Social responsibility

More confusion about individualism in The New York Times

Mark D. White

In this morning's installment of The Stone in The New York Times, anthropologist John Edward Terrell invokes against the individualist strain in modern politics, especially on behalf of "Republicans, especially libertarians and Tea Party members on the ideological fringe." But, as regular New York Times columnist David Brooks often does, Professor Terrell conflates individualism with self-interest, ultimately attacking a straw man.

Most of Terrell's piece is uncontroversial. He surveys ancient philosophers who emphasized the social nature of persons and the modern science that supports them. (He finds this ironic, implying that some woud disagree; who, exactly, remains to be seen.) He discusses religious traditions that emphasize community and responsibility, and contrasts this with Enlightment thinkers that emphasized the individual (each in his own nuanced way).

Near the end of the piece, though, he stakes a bold claim: "the sanctification of the rights of individuals and their liberties today by libertarians and Tea Party conservatives is contrary to our evolved human nature as social animals." This is a false dichotomy, for there is no contrast at all. Rights and liberties are necessary (if not sufficient) for a functioning civil society. Rights and liberties enable individuals to pursue their own interests broadly defined, which may and often do include their own well-being, the well-being of others, and ideals such as justice and equality. Libertarians and "Tea Party Conservatives" may place more emphasis on rights and liberties because they see support for them declining, but this does not imply that it is their only concern and that they think it is the sole metric of human progress and well-being.

Terrell also writes, "the thought that it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements is a treacherous fabrication." I agree, it is a fabrication, but in the sense of a straw man fabricated by Terrell himself, not any prominent conservative or libertarian thinker.

I'll end where Terrell began: politics. He writes that part of the divide between left and right in the US is over the "role of the individual," with the left "more likely to embrace the communal nature of individual lives" while the right (and libertarians) favoring rapacious self-interest. (I paraphrased a bit there.)

Let me offer an alternative, although it doesn't strike such a stark tone. Both left and right appreciate and value the social nature of the individual and their responsibilities to each other. Where they differ is in the role of the state in executing those responsibilities. The left believes the state should take care of the needy, through social programs and redistribution, while the right (and libertarians) believe individuals, acting alone or through voluntary organizations, should help each other. (And they do, as numerous studies have shown.) In other words, those who Terrell accuses of worshipping at the altar of self-interest are actually expressing their responsibility toward other individuals as an exercise of the rights and liberties they value so highly.

In short, rights and liberties are not always used to further self-interest, and the institutions of government often are. Individualism is not self-interest—on the contrary, the most noble and admirable acts of charity are those that result from the free actions of individuals acting in their sense of social responsibility.

There is no contrast here—let's not fabricate one.

An Answer to "Questions for Free-Market Moralists"

Mark D. White

I read with great interest Amia Srinivasan's contribution to the New York Times' philosophy column "The Stone" titled "Questions for Free-Market Moralists." After introducing the political philosophies of John Rawls and Robert Nozick, she states that "on the whole, Western societies are still more Rawlsian than Nozickian: they tend to have social welfare systems and redistribute wealth through taxation. But since the 1970s, they have become steadily more Nozickian." Then she presents four statements that she claims describe Nozick's minimal state -- and are representative of what she terms "free-market moralism" -- with which she assumes most people will not be comfortable. (Certainly not readers of The New York Times, by any rate.) But I'm not so sure, especially once we clarily what the four statements are talking about.

The four statements are:

1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

For each statement, Ms. Srinivasan provides an example of what such a world would look like: for instance, after statement #2, she suggests the following. (Note that this example also invokes statement #3 about inherited wealth.)

Suppose that I inherited from my rich parents a large plot of vacant land, and that you are my poor, landless neighbor. I offer you the following deal. You can work the land, doing all the hard labor of tilling, sowing, irrigating and harvesting. I’ll pay you $1 a day for a year. After that, I’ll sell the crop for $50,000. You decide this is your best available option, and so take the deal. Since you consent to this exchange, there’s nothing morally problematic about it.

This example points out my problem with Ms. Srinivasan's argument: she conflates political philosophy with moral philosophy. It is perfectly consistent to maintain, as in statement #2, that free exchanges are morally permissible while also believing that that is something morally problematic with the situation described above -- as long as you don't subscribe to a perfectionist system of morality that fails to distinguish between forbidden and merely "problematic" actions.

But there's more. Statement #2 really isn't speaking to morality -- instead, it's talking about legality that's simply based on a certain morality. How statement #2 should be read (based on my understanding of Nozick, at any rate) is as saying that the state has no moral basis to question free exchanges. Of course, the situation above is distasteful to most, but does this mean should it be forbidden by law? This is a different issue than the one Ms. Srinivasan addresses in her example -- and I suspect many would answer "no, it shouldn't be illegal" even if they regard the landowner's behavior as despicable. This doesn't imply a moral free-for-all, but simply a state that stops short of legislating all moral (or immoral) behavior.

