J. Service Science & Management, 2009, 2: 312-321
doi:10.4236/jssm.2009.24037 Published Online December 2009 (www.SciRP.org/journal/jssm)
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Towards a More Business-Oriented Definition of
Corporate Social Responsibility: Discussing the
Core Controversies of a Well-Established Concept
Matthias S. Fifka
School of Business and Economics, Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuernberg, Erlangen, Germany.
Email: fifka@wiso.uni-erlangen.de
Received September 6, 2009; revised October 19, 2009; accepted November 23, 2009.
The concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been controversially discussed for over 50 years. Conse-
quently, a wide variety of definitions and understandings of CSR have been developed throughout the decades. That has
made it increasingly hard, or not to say impossible, to agree on a common perception of CSR. Concerning the various
notions of CSR, four core controversies can be identified which revolve around certain elements of CSR: First of all,
there is the underlying question if CSR is the business of business or if it is none of its business as Friedman has fa-
mously argued. Second, should CSR contain legal obligations or is it a purely voluntary concept and, thus, ethical in
nature? Strongly connected to that is the third controversy on whether CSR should be self-serving or if it has to be
purely altruistic. Finally, there is widespread disagreement on the scope of CSR. Does it have a local, commu-
nity-oriented focus or should it address concerns of a wider geographical scope? These controversies are analyzed and
discussed here with the aim of developing a definition of CSR that does not remain confined to the academic world.
Keywords: Corporate Social Responsibility, Corporate Citizenship, Corpor ate Social Performance, Corporate Com-
munity Involvement
1. Introduction
While the idea that businesses should voluntarily con-
tribute to the well-being of the communities where they
operate dates back far into the 19th century, the scientific
discussion of that phenomenon began in the 1930s. E.M.
Dodd [1] and Chester Barnard [2] asked whether the ex-
ecutives of large corporations had an obligation to soci-
ety extending beyond daily business. Theodore Kreps [3]
even developed a framework for measuring the social
involvement of businesses in his widely regarded book
Measurement of the Social Performance of Business. The
key term “social responsibility” was finally introduced in
1953 by Howard Bowen in his path-breaking work So-
cial Responsibilities of the Businessman [4]. Aside from
being the first to use the term, Bowen extensively elabo-
rated on the subject and thus can be called “the father of
corporate social responsibility” [5].
Today, more than 50 years after its introduction by
Bowen1, “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) has be-
come a highly popular term among scholars and practi-
tioners alike. However, with the increasing usage and an
ever growing number of publications, the meaning of the
term has become increasingly blurred. In this context, it
deserves mentioning that already in 1975 the Handbook
of Corporate Social Responsibility remarked: “It seems
that everyone has his/her own definitions for terms like
[...] Corporate Social Responsibility, Public Affairs,
Community Relations, Urban Affairs and Corporate Re-
sponsibility” [6]. The intensifying discussion among aca-
demics, especially in the 1990s, has not lead to any more
clarity of the meaning of “corporate social responsibil-
ity.” Consequently, the World Business Council for Sus-
tainable Development – a CEO-led, global association of
more than 200 multinational companies – observed that
“no universally acceptable definition of CSR exists” and
that the “lack of an all-embracing definition” [7] will
most likely persist.
1It must be noted that Bowen only used the term “social responsibility,”
ut exclusively applied it to corporations. Therefore, the introduction
of the concept of “corporate social responsibility” can be attributed to
This lack of consistency can mainly be attributed to
three reasons. First, scholars from very different fields –
business, economics, law, sociology, philosophy, and
Towards a More Business-Oriented Definition of Corporate Social Responsibility: 313
Discussing the Core Controversies of a Well-Established Concept
even theology – have become increasingly interested in
CSR. Inevitably, a coherent scientific discussion has be-
come more difficult since different understandings, aims
and research methods frequently collide. Second, many
related terms have been created over the decades which
sometimes serve as synonyms and at other times they
describe different concepts. Among the most widely used
are: corporate societal responsibility, corporate citizen-
ship, corporate social responsiveness, business ethics,
sustainable development, triple bottom-line, and corpo-
rate community involvement. Although many more could
be mentioned, it should be remarked that next to CSR,
corporate citizenship (CC) without question has become
the most popular among scientists and practitioners alike.
Third and most important, the understanding of CSR is
inevitably based on an underlying view of what role
businesses play or should play in society and how they
can fulfill that role. With diverging core conceptions of
the business-society relationship, the understanding of
CSR will automatically vary, too.
