Corporate Responsibility Methodology

Corporate Responsibility Methodology


When it comes to corporate responsibility, ethics is key. What is our ethical responsibility as a company? That is the question. Responsible companies are characterized by acting in accordance with reasonable and justified ethical principles. But how do we distinguish reasonable and justified ethical principles from unwarranted and misguided ones? Here, we turn to the academic field of ethics in philosophy – more specifically, to the method of wide reflective equilibrium. 

The method of wide reflective equilibrium
In his famous book A Theory of Justice (1971) John Rawls presents a methodology that enable us to discuss and evaluate ethical questions in a systematic and rational way. Rawls’ methodology, though controversial in some circles, has become mainstream within the field normative philosophy. According to Rawls, we must try to create reflective equilibrium (i.e., coherence) between our considered ethical intuitions and our ethical principles. Later, philosopher Norman Daniels (1996) included relevant background theories in Rawls’ methodology and added the term ‘wide’ to the title. Accordingly, the method of wide reflective equilibrium implies that we must try to create coherence between our considered ethical intuitions, ethical principles and relevant background theories.

Ethical intuitions are the judgements we make about concrete ethical cases or more general statements about ethics. To take a classical example presented by philosopher Peter Singer (1971): if you are walking past a shallow pond and see a small child drowning in it, most of us believe that you should wade in and pull the child out, even if this means getting your clothes muddy. Considered ethical intuitions refer to the ethical intuitions we are relatively confident about, i.e., those we hold when we are fully informed and not under emotional stress. Ethical principles are general statements about what we should do. For instance, according to utilitarianism, which is one of the most discussed and influential ethical theories, agents should maximize the sum of well-being in the world. The relevant background theories refer to the theoretical knowledge that might be relevant when considering ethical issues e.g., sociological theories about human behavior and psychological theories about motivation.

A brief illustration of the method
The method of wide reflective equilibrium is rather complex and besides the brief illustration below, we will not go into details here. For a more thorough account on how the methodology can be used in relation to corporate responsibility, see Corporate Social Responsibility – A Perspective from Moral Philosophy by Claus Strue Frederiksen (2011). For a more general introduction to the methodology, see Frederiksen (2019).

A brief illustration on the practical use of the method of wide reflective equilibrium: ‘Being carbon negative’ represents one of Gubra’s considered ethical intuitions.  In our view, the climate crisis is so serious that companies like ours have to go beyond carbon neutrality and become carbon negative. We can balance our intuition about being carbon negative with our assistance principle, which states that ‘If it is in our power to promote one (or more) of the 17 sustainable development goals, while running a healthy and competitive business, we should do it.’ Furthermore, our intuition about being carbon negative and our assistance principle is balanced with a relevant background theory, namely the theory of planetary boundaries (Steffen et al. 2015).

Daniels, N. (1996). Justice and Justification – reflective Equilibrium in Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Frederiksen, C. S. (2011) Corporate Social Responsibility – A Perspective from Moral Philosophy. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen.

Frederiksen, c. S. (2019). Hvad er etik? In Faye, J. (ed.). Klimaet under forandring. København: Frydenlund.
Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. New York: Oxford University Press.
Singer, P. (1972). Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs Vol. 1(3): 229-243.
Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., … & Folke, C. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223), 1259855. 


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