Consider also Ms. Srinivasan's example for statement #4 regarding forced obligation:

Suppose I’m walking to the library and see a man drowning in the river. I decide that the pleasure I would get from saving his life wouldn’t exceed the cost of getting wet and the delay. So I walk on by. Since I made no contract with the man, I am under no obligation to save him.

The problem of duties of beneficence is an old and well-worn one in moral philosophy: while most would say we do have a general obligation to help those in need when it would come at little cost to ourselves, not as many would be willing to make that a strict requirement, much less a legal one (though some jurisdictions have). Ms. Srinivasan seems to draw a extreme and false dichotomy between coerced beneficence and rapacious self-interest -- I would like to think that no matter what kind of state we live in, people would still extend a hand to those in need when they can. (Furthermore, I see no reason to believe this would be any more likely to occur in a Rawlsian system where the state, not the individual, is the party understood to do most of the helping.)

As I understand him, Nozick was describing a state that enables people to make choices when they don't wrongfully harm others, and the market was but one framework in which they could do that. (For that reason, I disagree with the term "free-market moralist," but that's of little concern.) He did not, as Ms. Srinivasan writes, maintain that "the market can take care of morality for us," nor did Rawls hold that morality was the sole responsibility of the state. Fundamentally, Rawls and Nozick differed on the degree to which the state should exercise individuals' collective responsibility to each other on their behalf. Neither Rawls nor Nozick denies a role for private morality outside of the state. But Nozick and the "free-market moralists" believe that individuals, as parts of families and communities, bear the bulk of the responsibility to take care of one another, a responsibility borne voluntarily and, yes, imperfectly (unlike how perfectly the state conducts it, of course).

Ms. Srinivasan also holds Nozick's system to an incredibly high standard, arguing that to concede any weakness in any of the four statements "is to concede that the entire Nozickian edifice is structurally unsound. The proponent of free market morality has lost his foundations." But she neglects to mention the problems with Rawls' system, especially the very particular psychological assumptions that ground the "results" of the veil-of-ignorance exercise -- a brilliant metaphor also found in the work of other philosophers and with various predictions regarding the terms of the social contract.

Ms. Srinivasan states clearly that she believes that Western societies should be tilting back towards Rawls (I would say "further" rather than "back," but that's a difference of interpretation) and away from Nozick. Fair enough -- we disagree on that. But she makes Nozick's system an all-or-nothing proposition while ignoring problems with Rawls, and further misinterprets Nozick's work as describing the whole of morality rather than the operation of the state alone. In the end, her article shows a troubling lack of faith in people to care for each other outside the confines of the state -- and an overly optimistic belief in the power of the state to do the same.

Chick-fil-A, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Ethical Consumption

Mark D. White

I've read an enormous amount of what's been written on the Chick-fil-A controversy the last couple weeks, although I'm sure I haven't scratched the surface. But I was fascinated by Will Wilkinson's recent post at The Economist's Democracy in America blog, titled "Feathers Flying," in which he casts the fast food company's stance against same-sex marriage as an example of corporate social responsibility (CSR), though not the typical social justice concerns usually associated with CSR.

It's my view that this sort of skirmish in the culture wars is an inevitable consequence of trends in "ethical consumption" and "corporate social responsibility". Conservatives sceptical of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement have often charged that CSR is a stalking horse for liberal causes that have failed to get traction through ordinary political channels. This charge finds some support, I think, in the fact that few in the media seem to see Chick-fil-A's Christian-influenced culture and business practices as an example of CSR, though obviously it is. Doesn't the demand that corporations act responsibly in the interests of society, in ways other than profit-seeking, directly imply that corporate leaders who find same-sex marriage socially irresponsible should do something or other to discourage it?

Rather than comment on Chick-fil-A's position itself, I want to point out Mr. Wilkinson's perceptive comments regarding the politicization of the marketplace itself:

Matters of moral truth aside, what's the difference between buying a little social justice with your coffee and buying a little Christian traditionalism with your chicken? There is no difference. Which speaks to my proposition that CSR, when married to norms of ethical consumption, will inevitably incite bouts of culture-war strife. CSR with honest moral content, as opposed to anodyne public-relations campaigns about "values", is a recipe for the politicisation of production and sales. But if we also promote politicised consumption, we're asking consumers to punish companies whose ideas about social responsibility clash with our own.

