CEOs Speaking Out and the Ethics of Moral Capitalism

In the current cultural turmoil in the U.S., Big Tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Google take political positions by censoring opinion and speakers they don’t like. Many advocates of good causes press companies to sway public opinion or adopt new norms with respect to remediation of global warming or compensation for past discrimination based on race.

The issue of when corporate social responsibility would encourage political engagement by companies is most relevant to democracies where rights of free speech, the rule of law and free markets are the reality. In one party or other authoritarian states where control of private lives by the government is the norm, companies do as they are told, not as they might like. In such states, what can’t be helped must be endured, as the recent experience of Alibaba and Ant Financial in China has demonstrated.

The Caux Round Table, many years ago now, made a distinction between corporate social responsibility, on the one hand, and the responsibilities of governments and civil society, on the other. The ethics of competency and “sphere sovereignty” constrain the power of companies to dictate politics, as they see fit to do.

But there currently is little discussion of what the ethics of companies, especially publicly held corporations, should be when the responsibility of companies, as citizens, is under discussion and open to critique.

As James Madison reminded us: “If we were angels, there would be no need for government.” Corporate social responsibility, likewise, cannot presume that companies are always on the side of the angels. Some degree of circumspection is therefore wise.

In a related essay ascribed to either Madison or Alexander Hamilton, the point was made that “as there is a degree of depravity in humanity, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” When companies and their executives presume to lecture and admonish citizens as to what is right and what is wrong, should their recommendations be received with mistrust or with esteem and confidence?

A commentary, which you may read here, proposes some preliminary interpretations of the premises of moral capitalism for the social responsibilities of companies in democratic discourse.

I welcome your comments on what should be expected from enterprise in the evolution of culture and in the power struggles of our political factions for the right to legislate their preferences.