Finally, the fourth model of Corporate Social Responsibility can be called the Social Activist Model.1 Much like the Social Demandingness model, this model assumes that corporations are responsible to the whole of society. Proponents of both of these models argue that executives should be social and moral leaders in the community and that corporations should be addressing major issues like poverty and global health.2 Unlike the Social Demandingness theory, however, the social activism (or moralism) model assumes that there is a universal standard for determining these responsibilities. Many theorists (like John Rawls) argue that the basis for this standard is ethical while others argue for a religious basis. Yet others (such as Gewirth) argue that the basis for such a standard is grounded metaphysically, in aspects of human nature.
What sort of responsibilities do these theorists advocate? There are a wide variety but here are a few responsibilities:3
- to voluntarily disclose the contents of products
- to examine the ethical impact of their actions
- to disclose the results of their social performance
- to restructure the corporate board to include independent members and watchdogs
- to implement a code of conduct
- to hire specialists in social or ethical decision-making to advise executives
- to conduct social impact studies before a major decision is made
- to be more generous in charitable giving
- to implement social responsibility planning
Strengths of the Model
Because this model appeals to a normative basis for ethical decision-making (rather than social demands or culture), proponents argue that it has less potential for variation and confusion than the social demandingness model. In addition, unlike the classical model, it maintains this same standard for all persons involved in decision-making, whether government officials, corporate executives, or non-profit leaders. The choices of corporate executives are not to be given special treatment but are to hold to the same standards as other civic leaders, such as respecting basic human rights; acting compassionately, virtuously, and justly; and promoting the common good. Goldman, for example, argues that an executive’s responsibility to stockholders does not supersede her basic moral obligations, such as respecting the rights of workers, consumers, and the public.4
Weaknesses of the Model
The strength of this model is also its weakness. Contemporary philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre (in his books After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality?) and numerous feminist philosophers have demonstrated basic problems with ethical systems making claims of universality that are supposedly free from historical or cultural context or devoid of unconscious self-interest. The inability of the proponents of social activism to agree on the basis for normative claims (whether in natural law, human nature, or reason) and the precise norms that should guide decision-making illustrates this weakness.
Yet I suggest that such a weakness need not deconstruct the social activist model entirely. Rather, it could be humbled. There are still basic norms that arise from a variety of bases (religious, ethical, metaphysical) that most cultures and people can agree upon—such as those articulated in the UN Declaration on Human Rights. While the bases for these norms may differ, the moral impetus of their claims should not be ignored by corporate executives. In the same way that we hold our governments to uphold basic human rights and morality, we must hold corporate executives to standards of social morality that supersede the quest for profit.
1James Brummer gives it this title in his book, Corporate Responsibility and Legitimacy. It can also be called the social moralism theory. The four models I have described are based upon Brummer’s analysis.
2For example. Peter Singer argues that executives are responsible to help alleviate world hunger in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” in Social Ethics: Morality and Social Policy, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), 360.
3Brummer provides a more extensive list as proposed by specific theoriests on pages 188-190.
4Goldman, “Business Ethics : Profits, Utilities, and Moral Rights,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 9, no. 3, (Spring), 260.