In order to understand the different notions and defini-
tions of corporate social responsibility it is necessary to
look at their development over the course of time in a
first step. Here, related concepts, especially CC, will be
taken into account as well, because they reflect different
approaches taken by scholars and practitioners. In a sec-
ond step, the central controversies on the meaning of
CSR will be isolated and discussed with regard to what
they imply for businesses. This serves as a basis for the
development of a definition of CSR that is applicable for
businesses. As long as definitions and concepts of CSR
remain mostly abstract and thus confined to the academic
discussion, they are hardly useful in the long run and do
not contribute to what all of them actually demand: the
obligation of corporations to take on social responsibili-
2. The Evolution of CSR Rhetoric Since 1953
When Howard Bowen provided a first vague definition
of CSR in 1953, he stated th at it “refers to the ob ligation s
of businessmen to pursue those policies, to make those
decisions, or to follow those lines of action which are
desirable in terms of the objectives and values of our
society” [4]. Although Bowen’s definition is abstract in
the sense that it is hardly possib le to determine the objec-
tives and values of any society, he leaves no doubt that
businessmen have an obligation to consider social objec-
tives and values when they make decisions. Ten years
later, Joseph McGuire argued in the same vein, although
he did not refer to individual “businessmen” any longer,
but regarded the corporation as a whole: “The idea of
social responsibilities supposes that the corporation has
not only economic and legal obligations but also certain
responsibilities to society which extend beyond these
obligations” [8]. While McGuire is more precise than
Bowen in describing social responsibilities as extending
beyond economic and legal obligations, he, too, assumes
that a corporation has these obligations per se. This as-
sumption can also be seen in a definition by Clarence
Walton, which takes managers as individuals into ac-
count as well as the corporation as a whole: “The new
concept of social responsibility recognizes the intimacy
of the relationships between the corporation and society
and realizes that such relationships must [my emphasis]
be kept in mind by top managers as the corporation and
the related groups pursue their respective goals” [9].
It is remarkable that all the early thinkers on CSR took
for granted that corporations have certain social respon-
sibilities and none of them spent considerable time to
discuss that assumption. The first one to do so was Mil-
ton Friedman in 1970 in his now famous essay “The So-
cial Responsibility of Bu siness is to Increase Its Profits,”
in which he vigorously denied any such responsibilities.
Friedman argued that corporations are “artificial per-
sons” [10] and thus cannot assume moral responsibility
for what they do. Moreover, he stated that it is the sole
obligation of managers to increase the wealth of the
shareholders as it is their money they administer. Finally,
he saw the social involvement of corporations as a viola-
tion of the government’s exclusive jurisdiction for social
Nevertheless, it must be noted that Friedman did not
condemn social activities by a corporation as long as they
were aimed at improving the corporation’s image in or-
der to increase its sales and profits. This, however, would
have to be counted as “window dressing” [10] and could
not be classified as CSR according to Friedman, because
he saw CSR based upon an altruistic and ethical founda-
tion. This perception of CSR was by no means unique
and reflects the dominant view on CSR in the late 60s
and 70s. It was no coincidence that Friedman wrote his
essay at a time when ideas of the “New Left” enjoyed
widespread popularity and the American public became
increasingly sceptic about large corporations [11]. He
was very aware of that notion and observed a “present
climate of opinion, with a wide spread aversion to ‘capi-
talism,’ ‘profits,’ ‘the soulless corporation’ and so on”
[10]. This aversion would eventually lead to the public
demand that corporations should contribute more to the
social well-being because of a moral obligation to do so.
In 1975, the Handbook of Corporate Social Responsibil-
ity also illustrated this view of CSR: “‘Corporate Social
Responsibility’ seems to be the most favored term among
reformers who use it as a moralistic rallying post.
Anti-reform conservatives feel this generic icon smacks
of do-goodism, and thus has no relationship to the
hard-nosed profit motive of business” [6].
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Towards a More Business-Oriented Definition of Corporate Social Responsibility:
314 Discussing the Core Controversies of a Well-Established Concept
The notion that CSR includes ethical responsibilities
was cemented by Carroll’s “Four-Part Model of Corpo-
rate Social Responsibility” from 1979, which probably
has become “the most established and accepted model of
CSR” [12]. He stated that the social responsibility of
business “encompasses the economic, legal, ethical, and
discretionary expectations that society has of organiza-
tions at a given point in time” [13]. Carroll later revised
this definition slightly and replaced “discretionary ex-
pectations” with the term “philanthropic” [14]. Finally,
intending to use a more pragmatic language, he once
again revised his definition: “The CSR firm should strive
to make a profit, obey the law, be ethical, and be a good
corporate citizen” [14].
That rephrased definition is interesting in the respect
that “being a good corporate citizen” becomes equal
with “philanthropy,” replacing it in the definition.
