The concept of corporate social responsibility: a philosophical approach

Adele Lebano

Research output: Working paperAcademic

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Corporate social responsibility (CSR), or the idea that companies should combine economic, social and environmental concerns, seems an unavoidable component of discourses on business and society. Why is this the case? Is it because we are in a post neoliberal era, and in an economic crisis, that we are acknowledging the drawbacks of unrestrained business activity? Or is the opposite true, and the popularity of CSR is the product of the triumph of neoliberal ideology? Both views can be supported by equally convincing theoretical and empirical arguments. In this paper rather than arguing for either view, I propose to set the problem of CSR according to a different perspective, which may help to move beyond narrow alternative of CSR as ‘reaction to neoliberalism’ or ‘as product of neoliberalism.’ My thesis is that CSR and its concerns are much older than neoliberalism and post-neoliberalism. These are concerns that have to do with how to organize our social life, and what institutional arrangements can better promote justice and well-being. These concerns have to do with economy and politics at the same time. While many people may think that corporate social responsibility is empty rhetoric, I argue here that there is some substance to CSR, and that this substance has to do with the inextricable connection between economic, political and moral concerns. In the first part, I argue that disagreements about the nature of CSR can be addressed using the distinction between ‘concept’ and ‘conception.’ I identify the main understandings of CSR, and argue that all obscure, to varying degrees, the nuances of the relationship between economy and politics. In the second part, I argue that the relationship between politics and the market, which lies at the core of CSR, can be better understood if we reverse the neoclassical analogy between market and politics. In the third part, I address the opposition between voluntary and hard regulation and link this opposition to the tension between political means and ends. I conclude with some questions about the limitations of the label ‘Corporate Social Responsibility.’
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationThe Hague
PublisherInternational Institute of Social Studies (ISS)
Number of pages25
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2010

Publication series

SeriesISS working papers series. General series

Bibliographical note

ISSN: 0921-0210
Research fellow in the Interaction Between Civil Society and Markets Group

Research programs



  • ISS Working Paper-General Series


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