Defining social responsibility: a matter of philosophical urgency for universities

VALLAEYS, François

In this article, François Vallaeys, a philosopher specialising in university social responsibility and adviser to the Regional Observatory on Social Responsibility in Latin America and the Caribbean (ORSALC-UNESCO), reflects on the concept of social responsibility and its application in the university context.

1. Lack of theoretical definition: how can a responsibility be social?

The corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement has developed strongly in recent decades. Quality standards now integrate the social and environmental aspects of production and management processes: there is no longer “quality” without “responsibility”. In this context, universities have also become the focus of attention in recent years. We talk about the sustainable and/or responsible campus, publish institutional reports on university social responsibility (USR), and endeavour to relate academic training and research to social participation that supports a more humane, inclusive and sustainable form of development.

However, the meaning and scope of CSR as a concept have not been explored in any real depth. The resulting ambiguity generates endless confusion and misunderstandings, and gives rise to debate about the aptness of the concept and its unrealistic nature. Could CSR be no more than a rehash of good old corporate philanthropy, intended perhaps to soften the disastrous impact of unregulated global capitalism? Or is it really a new way of rationally managing the economy in the global era of the “risk society” (Beck, 1986)? Should we view this responsibility as an optional commitment undertaken voluntarily, or take steps to make it compulsory? In the academic context, is social responsibility a new model for administrative and academic management or just a new label for the kind of solidarity outreach projects many universities have pursued for years?

We are faced with a multitude of practices, but lack a clear theoretical framework. What does it really mean to be “socially responsible”? Where is the theory of social responsibility (SR) we can refer to? How can “responsibility”—which legally and morally speaking concerns autonomous individuals who can be held accountable for their actions—become something “social”, a responsibility of all and for all? Are we to ask society as a whole to be responsible? Society is not a subject! Or will individuals have to take on the burden of their entire society? They are part of society; they are immersed in it and have no power over it! A social responsibility would be so broad, it is impossible to see how it could ever be applied in practice. It could not possibly serve as a sound basis for compelling citizens and organisations to act in a certain way. At best, it would be little more than an invitation to sign up to a “commitment of solidarity” in tackling social issues (poverty, discrimination, pollution, etc), rather than a “responsibility” as such.[1] In fact, this is the way people spontaneously view SR, despite claims that it is not philanthropy.

None of these philosophical questions have been answered, and this has practical implications: ISO 26000, the social responsibility standard, does not provide for rigorous certification of clearly defined practices. Rather, it is the result of a process of negotiation, conducted over many years and involving 90 countries and all relevant social actors. Organisational social responsibility is still a fuzzy concept that anyone can lay claim to. And because we have no clear idea what responsibility we are talking about, it remains no more than a voluntary commitment that no one can challenge by invoking a clearly defined obligation. So we need to do a bit of philosophy to better understand what we are dealing with. “There is nothing more practical than a good theory,” as Kurt Lewin (1952) said.

2. From responsibility to social responsibility

The first question we need to consider is: what is “responsibility”? Responsibility means being accountable to others for your actions, and being accountable for the future in general. It is an attribute of beings who have the power to make promises and fulfil them, i.e. who are able to “to view the future as the present and anticipate it” (Nietzsche, 1887). This means that humanity has gained a power unknown in the animal world: the ability to escape the immediacy of the present in order to concern itself with, imagine and shape the future—to act to select certain future states of the world and rule out others. This promise of a desired future is never made alone or unilaterally. One cannot make promises in a vacuum or in isolation. We make promises to others, and before others. As a result, they expect something of us and judge us based on what we promised to do: our promises bind us (liability) and oblige us to justify our actions and decisions (accountability).

Some promises are voluntary or optional (signing a contract, swearing eternal love, etc); others are binding (honouring a signed contract, bringing up our children, etc). But all promises imply accountability; they make the promise-giver responsible before others for a mission and liable to sanction in the event of failure or betrayal. Our responsibilities are burdens, but they also give us honour and dignity. All human beings exist in a social space of recognition, in which they are “debtors”, because they are expected to behave in certain ways rather than others. This debt is what makes each of us exist as a person rather than a thing. A human being of whom nothing is expected, one not regarded as a giver of promises, would be a creature stripped of humanity. There is no humanity without responsibility.