Therefore, Carroll’s concept of CC is a very narrow
one, basi cally r educing it to “corporate giving.” Thus, it
is no surprise that practitioners came to prefer this lim-
ited and easy approach to CC over the “ethically and
mo ral ly l oaded” idea of CSR. Until today, CSR has car-
ried the notion of being a concept which assumes an
ethical obligation of businesses to “do good” without
pursuing a material self-interest. Some scholars have
even come to regard socially responsible behavior as
the primary objective of business: “Finally, assuming
that a business firm has enhanced socially responsible
discretion, obeyed society’s major ethical principles,
and followed the law, then the firm is responsible for
producing and distributing goods and services, en-
hancing shareholder wealth [...]” [15].
Moreover, in comparison to CSR, CC did not empha-
size the responsibilities of corporations one-sidedly, but
also implied rights that emerge from the status as a citi-
zen. It also did not demand that CC had to be of an altru-
istic nature. Instead, it assumed that the social activities
of a business would be expanded if a business profited
from them, because that way a lasting and structured
engagement was guaranteed. In this context, Wood and
Logsdon correctly observe that CC stresses a “ ‘give-
back’ and ‘tit-for-tat’ grounding” which “does not re-
quire any philosophy nor deep thinking,” while CSR has
a strong “moral grounding” and “a ‘Sixties-liberal’ ori-
entation” [16].
However, the notion that CC is of a purely pragmatic
nature without an ethical foundation has increasingly
been challenged since the turn of the century. In 2001,
David Birch noted that “corporate citizenship is not sim-
ply about philanthropy, corporate generosity, business
community partnerships, executive leasing to community
organizations, cause-related marketing, good causes and
so on (though these may well be some of the concrete
realizations of corporate social responsibility) it is
about a changing business ethos” [17]. Definitions such
as these [18,19], stressing a moral component of CC,
have made it increasingly hard to differentiate between
CSR and CC. Although CC was originally invented to
express a distinction from CSR, a trend has become ob-
servable during the last decade that emphasizes a
moral-ethical component of CC. Consequentially, CC
and CSR are increasingly used interchangeably. Maignan,
Ferrell and Hult, for example, recently defined CC as
“the extent to which businesses meet the economic, legal,
ethical, and discretionary responsibilities placed on them
by their various stakeholders” [20], which is almost iden-
tical to how Carroll had defined CSR thirty years ago.
For good reason, Matten and Crane [21] thus speak of an
“equivalent view” of CSR and CC that today can fre-
quently be found among academics and practitioners.
The more traditional view of seeing CC as corporate
giving or philanthropy, which Matten and Crane refer to
as “limited view of CC,” has become less popular among
academics and practitioners alike. Although mere corpo-
rate giving is easy to handle and does not require an
elaborate strategy or long term involvement, executives
have become less favorable towards it, because it does
not contain concepts of how corporations can actually
benefit from this form of social responsibility. Instead,
more and more businesses are trying to implement di-
verse forms of social activities into their business strat-
egy. This is why the Center for Corporate Citizenship at
Boston College has defined CC as “the business strategy
that shapes the values underpinning a company’s mission
and the choices made each day by its executives, manag-
ers and employees as they engage with society” [22].
This clearly emphasizes the notion that CC should
self-serve businesses and does not have to be altruistic by
any means. The idea that businesses and society can both
benefit from social activities at the same time has been
expressed most clearly by Windsor: “Although corporate
citizenship embeds older traditions of corporate social
responsibility and respon siveness, fundamentally it crafts
an instrumental, self-serving view of the relationship
between business and society” [23].
Although one might assume that executives today
would thus exclusively prefer the term “corporate citi-
zenship” over the moralistic “corporate social responsi-
bility”, this is not the case. While it is true that the term
CC was mainly coined by practitioners to express a dis-
tinction from CSR, the latter term is still being used
prominently by many corporations to describe their so-
cial activities. It comes as no surprise that empirical re-
search has shown that executives remain uncertain about
what the terms actually mean and that they find it hard to
differentiate between them [24]. Although there is a vivid
academic discussion about the different potential mean-
ings of CC and CSR [16,21,25] , in the executive world
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Towards a More Business-Oriented Definition of Corporate Social Responsibility: 315
Discussing the Core Controversies of a Well-Established Concept
both terms are being used to describe the same ideas and
forms of activity.
However, regardless of the term that is being applied,
the core controversies that surround CSR or CC are iden-
tical and shall be addressed in the next chapter. Paying
tribute to the facts that there is n o established differen tia-
tion between CSR and CC and that both are used syn-
onymously by many scholars and businesses to describe
the same phenomena, an equivalent view is taken here.
Thus, for reasons of simplicity, only the expression CSR
will be applied in the following.
3. Core Controversies on CSR
Beginning with Friedman’s essay in 1970, a vivid dis-
cussion on the characteristics of CSR has erupted. Four
central controversies can be determined in this context:
Should businesses take over social responsibilities
or is that none of their “business”?
Assuming that they have social responsibilities,
should there be legal oblig ations to enfo rce CSR or is it a
concept that is of voluntary nature and may be built o n a
moral foundation? Does CSR also contain an economic
responsibility towards so ciety?
