSR. If you avoid one, you run right into the other. Both spell doom.

Problem #1: CSR is too easy, if taken literally. If all that’s at stake is making sure your net impact is positive, wow, that’s pretty easy: just sell a decent product that people want, and don’t hurt any bystanders. It’s a fundamental principle of commerce. Start with individual transactions. Those, if voluntary and well-informed, always have a positive impact. A customer gives you $1.00, and you give them a pound of bananas. They’re happy, and you’re happy. Don’t step on any bystanders’ toes, and there you go: positive net impact. In fact, as long as your customers are happy enough, you can afford to hurt people along the way (e.g., by mistreating employee) and your net impact will still be positive. (And of course, claiming to adhere to CSR is even easier if you use a mushier definition, one that only asks that you “manage” your social impact, rather than aiming at any particular objective.)

Problem #2: On the other hand, CSR is unfairly burdensome, if really taken to heart — that is, if you really think that the pursuit of social contribution ought to take over a manager’s entire way of thinking. It means that a company that makes a good product, treats employees well, deals fairly with suppliers, etc., still has to ask itself, “yes, but how are we giving back to the community?” Look in the mirror. What’s your net impact on society? What good are you — other than the fact that you put in an honest day’s work, take care of your kids, and given a few bucks to charity now and then? (Hint: that’s a rhetorical question.) The joint-stock corporation, on the other hand, is arguably one of the most welfare-enhancing inventions of all time. For such organizations, failure to have a positive impact is the exception, rather than the rule. Asking one to risk its productivity by obsessing over something it’s already doing is silly.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the idea that companies are responsible for their behaviour (and that the individuals who work for companies are responsible for their behaviour, too). And for some people, that’s all that CSR means. That’s just fine. In fact, such responsibility is absolutely morally fundamental. Companies should try to make an honest living, just like individuals like you do. They should avoid hurting people, just like you do. They should clean up their messes, just like you do. That’s basic ethics. And if they’re doing those things, calling it something as mushy as “CSR” adds absolutely nothing to the equation.

Are they Competing, or Just Trying to Sell You Something?

Peaceful coexistence isn’t always a good thing. In the marketplace, competition is what drives different producers of a good to improve their wares, and having one producer explain the superiority of his or her product is — embellishment and puffery aside — how consumers learn to differentiate among products. When different suppliers fail to engage in competition, the consumer is left in the dark. Let me give you two examples.

Here’s the first example. One of the problems — or rather, one of the warning signs — about so-called “alternative” medicine is that there are dozens of different kinds of alt-med, all making different and presumably conflicting assumptions about how the human body works, and yet they all get along cozily together. Nowhere do you find homeopaths, for example, explaining why their methods are superior to those of acupuncturists. Nor do you find Reiki therapists dissing Ayurveda. Crystal therapy gurus are unlikely to tell you about the problems with Traditional Chinese Medicine. And so on. As Robert Park wrote with reference to alt-med, in his book, Voodoo Science (p. 65), “there is no internal dissent in a community that feels itself besieged from the outside.” Of course, the existence of different alt-med treatments isn’t in itself surprising or problematic. Mainstream medicine too uses different treatments for different illnesses. But the different treatments offered by mainstream medicine are all, without exception, underpinned by a single coherent body of theory: the heart circulates blood, germs cause infection, physiological effect varies according to drug dosage, and so on.

So the fact that various systems of alternative therapy, underpinned by very different understandings of the human body (and indeed of metaphysics), can get along so chummily is a huge red flag. It suggests that purveyors of alt-med either a) aren’t thinking critically, or b) are more interested in sales than in healing.

Roughly the same concern arises with regard to different perspectives on how businesses should behave. Some will tell you that the obligations of business are all rooted in the notion of sustainability, with its indelible environmental overtones. Others will say no, it’s a matter of CSR — Corporate Social Responsibility. Still others say it’s all about values. Or leadership. Or citizenship. Or the (ug!) Triple Bottom Line. And each of those seems, at least, to be underpinned by a different understanding of the nature of the firm, its role in society, and what it is that makes an action right or wrong. And yet all kinds of folks seem to want to cleave to all of the above, or to glom onto one of them seemingly at random, as if it doesn’t matter which one you choose.

Again, this should be a big red flag.

I’m sure I’m going to be told that these different schools of thought don’t need to compete with each other — what’s really important, they’ll say, is that, you know, we focus on fixing the way business is done. But again, as with the case of alternative medicines, if someone tries to sell you some and isn’t willing to even try to explain why theirs is better than the other stuff, you should at least wonder whether they aren’t thinking critically, or are merely trying to sell you something.

