The moral malaise

Many companies seem to have forgotten that corporate social responsibility
is not just about making money but about putting something back into the
community too. Morality has taken a back seat to naked self-interest, writes
Stephen Overell

Why is everyone so quick to deny altruistic motives? Listening to the
contributions at the Business in the Community anniversary conference last
month, it was striking how desperate speakers were for people to understand
their reasons for adopting the cause of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

"Taking CSR seriously means we will sell more, promote our brand,
secure more investment and motivate people to work for and stay with us,"
said Dame Stella Rimington, a non-executive at Marks & Spencer.

"Imaginative and large CSR programmes must be a response to business
problems," proclaimed trade and industry secretary, Patricia Hewitt.1

Are things like a social conscience, duty, sympathy and the moral imperative
now so unutterably debased that the only acceptable motive for ‘doing the right
thing’ is to make money?

They sound like the passer-by who would only save someone from drowning if
they could get a few pounds for their trouble.

The decision by leading campaigners to promote CSR on business grounds is a
pragmatic one: the appeal to self-interest is the one most likely to sway
business people. In the global village – so the theory goes – parish-pump
gossip spreads, and not being seen to be up with CSR would be disastrous.
Moreover, it avoids the taint of sanctimony.

Yet the absence of a moral dimension from so much discussion of CSR
generates a lopsided view of the subject. If an organisation decides to be
answerable to greater expectations than the bottom line, then that decision is
not just a value-free exercise in cold, business logic, but an ethical stance
towards the world. Keeping an embarrassed silence about it does little to
tackle the charge of cynicism.

Some years ago, novelist CS Lewis asked if there was a difference between a
man who thinks honesty is the best policy, and an honest man. He was convinced
there was: it is the difference between a conviction of the heart and the
pursuit of an appearance. Self-interest may well result in an organisation
wishing to secure a reputation for integrity, but it is not likely to lead to
ethical commitment being enshrined as an absolute value.

If an organisation adopts a social platform because it believes it will
ultimately make it richer, employees and commentators are entirely correct to
point out that the commitment is insincere, and the employer ‘doesn’t really
mean it’.

Following this reasoning, other paths of enrichment are equally valid. If
self-interest is the only criterion, CSR is no better and no worse than the
ruthless pursuit of shareholder value.

Of course, it could reasonably be said that the intention behind CSR
programmes does not matter; it is the results that count. But the suspicion
that corporations ‘don’t really mean it’ goes to the heart of why many CSR
programmes are accused of being so meaningless. Maybe their motivation betrays

When Business in the Community was set up in 1981, it was with a dual
purpose in mind: that social cohesion is in the business interest, and that it
is a fundamental moral responsibility to behave ethically and contribute to
society. As the years have gone by, the latter seems to have slipped.

The belief that CSR is ultimately lucrative is an article of faith for
adherents – although the evidence simply does not exist one way or the other at
the moment.

But what happens if the virtuous circle turns out to be a semi-circle – if
the long-term research begins to show that the commercial grounds for adopting
CSR are less than wholly satisfying? What if corporate citizenship proves to be
less of a consideration in the minds of consumers than price?

Will CSR be dumped as another failed fad? One hopes not.

Modern CSR has its roots in a view of business that was most persuasively
put forward by the Quakers and the comparison is a fruitful one.

In 1697, William Tout, one of the leading grocers of his day, preceded
Rimington by arguing the merits of integrity in business: "Plain dealing
obliged worthy customers and made business go forward with few words," he

Centuries later, in 1902, Joseph Rowntree, the chocolate entrepreneur, hoped
that "in combining social progress with commercial success, the entire
body of workers must be animated with a common aim". Healthy working
conditions were not to be "adopted or dispensed at will". Evening
classes, libraries, gymnasia and singing clubs were all funded.

Meanwhile, Quakers were involved in a myriad of social causes: cutting
working time, campaigning for pensions, promoting mass education and, most
famously, opposing slavery. Invariably, in all this, there was a beady eye on

But the point is that there was a dual purpose: self-interest did not
operate without a conscience.2 They meant it. It shows in what they achieved
both commercially and socially, and it is tellingly absent from contemporary
CSR. In many ways, the reticence about making an ethical case for CSR is
curious. Not even the libertarian opponents of social responsibility discuss
the profit motive without reference to morality.

In his essay, The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its
Profits, Milton Friedman argued that executives should "conduct business
in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money
as possible while conforming to the basic rules of society". But he then
went on to qualify "the basic rules of society" as including
"both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom"; in
other words, the pursuit of profit need not be inconsistent with respect for
cultural norms, or a moral standard.3

In so many other areas of corporate life, we are constantly being told that
truly successful organisations have a sense of value and purpose other than
profitability. Campaigners for CSR do themselves a disservice in suggesting the
only value that counts, is self-interest.


1 Conference held on the 10 – 11 July, 2002; see Personnel Today, 16 July.

2 Examples taken from The Quakers, Money and Morals, by James Walvin, John
Murray, 1997

3 Essay reprinted in Ethical Theory and Business, T Beauchamp and N. Bowie
(eds), Prentice Hall 1988

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