Strongly connected to the dispute on its voluntary
character is the question, if CSR should be free of
self-interest or if it may serve the aims of businesses as
Finally, there is dispute on the scope of CSR?
Should CSR activities be targeted only at the local envi-
ronment of a business or should they be of a broader
scope and address more general problems?
The debate on these central controversies among
scholars as well as practitioners is addressed in the fol-
lowing chapters and the implications that the different
views have for businesses are discusse d .
3.1 Is CSR the Business of Business?
As mentioned above, in the 50s and 60s the notion be-
came popular, at least among scholars, that businesses
and executiv es shou ld tak e over social responsib ilities. In
the 70s, Friedman was the first to challenge that percep-
tion. It is interesting to note that today, almost 40 years
after Friedman’s famous essay was published, the per-
ception that businesses should act socially responsible
remains once again largely unquestioned in the academic
world. Not only that; most scholars take a certain social
responsibility for granted and do not spend any time or
word in their publications to address the important ques-
tion if businesses can really be assumed to carry that kind
of responsibility. The opponents of CSR, who are very
few in number today, still mostly refer to Friedman’s
arguments that businesses should act not socially respon-
sible because of three reasons. First, they are artificial
persons who cannot be held morally responsible. Second,
the managers as agents have to exclusively serve the
shareholders as principals and increase their wealth. CSR
is adverse to that mission as it solely causes costs which
reduce profits. Third, the maintenance and regulation of
the social system is solely the job of the government.
Although Friedman certainly makes important points,
there are several arguments that can be held against him.
First of all, the assumption that businesses as artificial
actors cannot be held morally responsible because all
decisions connected to them are made by individuals is
an oversimplification. One could argue that although
decisions in a business are being made by individuals, it
is still the business th at is held legally responsible for the
outcome of the decisions most of the time. Hence, if
businesses can take legal responsibility for actions initi-
ated by individuals, why should they not be able to take
moral responsibility as well? Moreover, all businesses
have a certain structure and culture as well as superordi-
nate goals that transcend individual decision-making.
They provide a framework to which all individuals
within the business are bound and establish “an explicit
or implicit purpose” [12] for their decisions. Therefore,
businesses also carry a moral responsibility for the deci-
sions that are made by individuals within this framework.
The second argument and underlying perception that
CSR inevitably increases costs and reduces profits
dominated the CSR discussion for a long time. In 1972,
Manne and Wallich even argued that business expendi-
tures could only be counted as socially responsible, if
they produced lower profits than alternative investments
which paid no attention to CSR [26]. One year earlier,
Johnson had argued that only businesses which had al-
ready met their economic goals would set aside money
for CSR [27]. This so called “lexicographic” view of
CSR also implied that CSR was a financial burden. This
notion slowly began to change with Drucker’s argument
that profitability could not only be maintained despite
CSR activities, but that it could actually be increased,
because CSR creates new opportunities for businesses.
According to him, social problems should be seen as
chances for new fields of activity and thus be turned into
profits [28]. Drawing on that idea, scholars set out to
develop theories on how to integrate CSR activities into
the business strategy [29,30].
Over the decades, numerous studies have also been
conducted to examine the relation between corporate
financial performance (CFP) and corporate social per-
formance (CSP). The latter concept had already been
developed in the 1970s [13,31] and was refined in the
1980s and 1990s. It tried to offer a framework for execu-
tives how to first implement and then measure the out-
comes of CSR. In 1994, Wood defined CSP accordingly
as “a business organization’s configuration of principles
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Towards a More Business-Oriented Definition of Corporate Social Responsibility:
316 Discussing the Core Controversies of a Well-Established Concept
of social responsibility, processes of social responsive-
ness, and policies, programs, and observable outcomes as
they relate to the firm’s societal relationships” [15]. The
concept of CSP – just as CSR – has also suffered from
inconsistencies and very diverging understandings of it.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that studies which
examine the relation between CSP and CFP come to
highly different conclusions. In 1999, Roman et al. con-
ducted a meta-survey of 52 studies and found that 33
suggested a positive relationship between CSP and CFP,
14 found no effect and five found that CSP negatively
affects CFP [32]. This rather positive overall conclusion
could not be fully affirmed by a meta-analysis of Mahon
and Griffin [33]. Of the 62 studies they evaluated, 33
found a positive correlation, nine no correlation at all,
and 20 a negative one. It is interesting to note that all
authors observed a highly heterogeneous understanding
of CSR and CSP throughout the studies they examined,
which makes valid comparisons nearly impossible.
Nevertheless, despite the varying understanding dis-
played in the individual studies, more than half in both
meta-analyses found CSR to increase financial perform-
ance. Therefore, Friedman’s assumption that CSR meas-
ures would inevitably decrease profitability cannot be
maintained, which makes his second argument obsolete.