Should Twitter Censor?

Last weekend, a despicable “hashtag” trended* on Twitter, one promoting the idea that violence against women is OK. By Sunday morning, tweets using that hashtag were mostly critical ones, expressing outrage at any non-critical use of the hashtag. One prominent twitterer, Peter Daou, (@peterdaou) asked why Twitter wasn’t preventing that hashtag from trending. He tweeted:

“Unbelievable: Is Twitter REALLY allowing #reasonstobeatyourgirlfriend to be a trending topic??!”

The outrage expressed by Daou and others is entirely appropriate. The hashtag in question is utterly contemptible. But the question of whether Twitter should censor it and prevent it from trending is another question altogether.

The central argument in favour of censorship is that the idea being broadcast is an evil one, and decision-makers at Twitter are in a clear position to stifle the spread of that evil idea, or instead to allow its proliferation. With great power comes great responsibility.

The most obvious reason against censorship is freedom of speech, combined with the slippery slope argument: if Twitter is going to start censoring ideas, where will it end? Freedom of speech is an important right, and that right includes the right to speak immoral ideas. Limits should only be imposed with great caution.

Now, it’s worth noting that the hashtag trending isn’t actually anyone’s speech: it’s the aggregate result of thousands of individual decisions to tweet using that hashtag. So if Twitter were, hypothetically, to censor the results of their trending-detection algorithm, they wouldn’t actually be censoring anyone, just preventing the automated publicizing of a statistic. But perhaps that’s a philosophical nicety, one obscuring the basic point that there is danger anytime the powerful act to prevent a message from being heard.

More importantly, perhaps, Twitter isn’t a government, it’s a company, and it doesn’t owe anyone the use of its technology to broadcast stupid ideas (or any other ideas, for that matter). We insist that governments carefully avoid censorship because governments are powerful and because for all intents and purposes we cannot opt out of their services as a whole. If a company doesn’t want to broadcast your idea, it’s not morally required to. Your local paper, for instance, isn’t obligated to publish your Letter to the Editor. The right to free speech isn’t the right to be handed a megaphone.

But then the challenging question arises: is Twitter a tool or a social institution? Just how much like a government is Twitter, in the relevant sense? It is, after all, in control of what many of us regard as a kind of critical infrastructure. This is a challenge faced by many ubiquitous info-tech companies, including Twitter, Facebook and Google. While their services are, in principle, strictly optional — no one is forced to use them — for many of us going without them is very nearly unthinkable. We are not just users of Twitter, but citizens. That perspective doesn’t tell us whether it’s OK for Twitter to engage in censorship, but it does put a different spin on the question.

*The fact that it was “trending” on Twitter means that Twitter’s algorithm had identified it as, roughly, a “novel and popular” topic in recent tweets. Trending topics are featured prominently on Twitter’s main page.

Values-Based Consumerism as Double-Edged Sword

It’s a game of connect-the-dots. Do you, as a consumer, feel any responsibility for the purposes to which the companies you patronize put their profits? Do you care about a company’s values, beyond the effect those values have on how the company conducts business? What about its CEO’s values, or the values of its biggest shareholder? Do those factors enter into your purchasing decisions? Should it?

To make the question more concrete, consider the following:

  • If you’re politically left-leaning, do you want to patronize a store owned by someone on the right?
  • If you are a Christian, would you buy a car from an atheist?
  • If you’re pro-choice, would you buy groceries from a chain of stores owned by a staunch pro-life advocate?
  • If you’re in favour of strict gun control, do you want to boost the profits of a company that donates to the National Rifle Association?

For a less-hypothetical example, see this story (in which I’m quoted) by Nicole Neroulias in the Albany Times Union: “Corporate giving is questioned”. The focus of Neroulias’s story is a recent controversy regarding TOMS shoes. The short version goes like this: Blake Mycoskie, head of TOMS, agreed to be interviewed by Jim Daly, president of the right-wing Christian group Focus on the Family. Feminists and defenders of gay rights protested, and Mycoskie issued an apology. On his blog, he wrote: “TOMS, and I as the founder, are passionate believers in equal human and civil rights for all.” Without questioning his sincerity here, it’s clear that Mycoskie had become aware that his flirtation with FOTF had riled his company’s socially-progressive customer base. Why would someone socially progressive continue to support a company perceived to be in cahoots with the Christian right?

