Aristotle and CSR

October 3, 2016


Tim McClimon

Recently, Harvard Business Review published a somewhat elementary yet thought-provoking article by Rosa Chun entitled, “What Aristotle Can Teach Firms About CSR.” In it, Professor Chun argues that the public has grown increasingly skeptical about the motivations behind corporate social responsibility efforts because companies are following the teachings of Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham when they should be following the teachings of Aristotle.

Simply put, the German philosopher Immanuel Kent argued that people act out of moral obligation. So, companies do what they think is the “right” thing (like supporting relief efforts after a natural disaster) rather than acting out of any real respect or empathy for the victims.

The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham teaches that as long as the outcome is bigger than the input, the action is justified. So, companies try to act responsibly in order to gain a business advantage over their rivals or to make money, and this profit-driven approach rings hollow with customers and the public.

Instead, Aristotle advocated for developing an ideal character that derives from natural internal tendencies. These values will then be established over time, and will cause companies to act virtuously and consistently.

To bolster her argument, Professor Chun surveyed 2,500 employees and customers of seven British services firms. This survey found that values like integrity, empathy, zeal, conscientiousness, warmth and courage are most closely linked with employee and customer satisfaction and emotional attachment, and it is this emotional attachment that is the important ingredient in CSR success.

Accordingly, companies should take the following steps to ensure that their corporate social responsibility efforts are driving this emotional attachment:

  • Renew the CSR function by integrating CSR strategies into the overall corporate strategy.
  • Redefine the CSR vision, but don’t oversell it.
  • Promote empathy during a crisis.

While Professor Chun certainly describes the way that some companies approach their CSR strategies – as profit-making (say, by engaging in “shared value”) or duty-driven (say, by supporting victims of disasters), her values-based approach is one that has been advocated and executed successfully by companies for many years.

One of the first attempts to incorporate values into corporate strategy was written by Robert Wood Johnson in 1943 as the first Johnson & Johnson Credo. In this statement, Johnson pledged that the company would be responsible to “customers, employees, the community and shareholders.”

Similarly, SC Johnson Company has a Statement of Principles, which was written in 1976. It reads:

  • We believe that the fundamental vitality and strength of our worldwide company lies in our people.
  • We believe that earning the enduring goodwill of the people who use and sell our products and service.
  • We believe in being a responsible leader within the free-market economy.
  • We believe in contributing to the well being of the countries and communities where we conduct business.
  • We believe in improving international understanding.

And, at American Express, we have a set of eight corporate values, which drive our business and the behavior of our employees. These values, first distributed in 1990 and then renewed in 2003, include: Customer Commitment, Respect for People, Good Citizenship, Personal Accountability, Quality, Integrity, Teamwork and A Will to Win.

We want to compete and win in the marketplace, but we’re also committed to service and integrity and respect for people.

It’s this double helix of contrasting yet complementary pairs – the heart coupled with the brain, and the business value coupled with the societal good – that defines corporate social responsibility and makes it a lively profession.

To my mind, we should heed the teachings of Aristotle, but not forget the teachings of Kent and Bentham. Only then can we achieve a strategic, sustainable and believable approach to our work.

  If you have a comment or question, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and start a conversation there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog posting with friends and colleagues.

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