Moreover, it cannot only be argued that CSR activities
are likely to increase profitability, it can also be brought
forward that not to act socially responsible might de-
crease profitability. Consumers have come to expect that
businesses “behave” accordingly and retaliate with pro-
tests and boycotts if they do not: Exxon, e.g., had to face
extensive consumer boycotts when it refused to sign the
Kyoto Protocol; Nike experienced declining sales when
its employment of childh ood labor in Asia became public;
and consumers avoided Shell gas stations when the
company intended to sink its swimming oil tank “Brent
Spar” into the North Sea instead of having it dismantled
on shore. The latter case is especially interesting since
Shell had acquired all necessary permission for deep sea
disposal and thus would not have acted illegally. How-
ever, alarmed by Greenpeace activists, the public did not
consider mere compliance with legal norms to be suffi-
cient and eventu ally forced Shell, which at the same time
experienced a sharp drop in sales and share prices [34],
to abandon its plans.
The public has come to expect businesses to do more
than to simply act accordingly to the laws. While legal
compliance is sine qua non, it alone is not sufficient any
more in times when consumers believe that businesses
are more than mere providers of goods and jobs. This
leads us to Friedman’s third argument against CSR,
which was based on the assumption that it is the gov-
ernment’s exclusive duty to provide and regulate the so-
cial system. Already at the time of publication, Fried-
man’s position did not reflect a dominant understanding
that saw social support solely as any longer. The public,
especially in the US, had already begun to articulate mis-
trust of businesses because of perceived “corporate
greed” and demanded more social involvement [11]. To-
day, almost 40 years later, that notion has become even
stronger as governments are increasingly unable to solve
social or ecological problems. With rising government
debt, a smaller and smaller portion of the budget remains
available for social spending, the rest flows into prede-
termined or mandatory spending, especially debt service
[35]. Therefore, governments have to rely more on more
upon private actors to take over social responsibilities in
order to provide certain services and support for those in
need. Friedman’s argument that the social system should
be the responsibility of the government only thus has
become obsolete, as governments in most industrialized
nations are no longer able to carry that responsibility
Overall, Friedman’s core argument that the “social re-
sponsibility of business is to increase its profits” cannot
be maintained. Businesses can very well be considered to
be moral actors that can assume social responsibility.
That in turn does not au tomatically decrease their profits;
quite the contrary is the case: the negligence to act so-
cially responsible is often sanctioned by the public
through protests and boycotts leading to reduced reve-
nues. The public has come to expect businesses to be
socially engaged as governments cannot shoulder social
responsibility on their own any longer.
The question which inevitably arises in the govern-
mental context is whether CSR should be enforced upon
businesses through legal provisions or if it is a concept
that is built upon volun tary participation.
3.2 CSR – Economic and Legal Obligation or
Voluntary Involvement?
The term “CSR” by itself does not allow any conclusions
if the corresponding action has to be voluntary in nature
or if it has to be enforced legally. Social responsibility
can either be assumed voluntarily or because of legal
Until today, many authors have followed Bowen’s
original idea that CSR was primarily a voluntary concept.
That perception was most clearly expressed by McGuire
in 1963: “The idea of social responsibilities suppo ses that
the corporation has not only economic and legal obliga-
tions but also certain responsibilities to society which
extend beyond these obligations” [8]. McGuire assumes
corporations to have certain economic and legal respon-
sibilities, he emphasizes the “responsibilities to society
which extend beyond these obligations.” That would lead
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Towards a More Business-Oriented Definition of Corporate Social Responsibility: 317
Discussing the Core Controversies of a Well-Established Concept
to the conclusion that economic and leg al obligations are
a part of CSR and can be regarded as its foundation, with
a voluntary or discretionary component resulting from a
moral or ethical obligation on top. In 1991, Carroll ex-
pressed this perception in his “Pyramid of CSR,” which
was based on his definition of 1979: “The social respon-
sibility of business encompasses the economic, legal,
ethical, and discretionary expectations that society has of
organizations at a given point in time” [14].
At times, the necessity to include economic and legal
obligations in a definition of CSR is questioned because
these obligations could be taken for granted. The eco-
nomic responsibility to be profitable can indeed be as-
sumed, otherwise, a business will not be able to exist in a
free market economy in the long run – unless it was
heavily subsidized. The legal responsibility to obey the
law is another story since businesses may very well
benefit from not acting in accord ance with the laws. One
must only think of the corporate scand als in the first half
of this decade, when companies profited from fraudulent
accounting and false balance sheets. In reaction, tighter
legal standards were enforced upon the corporations
since the voluntary commitments made by industry
groups obviously fell short.