Those opposed to a particular company's moral or political position may consider their actions to exemplify corporate social irresponsibility (or worse) rather than just a different type of CSR. The issue for ethical consumption then becomes not just a matter of choosing companies who actively support the "right" causes rather than those who don't, but more important, staying away or boycotting companies that support the "wrong" ones. (This is not new: for examples, labor union members have long refused to patronize nonunion businesses, whether out of solidariry or some other principle.)

Wilkinson's proposed remedy is elegant, and on first blush seems to make perfect sense:

I'd suggest the best arena for moral disagreement is not the marketplace, but our intellectual and democratic institutions. We hash out our disagreements, as best we can, in public deliberation. The outcome of this deliberation becomes input to official policymaking, which in turn determines the rules of the game for business. Businesses then seek profits within the scope of those rules (and the consensus rules of common decency), and consumers buy the products that best satisfy their preferences.

That would be the ideal, I agree. In unpublished work on CSR, I draw a distinction between internal and external actions: internal CSR would cover the operations of the business itself, such as treatment of employees and environmental production methods, while external CSR involves actions not directly related to the business, such as charitable giving--or political positions. My conclusion based on this distinction can be considered a restatement of Milton Friedman's oft-caricatured position that business should focus on maximizing returns to owners within the legal and ethical standards of their industry. The italicized phrase refers to the importance of internal CSR--which still leaves room for controversy, such as whether benefits can be extended to same-sex partners or the extent of environmental safeguards--and cautions against external CSR, either because profits can be devoted to social or political causes by the owners just as well as by the company, or because the business wants to avoid endorsing a controversial position and politicizing its product.

I think that corresponds fairly well to what Wilkinson recommends, but I fear the horse has left the barn on that one. CSR and ethical consumption together comprise a vicious cycle that we will find it very difficult to extricate ourselves from at this point. Consumers have adopted the mindset of making a moral statement with their purchases--with good intentions--and they expect businesses or business leaders to reveal their positions. Businesses are more than happy to comply, sincerely or otherwise, even at the risk of alienating a segment of their customer base. Even companies that remain neutral on heated social issues may be accused of "if you're not with us you're against us"--and certainly with some issues, there is no neutral position. A company can refuse to take a public stand on same-sex marriage, but they either provide same-sex benefits or they don't.

I'll finish--as I often do--with Kant. Often caricatured himself as a rigid demanding moralist, he ridiculed as "fantastically virtuous" any person "who allows nothing to be morally indifferent and strews all his steps with duties, as with mantraps... Fantastic virtue is a concern with petty details which... would turn the government of virtue into tyranny” (Metaphysics of Morals, 409). We can take his comments one step farther and argue that, given our limited attention, the more attention we pay to "petty details," the less we pay to more serious issues or more effective ways to deal with them. Equality for gays and lesbians is no petty detail, of course, but no matter which side you're on, there must be a better way of supporting your position than choosing whether to eat a chicken sandwich.

Nancy Folbre on corporate social responsibility

Mark D. White

In today's Economix blog in The New York Times, Nancy Folbre comments on the recent Journal of Economic Literature survey of the economics of corporate social responsibility by Markus Kitzmueller and Jay Shimshack (which is open access, for the time being). Folbre nicely summarizes the complex and often strategic interaction between financial and ethical motives on the part of corporate leaders, shareholders, and consumers alike.

Special issue of Socio-Economic Review on corporate social responsibility

Mark D. White

Ser10-1The latest issue of Socio-Economic Review (10/1, January 2012) is a special issue devoted to "Corporate Social Responsibility and institutional theory: new perspectives on private governance":

Stephen Brammer, Gregory Jackson, and Dirk Matten, "Corporate Social Responsibility and institutional theory: new perspectiveson private governance,"

Daniel Kinderman, "'Free us up so we can be responsible!' The co-evolution of Corporate Social Responsibility and neo-liberalism in the UK, 1977-2010",

Richard Marens, "Generous in victory? American managerial autonomy, labour relations and the invention of Corporate Social Responsibility,"

Nahee Kang and Jeremy Moon, "Institutional complementarity between corporate governance and Corporate Social Responsibility: a comparative institutional analysis of three capitalisms,"

Michael A. Witt and Gordon Redding, "The spirits of Corporate Social Responsibility: senior executive perceptions of the role of the firm in society in Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and the USA,"

Sebastian Koos, "The institutional embeddedness of social responsibility: a multilevel analysis of smaller firms' civic engagement in Western Europe,"

Luc Fransen, "Multi-stakeholder governance and voluntary programme interactions: legitimation politics in the institutional design of Corporate Social Responsibility,"

Thomas Conzelmann, "A procedural approach to the design of voluntary clubs: negotiating the Responsible Care Global Charter,"