By Paola Ardiles
The contemporary Spanish philosopher Adela Cortina has stressed the importance of ethics as it relates to the current global economic crisis. In her view, it not just a financial crisis we are facing, but also one of moral values. She claims that an economic crisis brings much instability to society because when we are demoralized, there is no desire to do our fair share, create, nor to anticipate the future (Cortina, 2007).
Enlightenment in the 21st century requires us to think differently, to live differently and to better adapt to our ever-changing social and physical environment (Taylor, 2010). We need to profoundly transform ourselves, and how we do business in order to meet the complexity of contemporary social, technical and economic systems. To do so, we cannot ignore ethics and the discussion of the development of moral character. Moral decisions do not happen in isolation. As Haidt (2007) argues “morality is a product of social interaction and culture” and therefore we cannot transform our thinking and our behaviours unless we recognize that morality is entwined with power and…that power is political.
(Painting and photograph by Jack McDonald)
Ethics and corporate social responsibility
“Global social and environmental trends – such as resource, water and food pressures, climate change, unemployment, ageing, obesity, immigration, and rising income inequality – are creating new risks and opportunities for business” (CBRS, 2015, p. 2). Some sustainability thought leaders argue that although many corporate entities have been addressing some of these issues through corporate social responsibility practices over the last few decades, progress has been slow and incremental (CBRS, 2015).
In order to transform, we need to understand how our business actions have consequences for the social and the ecological domains we live in. How do we move beyond an individual analysis and acknowledge the complexity of our adaptive systems? When critically examining current corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices, they cannot be separated from the broader context of globalization, immigration trends, technological advances and the disparities between the rich and poor. Some ethicists have argued that CSR is akin to Kohlberg’s first stage of development based on a set of rewards and punishments (Ibanez, 2015). In essence, corporations can obtain a competitive edge and build up their reputation if they apply CSR practices. However, even if they do so on a voluntary level (as is the case today with most corporations today), it is still the reward of more profits (or fear of punishment via loss of profit) that is the driving force behind their CSR endeavors. General Motors is a good illustration as it took on CSR practices in order to secure a competitive edge and enhance its reputation, yet lacked a core commitment in terms of its corporate values around sustainability (Dowling & Moran, 2012).
The Way Forward
If businesses and leaders truly embrace the need for transformation, it is important to be reminded of Nietzsche’s warning against “defining a problem in terms of values that one hasn’t embraced for oneself” (Badaracco, 1997, p. 78). We cannot be embracing corporate social responsibility as a core value if we have not acknowledged corruption, gender inequity, violence or bullying in the corporate setting. We must have the courage to question our assumptions, values and beliefs, but also to take action to become more socially responsible. How do we accomplish this?
It is critical that we become more reflective and curious as citizens about CSR practices, and find out which corporations are actually walking the talk. Some like Cortina (2007) have argued for a citizen’s ethics approach that promotes civic dialogue around defining our common values and moral principles in relation to business. She argues that if ethics is about building of character, then good economics is ethical economics (Cortina, 2007). Yet, we need more dialogue to explore how values, ethics, culture, and business practices impact our society.
Generational shifts, technical advances, collaborative and new shared economic models may allow us to move towards collectively defining how we best serve the planet to meet the challenges ahead. As some argue, these challenges will also bring new opportunities for businesses. Leading companies realize the importance of ensuring a healthy society
and environment today and in the future and are shifting their business to achieve long-term commercial success while accelerating inclusive and sustainable prosperity (CBRS, 2015. p.2). It will be important to promote a dialogue and public policies to support the development of measurements and accountability structures towards common standards of CSR.
My vision for the future transformation of leaders and businesses is one where we are willing to redistribute the sources of power and move beyond self-interests. In terms of the creation of Bridge for Health co-op, its core purpose is aligned with my own core values and those of the co-operative members and it is designed to serve as a positive contribution towards improving health equity and wellbeing. Our governance structure and core values will shape and inform our company’s essential reason for being, how we operate, how we treat our customers, employees, investors, co-owners and ultimately how we take positive action to protect our planet and future generations. Stay tuned!
Badaracco, J. (1997). Defining moments: When managers must choose between right and wrong. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press.
Canadian Business for Social Responsibility [CBSR] (2015). A Guide to the Qualities of a Transformational Company. Retrieved from http://cbsr.ca/transformationalcompany/
Cortina A (2007) Ethics of Cordial Reason. Educating in Civic Values in the 21st Century. Ediciones Nobel. Translation by Gabriel S. Baum. Retrieved from http://www.essayandscience.com/upload/ficheros/libros/201103/cortina_final.pdf
Haidt, J. (2007). The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology. Science, 316, 998-1002.
Ibáñez & Sement de Frutos (2015). Corporate Social Responsibility: A Critical Review. Ramon Lulull Journal of Applied Ethics, 6, 125-136.
Lima, M. (2012). RSA Animate: The Power of Networks [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJmGrNdJ5Gw.
Taylor, M. (2010). RSA Animate: 21st Century Enlightenment [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AC7ANGMy0yo.