Categories: CSR reality check / History of PR / PR issues / Reviews

8 March 2011

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(part 2) Cant or Kant? PR-think gets heavy

We PRs cannot avoid philosophical matters because, as Martin Sandbu says in his new book Just Business – Arguments in Business Ethics, decisions made by business have consequences for other people.

Sandbu, economics leader writer at the Financial Times, explains:

…decisions that transform and create economic value affect people’s lives. That makes them morally significant in many ways, the most obvious being how they determine whom the business activities enrich and whether they make people worse off in the process. [Page 16]

Sandbu says Kant’s relevance as a philosopher rests on the stress he places on the intuitive primacy to moral thinking of universality and autonomous rational (informed) decision making:

Rational autonomy, then–the will freely directed by reason–is the fundamental moral value: It is what moral action is and it is what freedom is. Acting against morality is to act against reason and, therefore, to be unfree, in thrall to one’s [or somebody else’s] inclinations [manipulation]. [Page 149]

What is most useful about Kant’s thinking and Just Business‘s contribution is that they provide methodologies for thinking through business ethics. They also provide useful insights into how to develop PR strategies.

In essence, Sandbu argues that firms should align their moral values in the Kantian Enlightenment tradition, which says that people and institutions:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as end and never merely a means. Page 149, quoting Kant]

In defence of the great philosopher’s real-world relevance, Sandbu clarifies that:[

We should emphasize the ‘merely’. Kant does not say you may never treat someone else as instrumental to your own goals; that would rule out most business and, indeed, a lot of other innocent non-business human interaction. [Page 151]

What Sandbu is saying is that if business, or any institution, wants to obtain consent for its activities – which is the licence to operate PRs seek to ensure – then it needs to be able to morally justify how it behaves. The key to success lies in being able to demonstrate that any other rational person in a similar position would have made similar choices. The premise is that whenever somebody’s pursuit of self interest is being restricted it can be justified if it can be shown:

…that he would himself accept the principle that requires the limitation, if he did not seek to make an exception for himself. Similarly, whenever the social contract theory permits someone to pursue his self-interest in ways that harm the interests of others, it justifies this to them by showing that they themselves would have endorsed the principle permitting the conduct in question had they thought they had an equal chance to be in a position to benefit from doing the same. [Pages 179/180]

This draws on the famous position of the social contract theoretician John Rawls: one should act in a way which creates a situation one wouldn’t mind being parachuted into. It is also like the position adopted by many global enterprises: they should behave in the worst-regulated countries much as they would in the best-regulated:

It also provides a systematic approach to partial compliance theory, which deals with the moral rules governing how to behave when others violate morality (as opposed to the ideal compliance theory, which deals with the right thing to do provided everyone complies with the rules. [Page 196]

This approach acknowledges that everybody has pre-determined objectives of some sort. Its practical value is that it helps us work out what business, or indeed any client, ought to do when faced with moral dilemmas.

Kant’s methodology helps us speak honestly and directly about difficult issues such as corporate social responsibility or worker and workplace-based rights:

We can [using Kant’s philosophical reasoning] assess the right content of any particular right-claim by asking whether the purported rights protects the claimant’s rational autonomy. A right to organize would seem straightforward to defend on this basis; a right to periodic holidays with pay, in contrast, much more dubiously so. We can similarly begin to determine the content of our imperfect duties by considering, in the situations we find ourselves, which action would not merely respect the autonomy of others but actively promote it. In this light, periodic holidays with pay start to look more plausible…” [Page 151]

Sandbu also uses Kant’s logic in a way that I believe helps PRs avoid setting their clients up to be accused of greenwash. Using Kant’s moral reasoning, he argues that CSR that’s positioned by PRs as being good for the bottom line lacks moral value. That’s because, as he says, it is not because we will receive rewards that we should save drowning people:

Only if the motivation behind them [CSR initiative] is to do ‘the right thing’ – that is, only if businesses in question see CSR as a categorical imperative, something they should do whether it benefits them or not – only then, according to Kant’s reasoning, can their action be said to be of moral worth. [Page 144]

So, according to Kant, Sandbu and me, Milton Friedman (see part-1) was right about that issue all along.