Three quick points:

1) On one hand, it seems to me that, yes, at least in principle, consumers must take an interest in the causes supported by the companies they patronize. We are responsible for the causes we support, even indirectly. Of course, most of us contribute far too little to the coffers of even our favourite companies to make any appreciable difference at all. If a company has a 1% profit margin, and gives 1% of that to some cause, that means that one penny out of every hundred dollars you spend goes to that cause. But then, even merely symbolic contributions matter.

2) People who want corporations to adopt social causes should be careful what they wish for. It’s all well and good to say that companies should do something to “give back” to the community. But when they agree to do so, what’s to say that they’re going to give to a cause that you believe in, rather than one you find abhorrent? Would you rather your favourite software company contributed to your least-favourite charity, or just stopped contributing to charities at all?

3) One of the most interesting things about all this is that what we’re seeing here is the undoing of the competitive market’s tendency to prevent people from acting out their biases. One of the best things about modern markets is that they punish prejudice, and make it more difficult. It’s easy to discriminate against the minority cobbler down the street by traveling a few extra blocks to buy from “your own kind”; it’s much harder to act out your racist biases when buying shoes at a big department store because, well, you have no idea what colour or sex or sexual orientation of the person who made those shoes is. Market transactions today are effectively anonymous and depersonalized, in a way that makes biases of various kinds effectively impotent. The push for certain kinds of corporate social responsibility, accelerated by moves toward corporate transparency and social media, is effectively undoing this.

In the end, it’s not at all clear whether it is a good thing that the market is becoming another avenue for acting out our ideological disagreements.

‘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.

Diversity on Corporate Boards: Board Challenge or Social Challenge?

Diversity of corporate directors is arguably the hardest challenge in the realm of corporate governance. It’s hard because what constitutes diversity in the relevant sense is controversial. It’s hard because it’s not always easy to find directors who both possess the right talents and experience and who come from a range of demographic groups. And it’s hard because, well, old habits (not to mention old biases and vested interests) die hard.

Financial Post Magazine recently ran this editorial by Pamela Jeffrey, president of the Canadian Board Diversity Council: A call to action

…the Canadian Board Diversity Council in partnership with KPMG published the first-ever baseline study of corporate board diversity. The results were disappointing: 15% of board seats are held by women; 5.3% by visible minorities; 2.9% by persons with disabilities; and 8% by Aboriginals including First Nations, Inuit and Métis. In spite of these results, the council does not support the introduction of quotas in Canada. We support a made-in-Canada approach: collaboration with FP500 directors, our growing group of member companies, governments, academic institutions, aspiring directors, individual shareholders and institutional investors to speed up the pace of change….

A couple of points to make here. First, It is interesting to note that, statistically, Aboriginals are actually OVERrepresented on Canadian boards (8% of directors, but only 3 or 4% of population). So it’s odd to include them in the “disappointing” results that Jeffrey cites. But I’ll return to those stats later.

Second, it is important not to confuse what is true of boards collectively with what is true of individual boards. It would be good if there were a lot more women on boards, for example. But from that it doesn’t immediately follow that there should be a lot more women on any particular board.

There are a couple possible reasons why an individual board should aim at including more women. One is the idea that diversity makes for better decision-making. There’s a fair bit of consensus on that point, though there’s disagreement on what kind of diversity matters most.

A second is the idea that having more women on your board will help to motivate and inspire women within your firm in various ways, and show them that you value them too.

A third is the idea that, as a society, we should give women a bigger role in corporate decision-making and so we need to do more to open doors that were previously stubbornly held shut. But in that regard, the question remains as to what obligation particular boards have to help achieve that social objective. A societal goal is not automatically a board obligation, especially given the special role-related responsibilities that boards have to the organizations they oversee. So the extent of such an obligation is a hard moral problem.

Now putting more women on the board might be thought of as part of a company’s “social” or “citizenship” obligations (as opposed to an obligation owed to the handful of women who would benefit directly from membership on that particular board). But even then, you have to consider the extent to which a given board’s actions can have an impact. Even if your board is 50% or even 90% women, that doesn’t fix the social problem.

But then, it also cuts the other way: the fact that Aboriginals are seemingly well-represented on Canadian corporate boards “in general” is no reason for any particular board to be complacent about that issue. There may well be more your board can do, and should do, in that regard.

Ethics on Business Magazine Websites

I’ll start by highlighting the obvious conflict of interest, here: my blog is carried on the website of Canadian Business magazine. In this blog entry, I effectively congratulate CB for highlighting ethics. So this is not an unbiased blog entry, but hopefully the facts I present here speak for themselves and stand on their own.

