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Do Greater Corporate Freedoms Require Greater Corporate ResponsibilitIES?

By Rachel Reynolds


Business Ethics Professor Georges Enderle sits behind the desk in his third-floor office recounting a thin book he read again last summer. In Man’s Search for Meaning, the author, Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl who survived the concentration camp of Auschwitz, asserts that freedom and responsibility are attached twins; one does not travel without the other.

“The more freedom a company or organization or an individual has, the more responsibility he or she or the organization bears,” Enderle says. “A business leader who has a big space of freedom bears more ethical responsibility than an employee who has a very defined, narrowly defined job – hence responsibility always means within the realm of possibility.”

Enderle’s work as the Arthur and Mary O’Neil Professor of International Business Ethics and Kellogg Institute fellow is to conduct academic work and research with business ethics on the one hand, and keep close relationships with business people on the other hand. He teaches and speaks at Notre Dame and internationally on the topic, and recently presented “Corporate Responsibility in the CSR-Debate” in the one-week seminar “La responsibilitad social corporativa: entre la etica y la strategia” at the University Jaume I in Castellon, Spain.

According to Enderle, who is part of the Marketing Department, our “free market” or “free enterprise” system of business has “freedom” at its core. With the liberalization, deregulation, and privatization of many economies worldwide, more freedoms are created for companies. More freedom, more responsibility.

“I understand freedom in a very concrete way,” he says. “That means if a company has the possibility to choose between informing customers honestly or not so honestly, or to treat employees fairly or not so fairly, then there is a moral issue. And so how to assume that responsibility? It’s often very complex, but the challenge is on the table.”

Enderle teaches that moral responsibility is more than just following the rules. It is also more than producing good results. The total of “moral responsibility,” he asserts, is the combining of “moral convictions” and honorable results. The ethics of conviction and the ethics of results cannot be separated. The ends do not justify the means – the ends and means must both be moral.

“In the context of the debate on CSR, or Corporate Social Responsibility, I wanted to make clear that this responsibility really means a genuine self commitment of individuals and companies,” he says. “Self commitment to ethical standards, I think, should be more than just following the rules or applying some standards which are now required by the public.”

Enderle admires Mahatma Gandhi and uses his life as inspiration and a blueprint for moral leadership. He often shows his students the Richard Attenborough 1982 film Gandhi and then discusses Gandhi's leadership practices.

“We can learn a great deal from concrete examples and shouldn't just talk about virtues and principles, which is not very helpful,” he says. “For example, if you can see or you can remember persons in our lives who are courageous, or on the opposite – people that are cowards – you better understand (what it looks like). What does courage really mean? What was the negative impact of a coward’s decision on others and on the person himself? … in our own lives, we as teachers have to stand up for what we believe is important. Students should be able to see that.”

With this in mind, employees can reflect on whether they are capable of handling both the power and the moral responsibility of their next promotion. Or will they achieve greater status at the expense of becoming a coward?

“The bigger space of freedom includes knowledge and competence and power,” Enderle says. “So if a CEO says, ‘Well, I did not know about that,’ that is a weak excuse because it is his responsibility to know the basics of what is going on in his company.”

Enderle acknowledges that he supports the Corporate Social Responsibility movement to some extent, but “I also believe that this CSR movement does not go deep enough,” he says. “In one sense, Enron was socially responsible. They gave a lot of money to the arts and sports events in Houston, but they cheated and committed many crimes. And so if people mean that corporate social responsibility is only giving money away for philanthropic purposes which allows them to cheat in their business activities, this doesn't make sense at all.

“Business ethics relates to all activities of business … the ethics of competition, (ethics) of innovation, (ethics of) finance, (ethics of) marketing, etc. All are important aspects of corporate responsibility.”

Professor Georges Enderle’s research and writings can be explored in greater detail at his professional website at: www.nd.edu/~genderle















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