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What Contemporary Philosophy Can Teach Us About CSR: Part 1

October 28, 2010

Photo credit: jucyrai via Creative Commons License through Flickr. The photographer does not necessarily endorse the views expressed in this article.

Exactly how much of a role does philosophy play in the fields of corporate social responsibility, sustainability, or environmentalism? Certainly on the surface level we might cite the philosophical concepts of morality or ethics as we try to better business practices. However, a relatively new branch of philosophy –Experimental Philosophy– can demonstrate a much deeper connection between its field and that of our own.

Through its examinations of the concept of intentional action , Experimental Philosophy (X-Phi for short) can teach those companies involved with socio-environmental initiatives an important and often ignored lesson about how a the public may interpret a their actions.

Like other branches of philosophy, X-Phi (boasting a burning chair as its symbol) continues the tradition of examining concepts such as free will, causation, knowledge, morality, and so on. But instead of the old-fashioned method of pure analytic contemplation of these concepts, X-Phi addresses them through experimental and empirical studies bringing philosophy closer to the traditional methodology of hard science (click here to see some of their studies).

As one of the most prominent and youngest figures in the field, Professor Joshua Knobe is at the forefront of investigating the concept of intentional action. Traditionally, when judging whether or not someone’s actions are intentional, the assumption was we tended to look at what that person’s beliefs are, what he or she was thinking at the time of the action, or what the relationship between his or mental state and her actions is.

However, in his investigations (see here) Knobe discovered a phenomenon, often called the “Knobe Effect”, demonstrating that intentionality is not always that simple. Furthermore, it is in the Knobe Effect that we find our business lesson. Take the following two cases:

Case A: The vice-president of a corporation approaches the chairman of the board and says that he has come up with a new business policy that will increase profits dramatically and will also harm the environment. The chairman responds that she doesn’t care about the environment and all she cares about is making as much money as possible. Sure enough, the company goes through with the policy and it ends up harming the environment.

When asked whether the chairman, through her actions, intentionally harmed the environment, 82% of participants responded in the affirmative.[1] She knew the policy would harm the environment, she went through with it anyway, ergo she intentionally caused harmed the environment.

This is where the study gets interesting. If in the same scenario Knobe swaps the word “help” for “harm”, he gets a completely different response from participants:

Case B: The vice-president of a corporation approaches the chairman of the board and says that he has come up with a new business policy that will increase profits dramatically and will also help the environment. The chairman responds that she doesn’t care about the environment and all she cares about is making as much money as possible. Sure enough, the company goes through with the policy and it ends up helping the environment.

Interestingly, when presented with this case, 23% of participants in the study responded that the chairman, though her actions, did not intentionally help the environment.[2] 77% of respondents saw the chairman as only caring about making as much money as possible.[3] The fact that in the process of making that money the Chairman managed to help the environment, therefore, was merely as a pleasant and unintentional side effect of her actions.

This study has important ramifications for both the field of philosophy and for the business world. Stay tuned for next week when we here at Do Well Do Good, LLC explain not only the implications of the findings and why this study is so important to our field, but also what else we can learn from it!


 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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