Universal values matter

The proposition that there are universally valid moral values in an increasingly globalised world is not to be sniffed at. The recent Arab uprisings have vividly reminded us that the virtues of freedom, democracy and individualism have universal appeal.

The rebellions in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen also undermine the claims of those who say there are multiple valid versions of human rights and value systems based on, say, Asian or Arabic values. Similar cultural-relativist views have been popularised within our own societies in the form of multi-cuturalism. However, the version of it that said that everybody’s culture had a right to exist in its own separatist bubble has been abandoned because it was seen as divisive and as undermining the values of western society (by western I mean Enlightenment-based, which speaks to the universal validity of our values). Though, of course, respect for each other’s traditions remains as important as ever.

When it comes to understanding universal values, Amartya Sen has helped us see things clearly:

[The] so-called Asian values that are invoked to justify authoritarianism are not especially Asian in any specific sense… The people whose rights are being disputed are Asians, and [the] case for liberty and political rights turns ultimately on their basic importance…[This] is as strong in Asia as it is elsewhere.” [Page 129, origin Amartya Sen, Human Rights and Asian Values]

Sandbu’s criticism also focuses on the logical inconsistencies and moral shortcomings of the cultural relativist’s beliefs. He says, and I agree, that just because a majority of people believe something is right in China or Iran or Saudi Arabia, does not make it right:

For the notion of moral advancement and moral decay presuppose that some moral beliefs are better than others, precisely what relativism denies. But surely, attempts at social reform or resistance against it, while variably noble or contemptible, are not illogical. Of the many things one could say about Martin Luther King or Strom Thurmond, that they made no sense is not one.” [Page 56]

So Sandbu is a realist. He accepts, as I believe we all should, that there is something positive and pragmatically useful in social relativism’s thinking. Cultural differences are owed respect and we cannot simply impose our society’s ways and means without modification in countries that oppose them. Sandbu qualifies this point well:

…the least experience with the diversity of the human experience suggests different rules may indeed apply, morally speaking, in different cultural contexts. Realizing this does not require us to accept any alleged moral equivalence of national cultures – not just because such moral equivalence does not follow from an admission that cultural practices matter (that is the logical mistake of cultural relativism), but because there is nothing special about national cultures.” [Page 187]

To reconcile this seeming contradictory position he draws on the useful work of Donalson and Dunfree. They say there’s a need in such communities for “moral free space” and for “micro-social” contracts to function based on their own established norms. We should, they say, acknowledge the existence, up to a point, of an indeterminate social contract that’s based on pragmatism. I agree (see my CSR: it’s not the same in Lagos as in London).

Dare to question

Martin Sandbu has written neither a manifesto nor a textbook. But while Just Business is clearly judgmental, its author attractively invites readers to subject his prejudices and preferences to the same critical analysis he applies to the theories he rejects. So the book makes no bold claims to having resolved all of the issues Sandbu examines:

The social contract approach is not without problems of its own. [Page 195]

What emerges from Just Business is that Sandbu is no dogmatist. He does not say that we should accept Kant’s views on rational morality – his categorical imperatives – as being absolutely right. He acknowledges, there’s worthy debate about that. He even rebukes Kant, using Kant’s own methodology, for being absurd for arguing that one must always tell the truth, even to a murderer who demands to know where his victim is hiding out.

Moreover, Martin Sandbu urges us not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. He says that we need to rescue the best insights from Milton Friedman and stakeholder doctrine, not to mention conventionalism, consequentialism and utilitarianism. I agree.

Just Business: Arguments in Business Ethics

Martin Sandbu, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
Pearson, 2011.
ISBN-10: 0205697755  ISBN-13:  9780205697755


One response to “(part 2) Cant or Kant? PR-think gets heavy”

  1. Sean Williams says:

    Paul, this resonates:

    “Moreover, Martin Sandbu urges us not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. He says that we need to rescue the best insights from Milton Friedman and stakeholder doctrine, not to mention conventionalism, consequentialism and utilitarianism. I agree.”

    There’s a tendency to see everything in black and white, looking for the simple and direct answer. There’s much we can learn through analysis, which is one reason I’m so interested in research (and demand more independent research into measurement, particularly of social media).

    Thanks for a thoughtful (2) posts.