Therefore, law abidance must be considered a vital
element of CSR. However, this must not lead to the dan-
gerous notion that merely obeying rules and regulations
is sufficient. Without a voluntary component, the concept
of CSR becomes obsolete. While certain legal standards
are inevitable and necessary, the “added value” of CSR
results from the voluntary involvement of businesses.
They can decide best how and where to become active in
the most efficient manner. Let us look at an example
where a group of businesses decides to support the con-
struction of a new playgro und in their neighborhood. One
might argue that this construction could simply be fi-
nanced by raising taxes or other levies and thus resolve
social problems through governmental action. However,
higher taxes might drive companies out of business that
are not highly profitable or force them to lay off workers.
Other might consider relocating their facilities. Moreover,
politicians might be less inclined to raise taxes out of fear
to lose the next election, and thus the necessary govern-
mental funds are missing. Instead, a voluntary and dis-
cretionary approach can provide businesses with a vari-
ety of ways to contribute: A real-estate firm could set
aside a lot which it owns; a construction company could
provide workers or machinery which might be less bur-
densome for it than making a cash donation, while the
contribution to the success of the project might be equal;
and a law firm, for example, can give one of its lawyers
some time off to take care of the necessary administrative
Furthermore, we must keep in mind that not all prob-
lems, of whatever kind they may be, can be solved
through lega l provisions. This wou ld lead to an excessive
legislative process creating a bloated and non-transparent
body of regulation. Automatically, such a regulatory ap-
proach would create enormous costs for the development
of the norms by governmental institutions and later for
the businesses which have to comply with them.
Although it is evidently impossible to tackle all social
problems through legal provisions, the effectiveness of
voluntary approaches was doubted for a long time. Espe-
cially in the 70s and 80s, it was argued that reliance on
the voluntary involv ement of businesses as a part of CSR
was naive because in the hard-nosed world of business,
companies would and should not do anything which did
not serve their interests unless it was required by the law
[10]. This belief was strongly linked to the perception of
CSR as – aside from its obligatory component – a con-
cept that was altruistic and not self-serving in nature. But
can businesses really be assumed to make meaningful
social contributions if they do not receive anything in
3.3 Altruism or Self-Interest?
The early concepts of CSR developed by scholars like
Bowen, Frederick or McGuire were normative in nature.
From corporations they demanded social involvement
which was motivated by the realization of an ethical re-
sponsibility and not by the pursuit of self-interests. This
in turn did not mean the violation of economic principles
to them, but the guarantee to reach a higher level of eco-
nomic welfare for society as a whole. Frederick under-
lined this approach in 1960:
“Businessmen should oversee the operations of an
economic system that fulfils the expectations of the pub-
lic. And this means in turn that the economy’s means of
production should be employed in such a way that pro-
duction and distribution should enhance total socio-
economic welfare.
Social responsibility in the final analysis implies a
public posture toward society’s economic and human
resources and a willingness to see that those resources
are used for broad social ends and not simply for the
narrowly circumscribed interests of private persons and
firms” [36].
Ten years later, as already indicated, Friedman was the
first to prominently challenge this po sition by stating th at
businesses had no social responsibilities as demanded by
Bowen and his companions. To him, their concepts of
CSR were pure socialism:
“The businessmen believe they are defending free en-
terprise when they declaim that business is not concerned
‘merely’ with profit but also with promoting desirable
‘social’ ends; that business has a ‘social conscience’ and
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Towards a More Business-Oriented Definition of Corporate Social Responsibility:
318 Discussing the Core Controversies of a Well-Established Concept
takes seriously its responsibilities for providing employ-
ment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution and
whatever else may be the catchwords of the contempo-
rary crop of reformers. In fact they are – or would be if
anyone took them seriously – preaching pure and un-
adulterated socialis m. Businessmen who talk this way are
unwilling puppets of the intellectual forces that have
been undermining the basis of a free society these past
decades [10].”
Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that Friedman did
not object against the social involvement of businesses as
long as they profited from it: “This is on e way for a cor-
poration to generate goodwill as a by-product of expen-
ditures that are entirely justified in its own self-interest”
[10]. Such measures, however, could not be counted as
CSR in Friedman’s eyes, which to him only became a
pretence for activities that were undertaken to foster the
public perception of a company: “Of course, in practice
the doctrine of social responsibility is frequently a cloak
for actions that are justified on other grounds rather than
a reason for those actions” [10].
With regard to terminology, this leads to the paradox
situation that social involvement – in the eyes of Fried-
man – is desirable if it benefits business, but when it does,
it cannot be classified as CSR, because CSR demands an
altruistic motivation. Now, one might certainly ask if th is
terminological skirmish is of any importance to those
who profit from social activities by businesses. Does it
matter to the hungry whether a company provides food
out of selflessness or because it wants to improve its im-
It may very well be pointed out that unselfish in-
volvement is more efficient because it is focused on the
needs of the recipients and does not have to be subordi-
nate to a company’s goals. But it can be countered that it
is far more likely that companies get engaged on a larger
scale if they benefit from their social involvemen t as well.