However, no promise is certain to be fulfilled; the future offers no guarantees. For one thing, human beings are fragile, hence the need for a threat of sanction to ensure that promises are actually fulfilled. There is no responsibility without a moral and legal order—underpinned by an element of coercion—put in place to provide a certain continuity of general social trust. Moreover, contingencies and unforeseen circumstances often arise. Risks lie in wait. That is why promising and forgiving are so closely related, why humans organise themselves collectively to tame the future (something they could never accomplish as individuals), and why the responsibilities attributed to individuals are limited. One cannot ask more of individuals than is reasonable: to control their acts in a rational way, following pre-established rules and social missions, within the limits of their power and knowledge. If someone did not know better, or could not have acted otherwise, he or she must be forgiven: “It wasn’t their fault.” Fate is forgiving: “Fate implicates no one, responsibility someone” (Ricœur, 1995).

There is no responsibility unless someone is implicated rather than no one. A negligent person whose behaviour has increased the risk of harm can be reproached for having acted irresponsibly, even if it was not done “on purpose”, because the behaviour is the person. In contrast, anything that happens by chance is either no one’s fault or the will of the gods. Each historical period sets limits on the responsibilities it recognises based on its power of control over the future. A boundary is drawn between events for which someone is accountable and occurrences for which no one is to blame—between “who” and “what”. The more limited the culture’s technical power to affect the future, the more important the role played by gods or by chance; the greater the technical power, the greater the degree of human responsibility for what happens.

But now chance is disappearing and human beings are starting to have god-like powers: “we are actually doing what all ages before ours thought to be the exclusive prerogative of divine action” (Arendt, 1958). Science blurs the once clear line between divine and human powers; nature and culture become intertwined. Consider issues such as the nuclear threat, genetic modification of organisms, climate change and instant communication, to name a few. Our local action, now global in its reach, generates processes that affect the entire human and non-human world. We are now part of a “bio-anthropo-sphere” and inhabit our own objects, which have become what Michel Serres calls “world-objects”, i.e. objects with dimensions that are worldwide in scale, and which therefore have global impacts.

There is no way to externalise problems in a globalised world, for the simple reason that there is no “outside” to externalise things to. Everything rebounds and is related to everything else; human action affects natural processes and vice versa. We can no longer put things down to fate; there is no more “no one’s fault”. Even the temperature of the planet has become a political matter, negotiated between heads of state. Everything has become human, all too human, and has an impact on everything else: my refrigerator on the ozone layer, my trousers on the school attendance of children in India, my purchases on endocrine disruption in my children, my vote on the autonomy of my descendants... The actions of each of us, within the narrow sphere of our everyday lives, now have global and systemic implications. It is difficult to control and to bear, hence the need to renegotiate the narrow boundaries of responsibility, which must be adjusted to fit the new worldwide scale. The time has come for a global ethic that does not allow us to remain within the narrow confines of a personal morality that focuses only on each individual’s moral responsibility.

With global power comes global responsibility. It would be unjust, however, to attribute this responsibility to isolated individuals or only to certain people who have great power (heads of state or the executives who run multinationals, for example). To do so would give too much responsibility to those who lack real power, or too much power to those who are not accountable to any countervailing power. We therefore have to share this global responsibility, to democratically establish it as a promise of co-responsibility among all. This gives rise to the notion of “social responsibility”, which calls for the creation of a responsible society in which everyone participates, according to their power (as an executive, entrepreneur, homemaker, consumer, student, professional, etc), in the dignified and sustainable future of humanity, in coordination with all other actors, and under a mutual pledge of responsibility. This collective responsibility can only be established on the basis of a broad political consensus that our world needs to be managed in a rational way—that we must transform the “planetary Titanic” (as Edgar Morin puts it) into something resembling a “global Noah’s Ark”—a sustainable ship.

3. Defining social responsibility: managing impacts and co-responsibility for sustainability

This generous notion of collective, consensual social responsibility is one we can easily grasp, but what might it mean in concrete terms? How is this “social” responsibility to be operationalised in organisations? The ISO 26000 standard provides a definition that merits consideration: social responsibility is responsibility for the social and environmental impacts that result from the decisions and actions of organisations (Vallaeys, 2008b, 2009).

