The recent launch of Supercapitalism by Robert Reich which criticises CSR has stimulated debate about its role in private enterprise. You can see The Economist’s take here and an interview with the author by BusinessWeek here.
It is naive, even primitive, to argue that corporations have no ethical dimension, rather it is increasingly their role to reflect the values of their shareholders. It is simplistic to reduce the objective of a company to “making profits”. While businesses must be profitable to survive, their organisation has never been the objective of making profits but to provide an understood system for cooperation between people who would like to create something greater than they can individually. (If the objective was only profits there would be no rationale for being in any particular business and criminal activity, with its very high return on investment would be the most attractive option.) Company organisation offers a substitute for feudal hierarchy and as we insist on ethics in government so we demand ethics in business.
For most businesses the discussion has moved beyond “is it appropriate for companies to pursue social responsibility?”, the answer to that is “of course”. The challenge is now how to build ethics in to everything we do and reflect the values of our stakeholders; how to make the organisation more human.