To the Editor:
I would like to react to a few of the points raised by Leslie Lenkowsky in his review of the book Thornton Bradshaw and I edited, Corporations and Their Critics [Books in Review, May].
He is correct in criticizing the modern liberal concept of corporate social responsibility on the grounds that it is vague and open-ended; it provides managers with no principle for determining which of the public’s complaints against business they should respond to and which they should be encouraged to resist. Unfortunately, Mr. Lenkowsky’s attempt to define the responsibility of business is equally unsatisfactory. His analysis begs the critical question: under what circumstances is it appropriate for managers to weigh non-pecuniary objectives in making business decisions? For example, should high-technology corporations consider the possible military application of their products by their satisfied customers behind the Iron Curtain? Is a company behaving inappropriately if it carefully monitors, and then discloses, possible health hazards associated with either the production or use of its products—when these are unknown to government officials? Does a company have a responsibility to ameliorate the financial hardships associated with closing down a facility in a community in which it has historically been the principal employer?
I wish Mr. Lenkowsky would describe his criteria for judging corporate performance so that we could determine precisely which “burdens [that] companies have [or have not] assumed voluntarily” meet with his approval and which do not. Of the scores of specific examples of “corporate social responsibility” described in our book, are there any at all he judges praiseworthy? And if so, on what basis? For example, is Mr. Lenkowsky opposed to all corporate philanthropy, even when it is given to organizations whose social values he shares?
Secondly, I am eager to learn which “sweeping reforms of dubious social and economic value” have been accepted by “corporate leaders.” I have followed this matter closely for nearly a decade and, with the notable exception of the legislation forbidding corporations to comply with the Arab boycott of Israel, I am hard pressed to think of any major regulatory initiative that the vast majority of affected corporations—including the larger, supposedly more “liberal” companies that comprise the Roundtable—did not oppose. Mr. Lenkowsky and I must know different business executives; I had the distinct impression that far from accepting the recent increases in government regulation, most were intensely hostile to them and thus strongly supported the Reagan administration’s drive to reduce regulatory burdens. If executives are in any way responsible for the recent increase in government regulation, it is only because their own behavior has too often convinced public officials of their necessity.
Finally, Mr. Lenkowsky’s assertion that “the gospel of corporate responsibility seems well-entrenched in the business schools” is misinformed. My interest and perspectives are even less representative of business-school faculty than Thornton Bradshaw’s are of business executives. Mr. Lenkowsky would be well advised to take another look at the research and course offerings of the nation’s major business schools. He would find precious little to offend his ideological sensibilities.
School of Business Administration
University of California
Leslie Lenkowsky writes:
David Vogel thinks I have exaggerated the influence of the views about corporate responsibility he and his fellow contributors to Corporations and Their Critics advocate. Although I think I have not, I would nonetheless be delighted if Mr. Vogel were right, since the main point of my review was that these views are deeply flawed and ought not to be adhered to by businessmen. I am pleased to see that Mr. Vogel now acknowledges some of the problems in the “liberal concept of corporate social responsibility,” but rather than try to summarize my own views on this admittedly complex subject, I suggest that he and other corporate critics examine the main traditions of ethics, which have much to say about how pecuniary ends ought to be weighed against other objectives. Nothing so well illustrates the political character of the corporate-social-responsibility movement as much as its near-total isolation from classical thinking about ethical behavior.