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What Aristotle Can Teach Firms About CSR

Corporate Social Responsibility efforts aren’t working the way they should be. Nowadays, it’s pretty common for me to hear executives at a global firm say that they think they’re doing all the right things (and spending a lot of money), but the public doesn’t respect what they’re doing.

That’s doesn’t surprise me anymore, and I think there’s a good reason for it. There are philosophical underpinnings to much that people do, and companies do, too. I believe that corporations are essentially following the lessons of the wrong philosophers. And I wrote about it in a new article for Harvard Business Review titled, “What Aristotle Can Teach Firms About CSR.” Here’s an excerpt:

A Philosophical Tour of CSR

So how is it that companies approach CSR from the duty-based philosophy of Immanuel Kant? The German philosopher argued people should act out of moral obligations. Say you see someone begging for money on the street and you don’t feel compassion for that person. You will help anyway, because you feel you have a duty to, or that it is the right thing to do. That’s coming from public pressure, but not from your true respect or empathy for that person. Corporate social responsibility efforts have this disconnect, too.

Another corporate approach which is more dominant is Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian way. The English philosopher argued a unit-based approach; as long as the outcome is bigger than the input, the action is justified. Profit-driven organizations see CSR from the utilitarian perspective as a way of gaining a business advantage or to recover from a reputation loss.

The problem with most corporate social responsibility efforts is that these duty-based and utilitarian approaches are essentially based on rationality, albeit with contrasting motivations. The company is there to make money, but it also tries to appear to meet the public expectation of acting ethically. To customers and employees, that can simply come across as calculating and superficial. That’s why the CSR activities often don’t ring true.

There is a significant gap here. And the missing link is emotion. Companies forget emotion in CSR, and that’s why they fail.