Only this way it can be guaranteed that social activities
are conducted permanently and in a structured, well de-
veloped manner, and not only punctually if the current
financial situation permits it.
While some business ethicists decline social activities
driven by a self-serving intention as utilitarian exploita-
tion [15,37], from an econ omic point of view it makes no
sense to demand that CSR has to be altruistic. Neverthe-
less, one should not automatically assume the pursuit of
mere self-interest behind every social activity of a com-
pany, although it is certainly possible to make such an
allegation in any case. If a company supports schools and
universities, one could allege that it so lely tries to ensure
the availability of qualified workers in the future. If it
builds recreational facilities for its employees, it could be
argued that it only tries to maintain a healthy workforce.
Finally, the intention to polish up one’s own reputation
could always be insinuated.
From an empirical point of view, corporate motives for
social involvement are difficult or even impossible to
examine [21]. While the true conviction to help people in
need may indeed be the grounding for social activities in
some cases, this motivation would be mentioned more
often than self-interest if one did a survey among com-
panies, because everybody likes to pr esume to have acted
Overall, the conclusion is th at individu al corporate and
overall social benefits can go hand in hand and are not
necessarily diametrical to each other. It is exactly this
“give and take” which serves as a viab le driving force for
social activities by businesses. It makes sense to assume
that this “tit-for-tat,” as Wood and Logsdon call it [16],
should be one of the bases of CSR, but one must be
aware that the understanding of CSR in many publica-
tions still is – resulting from the term’s history – a dif-
ferent one. There CSR is often perceived as an altruistic
concept. This narrow perception, however, limits the
advantages resulting from a broader understanding,
which allows self-interest behind CSR: A business is
getting involved and tackles certain social grievances,
and it is rewarded by improving the environment where it
does business and its public image.
The final controversy that is to be addressed here is the
scope and constitution of the business environment.
Should CSR activities be n arrow in sco p e and b e targ eted
at the immediate environment of a business or should
they be broader in nature and address more general
3.4 CSR – Local Community Involvement or
Global Activism?
Early definitions of CSR had left open the form and
scope of engagement and remained rather vague as we
have seen. Even later concepts that were specifically tar-
geted at businesses often were of an abstract nature, like
the one provided by the Committee on Economic Devel-
opment (CED) from 1971 demonstrates. The CED used
three concentric circles to explain CSR. The inner circle
referred to econ omic tasks like providing jo bs and goods
and operating profitable. The second circle suggested
that these economic aims must be pursued with sensitiv-
ity to changing social values and the social contract that
exists between society and businesses. The outer circle
emphasized the need to actively become involved in im-
proving the social environment [38]. Carroll, for good
reason, referred to that latter part of the concept as
“amorphous” [14 ], because it still remained vague.
The lacking possibility to apply CSR and the abstract
character of the respective definitions were major reasons
for why the term “corporate citizenship” gained more
prominence among practitioners as it emphasized prag-
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Towards a More Business-Oriented Definition of Corporate Social Responsibility: 319
Discussing the Core Controversies of a Well-Established Concept
matic involvement in the local community. Wood and
Logsdon thus have correctly observed that CSR articu-
lates a “broad concern for many issues and stakeholders,
and for society at large,” while CC stresses a “narrow
focus on local community and charity” [16]. Although
definitions of CC have been increasingly widened
[17,21,39] the term to many still has a more operable or
“hands on” character and a local focus.
Certainly, the problem resulting from the abstract and
all-embracing character of CSR definitions is that it is
“too broad in its scope to be relevant for organizations”
[40]. Henderson argues in the same vein and finds that
there is “no solid and well-developed consensus which
provides a basis for action” [41]. Therefore, CSR might
mean nothing to businesses because they simply do not
know how to make it operable.
Nevertheless, as tempting as a precise definition or
concept may seem, there is a high risk of creating a
framework that is far too rigid. First of all, as was shown
above, the great strength of CSR lies in the fact that it
gives businesses the possibility to become socially in-
volved in many different ways. Second, the scope of
CSR activities can hardly be predetermined because they
are different from business to business. A small manu-
facturing company that relies on employees, suppliers
and buyers from a specific region will take a different
approach than a multinational corporation, because it will
not be able to afford meaning ful CSR on an international
scale and also would not benefit from it.
With increasing globalization, however, it becomes
harder and harder to precisely determine the business
environment of a company. For many businesses, share-
holders as well as suppliers, buyers and other stake-
holders are distributed all over the globe, which would
demand a concept of global CSR with specific national
approaches as, e.g., legal obligations which have to be
adhered to vary from country to country.
