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Debate: Business's Role in Society

  • Date Submitted: 11/03/2011 06:54 PM
  • Flesch-Kincaid Score: 29.5 
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The great, long-running debate about business's role in society is currently caught between two contrasting, and tired, ideological positions. On one side of the current debate are those who argue that, to borrow Milton Friedman's phrase, "the business of business is business." This belief, most established in Anglo-Saxon economies, implies that social issues are peripheral to the challenges of corporate management. The sole legitimate purpose of business is to create shareholder value. On the other side are the proponents of corporate social responsibility, a rapidly growing, rather fuzzy movement encompassing companies that claim that they already practice the principles of CSR and skeptical advocacy groups arguing that they must go further in mitigating their social impact. As other regions of the world—parts of continental Europe, for example—move toward the Anglo-Saxon shareholder value model, the debate between these points of view has increasingly taken on global significance.

Both perspectives obscure, in different ways, the significance of social issues to business success. They also unhelpfully caricature the contribution of business to social welfare. It is time for CEOs of big companies to recast this debate and recapture the intellectual and moral high ground from their critics.

Large companies must build social issues into strategy in a way that reflects their actual business importance. Such companies need to articulate their social contribution and to define their ultimate purpose in a way that is more subtle than "the business of business is business" and less defensive than most current CSR approaches. It can help to view the relationship between big business and society as an implicit social contract—Rousseau adapted to the corporate world, you might say. This contract has obligations, opportunities, and advantages for both sides.

To explain the basis for such an approach, it may help first to pinpoint the limitations of the two current...

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