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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Strategic CSR - Moral Argument for CSR

Back in July, during a campaign event, President Obama said the following:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

The official transcript of Obama’s remarks are available in the url below. The response to what he said was astonishment, disbelief, and what seemed to be widespread criticism (some of the more inventive stuff made it into its own website: and Wikipedia page:'t_build_that), with The Wall Street Journal claiming in an editorial that, as a result of the speech, “the self-made man is an illusion” and that:

This burst of ideological candor is already resonating like nothing else Mr. Obama's said in years. The Internet is awash with images of the President telling the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and other innovators they didn't build that. … Beneath the satire is the serious point that Mr. Obama's homily is the soul of his campaign message. The President who says he wants to be transformational may be succeeding—and subordinating to government the individual enterprise and risk-taking that underlies prosperity.

As opposed to a widely-reported “gaffe,” I was struck by how unremarkable Obama’s comments were. I understand the political undertone of the criticism, but what Obama said was just plain common sense. The contrast in perspectives reminded me of Michael Lewis’ commencement speech to last year’s graduating class from Princeton (see: Strategic CSR – Luck and responsibility). The point of Lewis’ speech was to emphasize to the students that luck played a significant part of their success (luck in being born into supportive families, luck in getting good opportunities, luck in being able to go to school in a country that has great universities, etc.) and that, as a result, they have a responsibility to others who have not been as lucky. Essentially, Lewis (eloquently) and Obama (a little more clumsily) were articulating the Moral Argument for CSR (Chapter 1, p14):

CSR broadly represents the relationship between a company and the principles expected by the wider society within which it operates. It assumes businesses recognize that ‘for profit’ entities do not exist in a vacuum, and that a large part of their success comes as much from actions that are congruent with societal values as from factors internal to the company.

The idea that there is some kind of moral argument for CSR seems fundamental, to me. More importantly, it is fundamental to ensuring meaningful change occurs on a society-wide basis. To the extent that we understand that we are a group that is “all in this together,” we stand a much better chance of building a cohesive society; to the extent that we are all individuals who need to only look out for ourselves, then there is no society to be responsible towards.

Take care

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Remarks by the President at a Campaign Event in Roanoke, Virginia
Roanoke Fire Station #1, Roanoke, Virginia
July 13, 2012
The White House