The same definition, expressed in terms of managing impacts, was also recently adopted by the European Commission,[2] which has finally criticised and moved beyond the very poor definition of CSR offered in its Green Paper (2001), in which social responsibility was characterised as simply a voluntary commitment “beyond” any legal obligation—in other words, a pseudo-responsibility: always optional, dependent on the goodwill of organisations, and with no possibility of demanding accountability. If social responsibility were simply a voluntary commitment, it would be better not even to call it a responsibility; responsibility implies a duty of accountability, a duty which others may call on the responsible subject to fulfil (Vallaeys, 2008a). If no one can challenge a promise-giver’s actions based on the promise made, if no one can demand that the promise be fulfilled, then there is no promise and no responsibility; there are only declarations of good intentions, which can easily turn out to be no more than bluster. The two definitions—the one given in ISO 26000 and the one formulated by the European Commission—allow us to identify the key features of “social responsibility”:

  1. It is a responsibility of organisations for the impacts they cause. The negative impacts (social and environmental) of their activities should (ideally) progressively disappear. This is the pledge they are called on to make.
  2. This responsibility requires a form of management that seeks to make society sustainable by eliminating unsustainable negative impacts and promoting sustainable forms of development.
  3. Social responsibility is not beyond and outside the law; it works in coordination with legal obligations. Laws should stipulate the negative impacts that are prohibited and drive socially responsible behaviour on the part of all actors. Social responsibility does not start “beyond the law”, as one often hears; it is rooted in the law and plays a role in ensuring that laws are complied with and improve over time.
  4. Social responsibility requires coordination between the stakeholders who are able to act on the negative impacts diagnosed. They must work together on the basis of co-responsibility to find mutually beneficial solutions (to build value for all social actors and develop win-win solutions, rather than creating value for some at the expense of others).[3]

4. From CSR to OSR, including the sciences and universities

The immediate consequence of this definition is a shift away from the exclusive focus on companies: CSR is dead; long live organisational social responsibility (OSR)! Indeed, social responsibility is not a concern for companies alone; it calls for the building of a society that is responsible for itself, and pursuing this goal requires the collaboration of all social actors, both private and public, profit-driven and not-for profit. This also means (1) that an organisation can never be socially responsible on its own, because the impacts of its actions always spill over and involve other organisations; and (2) that it will never reach a point where it can claim to be fully socially responsible, because to do so it would have to be able to guarantee that its activities cause no negative impact whatsoever, which is strictly speaking impossible.[4]

Two points remain to be clarified: what is “sustainability”, and what does it mean to be responsible for “impacts” rather than acts?

On the first point, to say something is “unsustainable” suggests that it is absurd, unbearable or unjust. An argument can be unsustainable, as can a pain or a political situation. The notion of sustainability forges a link between relevance to the functioning of a system (a sustainable system is able to maintain itself, continue operating, regenerate and repair itself, develop, etc) and the justness of that system (a sustainable system is rational, fair, equitable, legitimate, deserves to exist, etc). The definition of “sustainable development” proposed by Gro Harlem Brundtland in a report published by the World Commission on Environment and Development highlights the aspects of sustainability linked to justice, with respect to both the present-day poor and future generations:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

- the concept of “needs”, in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and

- the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs” (Brundtland Report: Our Common Future, UN, 1987).

An economic and social model in which the welfare of some is guaranteed at the expense of the present and future impoverishment of others is thus “unsustainable” (though unfortunately this does not mean it is any less “durable”). The transformation of the global economy towards a “green economy” (UNEP, 2011) that is more equitable and takes more care of the resilience of the biosphere is, of course, the ultimate goal of OSR. This means much more than just correcting the behaviour of companies: the goal of social responsibility is to transform our mode of existence on the planet. We are responsible for ensuring the dignified and autonomous existence of our fellow human beings and distant descendants (intra- and inter-generational justice). We must therefore ensure the transition from an economy based on the depletion of fossil energy stocks (a system that deprives all future generations of these resources) to one based on the use of renewable energy flows, which by their nature take nothing away from coming generations (using the sun or the wind to produce our electricity today does not stop them from doing same tomorrow, or from pursuing any other course of action). Social responsibility must be grounded in a universal ethical and political duty: that of justice and sustainability (Vallaeys, 2011).