This inevitably leads to a definitiona l dilemma. On the
one hand, definitions regarding the form and scope of
CSR should not be too abstract, but at the same time
broad enough not to rule out potential forms of activity
and also pay tribute to the individual possibilities of
businesses and their varying business environments.
The solution lies in considering the possibilities of busi-
nesses to become socially involved, which vary consid-
erably with regard to form and scope. The business en-
vironment – as the area where the stakeholders of a
business are located – thus seems appropriate for de-
termining the geographic scope of CSR. Although it
will not be possible for a business to identify all of its
stakeholders [42], the identification of the most impor-
tant stakeholders provides businesses with a guideline on
where to become active.
4. Conclusion A Business-Oriented
Definition of CSR
From the examination of the central controversies on
CSR, we can reach the following conclusions. First, CSR
clearly is the business of business. Even when one as-
sumes that businesses cannot or should not take on mor-
ally grounded oblig ations, CSR still remains the business
of business because of a self-serving, elementary neces-
sity. Not to act socially responsible is negatively re-
warded today and no company can afford to incur the
risk of being labeled an irresponsible member of society.
Nevertheless, it can be questioned if the term CSR still
applies to the behavior of a company that only acts so-
cially responsible because of self-interest. The term itself
undoubtedly carries a moral or ethical component, which,
however, is of only limited importance to the practical
outcome of CSR. It does not matter whether a business
supports a social cause because of self-interest or be-
cause of a felt moral obligation as long as the support is
of equal size an d scope. There is on ly on e solid argu ment
for assuming an ethical foundation of CSR. Such an
ethical basis will most likely lead a business to consider
the social interests of its environment to a larger extend
in relation to its own interests when planning CSR-ac-
tivities. Overall, independent from an ethical or a purely
pragmatic perspective, CSR in any case is the business of
Concerning the question whether CSR encompasses
economic and legal oblig ations, it can be conclud ed from
the deliberations above that both are fundamental for
CSR. At first sight, the obligation to make responsible
economic decisions could be regarded as redundant in a
definition of CSR because it is a prerequisite for the
permanent existence of a business in a free-market
economy and thus could be taken for granted. However,
businesses as members of a society also have the eco-
nomic obligation to provide goods and employment
which constitutes a social respon sibility at the same time.
While the negligence of economic responsibilities is
unlikely due to the negative consequences for a business
itself, violations of legal obligations such as tax fraud or
violations of environmental standards might consciously
be made, especially when they are unlikely to be detected
or can be covered up by bribery and corruption. In these
cases, a business can profit, but the overall effects on
society in sum will be negative. Therefore, legal obliga-
tions also must form part of the fundament of CSR.
Despite its legal basis, CSR has to be understood as a
mostly voluntary concept in order to provide an “added
social value”. Mere compliance with legal obligations is
not enough to tackle social problems which cannot be
solved through regulatory measures alone. It is the
strength of CSR that it giv es businesses the possibility to
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Towards a More Business-Oriented Definition of Corporate Social Responsibility:
320 Discussing the Core Controversies of a Well-Established Concept
address such problems in their environment. In contrast
to legal provisions, CSR can be especially effective due
to its voluntary and discretionary component, because
businesses can apply their unique resources to those
problems where they can contribute most effectively.
There- fore, a definition of CSR also has to consider that
CSR works most effectively when businesses are given
the possibility to take into account what kind of social
involvement their own resources allow best.
This also applies to the geographic scope of their so-
cial involvement. Businesses should be expected to prac-
tice social responsibility in the markets where they oper-
ate. This will match the resources that they have avail-
able and also guarantees that they become socially in-
volved in environments which they already know to a
certain degree through their business activities.
In return, businesses can also expect to benefit the
most from CSR-activities in environments where their
suppliers, customers, employees and other stakeholders
are located. It makes no sense to demand that CSR has to
be of altruistic or selfless nature. Only if businesses
benefit themselves from CSR in return, their involv ement
will be permanent and meaningful.
Taking these considerations into account, the follow-
ing business-oriented definition of CSR can be devel-
“Corporate Social Responsibility encompasses the ad-
herence to fundamental economic and legal obligations
which a business encounters in the environments where it
operates as well as the responsibility to voluntarily con-
tribute to the social development of these environments
in an adequate and structured manner that is in accor-
dance with the resources available to each business and
the underlying business strategy.”
This less abstract, geographically more focused and
resource-oriented approach which gives room to a busi-
ness’s individual possibilities and goals is aimed at im-
proving the understanding, acceptance and applicability
of a concept that often has remained too abstract and too
“morally loaded” in theoretical disquisitions. As a con-
sequence, businesses have refrained from considering the
implementation of comprehensive CSR-programs. How-
ever, the willingness to do so is a necessary and decisive
factor in maintaining and improving the so cial welfare of
nations in times when governments are less and less able
to sustain that welfare on their own.
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