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Broadly, there are three kinds of arguments in favor of placing corporations, at least large and fully developed ones, within an ethical context of expansive social and environmental responsibilities:
The moral requirement that business goals go beyond the bottom line to include the people and world we all share is built on the following arguments:
Conclusion. Taken together, these arguments justify the vision of any particular enterprise as much more than an economic wellspring of money. Businesses become partners in a wide world of interconnected problems and shared obligations to deal with them.
The second type of argument favoring corporate social responsibility revolves around externalities. These attach corporations to social responsibilities not morally but operationally. An externalityIn the economic world, a cost of a good or service that isn’t accounted for in the price. in the economic world is a cost of a good or service that isn’t accounted for in the price (when that price is established through basic laws of supply and demand). For example, if a corporation’s factory emits significant air pollution, and that results in a high incidence of upper respiratory infections in the nearby town, then a disproportionately high number of teachers and police officers (among others) are going to call into work sick throughout the year. Substitute teachers and replacment officers will need to be hired, and that cost will be borne by everyone in town when they receive a higher tax bill. The corporation owning the pollution-belching factory, that means, gets the full amount of money from the sale of its products but doesn’t pay the full cost of producing them since the broader public is shouldering part of the pollution bill. This strikes many as unfair.
Another example might be a company underfunding its pension accounts. The business may eventually shut its doors, deliver final profits to shareholders, and leave retired workers without the monthly checks they’d been counting on. Then the government may have to step in with food stamps, welfare payments, and similar to make up for the shortfall, and in the final tabulation, the general public ends up paying labor costs that should have been borne by shareholders.
Externalities, it should be noted, aren’t always negative. For example, the iPhone does a pretty good job of displaying traffic congestion in real time on its map. That ability costs money to develop, which Apple invested, and then they get cash back when an iPhone sells. Apple doesn’t receive, however, anything from those drivers who don’t purchase an iPhone but still benefit from it: those who get to where they’re going a bit faster because everyone who does have an iPhone is navigating an alternate route. More, everyone benefits from cleaner air when traffic jams are diminished, but again, that part of the benefit, which should channel back to Apple to offset its research and production costs, ends up uncompensated.
Whether an externality is negative or positive—whether a company’s bottom line rises or falls with it—a strong argument remains for broad corporate responsibility wherever an externality exists. Because these parts of corporate interaction with the world aren’t accounted for in dollars and cents, a broad ethical discussion must be introduced to determine what, if any, obligations or benefits arise.
The third kind of argument in favor of corporations as seats of social responsibility grows from the notion of enlightened self-interest. Enlightened self-interestIn the business world, taking on broad responsibilities for the social welfare because, on careful analysis, that public generosity also benefits the company’s bottom line. means businesses take on broad responsibilities because, on careful analysis, that public generosity also benefits the company. The benefits run along a number of lines:
Enlightened self-interest starts with the belief that there are many opportunities for corporations to do well (make money) in the world by doing good (being ethically responsible). From there, it’s reasonable to assert that because those opportunities exist, corporations have no excuse for not seeking them out, and then profiting from them, while helping everyone else along the way.
One basic question about enlightened self-interest is, “Are corporations making money because they’re doing good deeds, or are they doing good deeds because it makes them money?” In terms of pure consequences, this distinction may not be significant. However, if the reality is that social good is being done only because it makes money, then some will object that corporate social responsibility is twisting into a clever trick employed to maximize profits by deceiving consumers about a business’s intention. CSR becomes an example of cause egoismGiving the false appearance of being concerned with the welfare of others in order to advance one’s own interests.—that is, giving the false appearance of being concerned with the welfare of others in order to advance one’s own interests.