The second point: what does it mean to be responsible for the impacts of acts? This question points to the deeper meaning of this unusual “social” responsibility. Moral and legal responsibilities are concerned with what people do (acts). Social responsibility, in contrast, is concerned with the impact of what we do (impacts)—the collateral effects of actions which by their nature are neither directly perceived nor desired (systemic, cross-system and global effects). Acts can be attributed to a particular agent. Impacts are anonymous; they have a fated quality, even when caused at least in part by human activity (as in the case of global warming, for example). Impacts are not directly attributable to specific agents. If they were, they would be acts. To assign blame for negative impacts is going too far; they are social phenomena that should rightly be attributed to society. So, social responsibility is not personal moral responsibility or legal liability.

The dilemma was already known in the Middle Ages. If I want to be responsible only for my acts, and I wash my hands of all the misfortunes of the world caused by those acts without my wanting it to be so—a comfortable position for me—I am an irresponsible agent. On the other hand, if I also want to be responsible for all the long-term consequences of my acts, the responsibility becomes too great for me to bear as an individual. My unrealistic desire to assume responsibilities I cannot possibly take on once again puts me in the position of being an irresponsible agent. In each case, my desire to act responsibly leads to me being irresponsible. The dilemma can only be resolved on the basis of ethical-political decisions and by establishing extended co-responsibility between social actors with enough knowledge and power to have an influence on the negative impacts identified. This—no more, no less—is social responsibility.

Today, it is science—and the cause-and-effect relationships it reveals—that allows us to update this dilemma, to transform impacts into knowledge and then almost into acts. As soon as we begin to grasp the relationship between a particular social practice and a particular public problem (for example, between CO2 emissions and climate change, the industrial food system and increased cancer rates, economic deregulation and social and fiscal blackmail between states), the impact ceases to be seen as a matter of fate (no one’s fault) and is recognised as a collateral effect generated by a set of social interactions (our responsibility, since it is a “social” effect). The anonymous impact becomes “our” impact. The impact loses its anonymous character and we are obliged to tackle it collectively based on our shared responsibility. It is not yet our act, but neither is it a chance event. To name this paradoxical category of actions that are neither acts nor a matter of fate, we could coin a new term: “impaction”—half impact, half act. In addressing the negative “impactions” of social acts, the duties of justice and sustainability demand that we adopt an approach based on the principles of responsibility and reparation, as well, of course, as enforceability and accountability.

This, in a nutshell, is “social responsibility”. We see that it depends mainly on the advancement of scientific knowledge and its ability to alert us to the negative collateral social effects of our acts. This is why the social responsibility of the sciences—and, of course, university social responsibility and the critical capacity it implies—are so crucial: there is no way we can assume responsibility for impacts that have not been clearly identified. Again, we need to move beyond the narrow focus of CSR and consider the social responsibility of all organisations. We have a duty to reflect on, investigate and transparently disclose all the negative social and environmental impacts of our actions. Scientific, professional and academic actors have a key role to play in this project.

But what is the relationship between the “impactions” we identify and responsibility? There are two possibilities. In some cases, the causal relationship between a practice and a problem may be established directly through a process of investigation. The cause of the problem can then be legally prohibited, because it is now equivalent to an act of negligence (for example, when an industrial process is shown to be harmful to health, though this was not known before). The logic that applies in this case is that of legal responsibility: the appropriate course of action is to prohibit the act and penalise any infringements committed by those responsible under the law. Unfortunately, in reality it is often necessary to spend years fighting business lobbies to get the right law passed and make all social actors accountable for the risk. Any company that claims to be “socially responsible” should never participate in such lobbies. Instead, they should call for the enactment of laws that are as stringent as possible in order to move more quickly towards a truly sustainable economy (while incidentally making life more difficult for their less scrupulous competitors).

