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What Contemporary Philosophy Can Teach Us About CSR: Part 2

November 1, 2010

In my previous entry, I went over the background to the Knobe Effect. To quickly review, the Knobe Effect looks to explain the asymmetry in our responses in very similar scenarios. For example, a chairman of a company is approached by the vice-president with a new business policy. In  scenario A, the policy will harm the environment while in scenario B it will help. In both instances, the chairman responded that she did not care about the environment and only cared about making as much money as possible, and approves the policy. As a result, in scenario A. the policy does harm the environment and in scenario B. it helps.

When Professor Knobe asks about whether the chairmen intentionally harms or helps the environment, the results are fascinating, especially for companies starting or working with socio-environmental initiatives.

When Knobe asked participants in his study if the chairman if she intentionally harmed the environment, 82% responded in the affirmative. [1] When Knobe asked if participants if the chairmen intentionally helped the environment, only 23% responded in the affirmative.

For the field of philosophy, the implications of this phenomenon are exciting and interesting. But, I won’t go into them here into to much depth suffice to say that the Knobe Effect demonstrates how moral judgments affect our whole understanding of someone’s intentions. To quote Knobe:

“People are considerably more willing to blame the agent for bad side-effects than to praise the agent for good side-effects. And this asymmetry in people’s assignment of praise and blame may be at the root of the corresponding asymmetry in people’s application of the concept intentional: namely, that they seem considerably more willing to say that a side-effect was brought about intentionally when they regard that side-effect as bad than when they regard it as good.” [3]

(I highly recommend you listen to the Philosophy Bites podcast to hear Professor Knobe explain his findings a little more in depth here.)
Philosophical, moralistic, and linguistic lessons aside, there is another important message present in this experiment. It  directly affects those of you whose companies have or are trying to start in CSR, sustainability, or environmental initiatives: As a company, make sure you explain your intentions with regards to the decisions you make.

Let’s assume that people expect a well-run company tries to earn a large profit. That same company then makes a decision or takes an action that will, for example, positively impact the environment. Unless the company publicly explains that it intentionally is doing so, people might not respond to this action or decision as the company expects them to. It could very well be that consumers see this positive environmental benefit as irrelevant or tainted (maybe even masked) by a Friedman-esque business strategy. In such a scenario, the company’s reputation does not improve in the eye of the consumer, and its action, although a good business move, will not be rewarded. The flip side of that scenario is just as important: whether that company intended to or not, the public will hold it accountable for any negative impact its actions may have.

There is an added long-term benefit to promoting a company’s intentions behind its positive initiatives: The more a company explains its intentions, the more consumers view the company as caring about issues beyond profits. In turn, that company will have to spend less effort and finances on explaining its intentions as the public will begin to rightly recognize, expect, and give credit for the future actions the company takes, thus cementing the company’s reputation as one that looks beyond the bottom line.

Besides the more direct correlation between X-Phi and CSR, environmentalism, and sustainability, there is a broader lesson for contemporary business practices: as a field we cannot limit ourselves to the areas with which we are already familiar comfortable when dealing with these latter three areas. They will continue change, shift, and grow in corporate and social culture, and we must be ready to look elsewhere for solutions and suggestions on how to appropriately change with them. Ours is a burgeoning industry that is breaking with traditional business practices and we need to hold ourselves accountable to that same standard, thereby looking for inspiration anywhere and everywhere.


[1] Joshua Knobe (2003). Intentional Action and Side Effects in Ordinary Language. Analysis 63 (3):190–194.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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