Ethics in business is clearly a hot topic these days, whether discussed using the word “ethics” itself or one of the mushier terms like “CSR” or “sustainability” or “corporate citizenship.” Even those who are cynical about the topic cannot deny that it is an important topic.

But here’s an interesting fact. At time of writing, only two major business magazines (Canadian Business and Fast Company) feature ethics and/or CSR on the front page of their websites. The Economist, Forbes, Fortune, and Business Week do not.

Here’s slightly more detail:

  • Canadian Business has both Ethics and CSR listed on the front page.
  • Fast Company has a link called Ethonomics on its front page (right at the top), which leads to a section featuring a pretty steady stream of social responsibility blog postings.
  • Forbes has a CSR blog but it is very hard to find if you start from the site’s main page. You need to click on “Leadership” (not at all obvious) and then you’ll see the link in the lower-right of the Leadership page.
  • The Economist has nothing ethics- or CSR-related on its main page, though to its credit The Economist does tackle relevant topics pretty frequently. (For an older example, see The Good Company.)
  • Fortune likewise has nothing on their main page (though if you click on the “Leadership” link, you get taken — oddly — to their Management page, which currently features a piece on philanthropy.)
  • Business Week likewise does nothing to feature CSR or ethics.

So, what do you think? Why are business magazines, and in particular their websites, so slow on the uptake? Is it lack of interest, lack of access to good content, or both, or something else?

Should We Teach Students About the “Social Impact” of Business?

As regular readers know, I’ve blogged a lot about the vocabulary we use to talk about ‘doing the right thing’ in business. Here’s another example of a term that some people seem to want to use to capture that entire topic: “Social Impact.”

See for example this piece, by NYU’s Paul Light, in the Washington Post: It’s time to require students to do good.

I’ll start by pointing out that the headline is inaccurate, though that’s likely not Light’s fault. (It’s more likely the fault of the newspaper’s headline writer. Hard to say.) At any rate, Light’s article isn’t about making students “do good;” it’s about teaching them courses about doing good. And that’s a very different thing.

Light points out that many business schools now offer courses on what he refers to broadly as the “social impact” of business. “Social impact,” he says, can variously be defined in terms of “social responsibility, innovation, engaged citizenship or plain old public service.” (Note that Light is in trouble here, already, implicitly assuming all of those terms are good things. For counter-examples, see my recent blog entry on unethical innovation.)

Anyway, Light says business schools are increasingly realizing that they need to teach students something about the social impact of business (and presumably, more specifically, about how to maximize positive social impact and minimize negative social impact.)

For what it’s worth, I should point out that many business ethics classes — presumably among the courses that Light sees as part of the trend — absolutely would not focus primarily on social impact. And that’s a good thing, because social impact is just one of the many ethical issues that arise in business. Courses on business ethics can cover a large range of issues, many of them not directly related to social impact:

  • product safety (which is mostly a concern to customers, who very often make up only a tiny segment of “society”)
  • employee health and safety
  • truth in advertising
  • the environment (which, depending on your philosophical views, may have ethical importance independent of society’s reliance on it).

Each of those topics has relatively little to do with social impact, and indeed there can be important tensions between, for example, what is good for employees and what is good for society.

But maybe Light doesn’t want courses in business ethics more generally; maybe he really does think it most important to focus on social impact, thereby ignoring the issues (like those noted above) that got the field of business ethics off the ground in the first place. Such a focus by business schools would be incredibly unfortunate, because it would leave business students radically unprepared to face the ethical challenges that they really will have to face on a daily basis in their professional lives. And even if courses on “social impact” do tackle a broader range of issues (including the ones listed above) the title of the course is going to mislead students into thinking that social impact really is the key issue after all.

Finally, I’m confused by the fact that Light views “social impact” as a skill:

Making social impact part of every student’s curriculum would send the signal that social impact is an essential skill….

What are we to make of this? Is social impact really a “skill”? Personally, I’m not sure how to make sense of that turn of phrase. I suppose we can read Light somewhat more charitably as meaning that an appreciation of the social impact of business, and an understanding of the key issues and how to respond to them, are essential parts of a sound business education. And surely he’s right. But we ought at least be clear on the fact that what we’re struggling with — and what we need students to struggle with — is the complexity of the role and impact of business in society. Calling it a skill misleadingly implies that we know what to do about it all, and now we just need to do it. If only life were so simple.

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