In other cases, entire modes of production, ways of life and forms of consumption are at stake and lie behind the systemic problems diagnosed (ecological, economic, cultural, etc). In such cases, the fight against negative impacts is a matter of social responsibility, i.e. co-responsibility publicly advanced by the organisations and activists championing a particular cause, who will use all legitimate means available to control and reorient the social practices identified as problematic (including legal, technical, cultural, educational, ethical, regulatory, economic and political means, as well as the media). Social responsibility for social impacts is not a science but an art: the art of governance, which seeks to orient from a distance systems we know are characterised by a great deal of inertia. It is the art of shared regulation, of quality and responsibility statements (pledges an organisation makes before society as a whole to maintain a high level of quality in its practices), of soft law, though hard law is also used when possible. But it is not only a matter of law. Social responsibility invites us to practise hybrid regulation—public and private at the same time—to use market processes to drive voluntary decisions, i.e. to use spontaneous regulation processes as an institution for self- and co-regulation.

If we could start making a concerted effort to diagnose and address each organisation’s negative impacts, social responsibility initiatives would no doubt be more uncomfortable at first, but the end result would be greater effectiveness and happier final outcomes, because social responsibility is not easy altruistic action aimed at helping the needy outside an organisation; it is the uncomfortable process of reorganising internal routines to support their continuous improvement (elimination of “impactions”). This is the value of a good theory: to avoid wasting time at the practical application stage. The imperatives of social responsibility are very clear: (1) we must diagnose and manage the negative impacts generated by our organisations; (2) we must do so in networks of co-responsibility that link us to all the actors who can help us reduce and eventually eliminate these negative impacts; and (3) our ultimate goal is to work together to build a more just and sustainable society for our fellow human beings and distant descendants. So if it’s clear, let’s do it!

** A Spanish version of this article is available here.


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Morin E. (2004 [2006]) El Método 6: la ética, Madrid, Cátedra.

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Vallaeys F. (2008a) “Formación ética y responsabilidad social universitaria en la era de la globalización”, in: Jongitud Jaqueline (comp.): Ética del desarrollo y Responsabilidad Social en el contexto global, Xalapa, Universidad Veracruzana.

Vallaeys F. (2008b) “Responsabilidad Social Universitaria: una nueva filosofía de gestión ética e inteligente para las universidades”, in: Educación Superior y Sociedad, Year 13, No 2, September 2008, Caracas, UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC–UNESCO).

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[1] The difference is that others can call me and challenge me based on my “responsibility”, even against my wishes, whereas a “commitment” depends entirely on my wishes, and no one can compel me to desire a particular outcome. Therefore, social responsibility should on no account be treated merely in terms of social commitment. This formulation would make it simply a matter of optional goodwill: “if I want, when I want, and as far as I want.”

[2] Communication to the European Parliament of 25 October 2011 (COM [2011] 681 final).

[3] This is captured in the notion of “shared value”: Porter, M. and Kramer, M. “Creating Shared Value: How to Reinvent Capitalism — and Unleash a Wave of Innovation and Growth.” Harvard Business Review, January–February 2011.

[4] This last point calls into question the multitude of “social responsibility awards” that have sprung up in recent decades. Fostering the social responsibility of organisations is a noble aim, but rewarding organisations that still cause many negative impacts sends the wrong signal to the public, namely, that the “socially responsible” label can be pinned on anyone provided they do a few “good deeds”.

About the author

François Vallaeys is a French philosopher who specialises in social responsibility and the ethics of sustainability. He holds a doctoral degree in Philosophy (University of East Paris) and completed the first French philosophy thesis on issues related to social responsibility and its ethical foundations (awarded the 2012 university thesis first prize by the General Council of Val-de-Marne). Vallaeys taught at Pontifical Catholic University of Peru for 15 years and was one of the founders of the university social responsibility (USR) movement in Latin America. He is a researcher and external consultant to the IDB’s Social Capital, Ethics and Development Initiative, and co-author of a handbook on first steps for implementing USR (McGraw Hill, 2009). He has trained teachers in ethics and USR via the OAS Educational Portal of the Americas (2004–2008) and advised numerous Latin American universities. He currently resides in France and acts as an adviser to the Regional Observatory on Social Responsibility in Latin America and the Caribbean (ORSALC–UNESCO).



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