The CSR Newsletters are a freely-available resource generated as a dynamic complement to the textbook, Strategic Corporate Social Responsibility: Sustainable Value Creation.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Strategic CSR - Human nature

The article in the url below is interesting because it reflects on a fundamental aspect of human nature – Are we essentially flawed beings who have to struggle against our innate tendencies in order to exist in a civilized society, or is ‘evil’ (immoral, unethical) behavior the exception and humans are preordained to be ‘good’?

I see reflections of this debate within the CSR community in relation to the fundamental role of for-profit firms (and all organizations) in society. Are firms (and the executives who work in them) essentially powers for good that occasionally commit transgressions, or are they essentially negative elements of society—freeing the individuals that work there to pursue short-term, self-centered gain under the cloak of group anonymity?

The article, which is an interview with the psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple, focuses on the mass-shooting that occurred in Norway over the summer, but the discussion reflects on the motivations underlying human behavior more broadly:

The human impulse to explain the inexplicably horrific is revealing, according to Dr. Dalrymple, in two respects—one personal, one political. First, it says something about us that we feel compelled to explain evil in a way that we don't feel about people's good actions. The discrepancy arises, he says, ‘because [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau has triumphed,’ by which he means that ‘we believe ourselves to be good, and that evil, or bad, is the deviation from what is natural.’ For most of human history, the prevailing view was different. Our intrinsic nature was something to be overcome, restrained and civilized. But Rousseau's view, famously, was that society corrupted man's pristine nature. This is not only wrong, Dr. Dalrymple argues, but it has had profound and baleful effects on society and our attitude toward crime and punishment. For one thing, it has alienated us from responsibility for our own actions. For another, it has reduced our willingness to hold others responsible for theirs.

The idea that we have divorced behavior from responsibility has many applications in the CSR debate (both in terms of corporations and their stakeholders) that are an underlying theme of these Newsletters. It is connected to the belief that, as a society, we have moved away from valuing strong institutions that bind us and constrain our behavior within normative rules constructed over decades of social civilization (a broad, long-term focus), towards a society that is focused on the pursuit of individual happiness and self-indulgence (a narrow, short-term focus) and that any attempt to limit that pursuit is resisted.

I believe this shift against society and in favor of the individual is a significant barrier to meaningful progress in the CSR debate. Without the idea that society is more important than the individual, rather than the other way around, we lose what Dalrymple describes as our “transcendent purpose,” which governs our daily actions and, ultimately, guides our willingness to make personal sacrifice in the name of something larger than ourselves:

’After all,’ Dr. Dalrymple says, ‘having a very consistent worldview, particularly if it gives you a transcendent purpose, answers the most difficult question: What is the purpose of life?’