Corporate Social Responsibility and the Ethics of ICT


Byron Kaldis (Greece)


The overall question this paper has in view is whether we should expect that the transformation of organizations due to information technology may turn out to be an enhancement of our ethical power to define corporate responsibility with the required sharpness. In terms of its primary orientation and general methodology, this paper lies within the field of philosophy, though it approaches the matter from within an interdisciplinary perspective.

The question of what constitutes corporate social responsibility is not new nor are the difficulties associated with an attempt at a precise definition unknown to all those discussing business ethics or to those concerned with drawing the outlines of practical policies. It is both a theoretical and a practical issue of topical importance. In fact, the difficulties surrounding the definition of corporate responsibility in general, and its social version in particular, stem from the fact that it is foremost a theoretical problem that is subsequently inherited by the practical sphere. These problems are primarily about the difficulty first, of defining in an unproblematic manner the concept of a corporation as a possible bearer of responsibility without logical contradiction, and second, being able to focus on precisely the locus or loci where such responsibility (once it is logically granted) should be discovered to rest within corporations. Given the legal status of corporations as well as their multileveled inter-bracketed structure, it is no surprise that not only is the concept of ascribing responsibility fraught with logical problems, but also the resulting diffusion of responsibility into various interlocking levels presents some with an argument as to the non-existence of such claims in the first place.

Within modern global conditions of a widespread dissemination of unprecedented means of advanced information and communication technologies, organizations acquire a new ‘persona’ by thus absorbing unique sources of social power. These sources are offered by ICT. Now it is a common place to assert the widening of horizons and the accelerating of the flow of information in a tightly interconnected, networked, world. But this is just the surface. The more important question is whether such an enhanced means of information gathering and communication may allow us to enhance our ethical powers too. This is what this paper shows.

ICT is Janus-faced. Unlike other types of modern technology, ICT is uniquely placed to either obscure sources of ethical misconduct and omissions or, alternatively, ensure the widest publicity possible. It can both help cover and uncover organizational practices in which responsibility is hidden. ICT is thus neither a threat to established social norms nor a puzzle to be understood by them: it is itself a new established social norm.

Given all this, this paper examines (a) how the old problems associated with specifying and ascribing corporate responsibility can be solved by ITC’s inherent Janus-faced properties, and (b) what new problems may be expected. Both (a) and (b) refer to the field of ethics. More specifically, it is argued that as far as (a) is concerned, ICT’s power to solve these old problems referred to above stems from its inherent property: once communication super-highways are established hiding information is also at the same time putting it at high risk of being disclosed. To the extent that there is a symmetrical activity involved, it is an additional argument of this paper that the same sources or possessors of the power to hide information are potentially the sources of disclosure irrespective of intentional motivation. Furthermore, this brings in an additional structural element in the whole analysis to which the discussion of this paper is committed: questions of motivation and intention must be considered as ineffectual in the case of ICT considered as an autonomous system of social norms. This is an important and rather telling twist to old-fashioned ethics now rendered inapplicable: intention drops out of the picture and moral philosophy has to trace a new field of ethical questioning without the familiar concepts of motivation and intention anchoring the discussion. At this point we have reached question (b)¾this showing the interconnectedness of the two questions examined here. The new problems that crop up, given the inability of the concept of intentional motivation to play a crucial role here, are especially poignant (and at the same time quite helpful in re-orienting our problem-solving theoretical apparatus) in the specific case of environmental degradation to which certain corporate activity unavoidably leads, as well as in the case of the wide responsibilities that multinational business is supposed to incur from within a cosmopolitan moral perspective. In the former case, that of the environment, the absence of the essentiality of intentional motivation that ICT affords, allows us to solve problems of ascription of responsibility to corporate actors that would otherwise be impossible, while at the same time it allows the passive recipients of the negative effects of such action, i.e. the environment itself as well as all of its organically diverse inhabitants, to be capable of being the bearers of intrinsic (non-motivationally related) values. In the other case, that of the multinationals’ activities, the conveniences, capabilities and all sorts of electronic advantages of ICT could be seen as, paradoxically, helping us re-evaluate the role of multinationals (and other transnational organizations) as mediators or vehicles of an alternative version of global citizenship. In globalized conditions of diminished state-sovereignty of the old kind, it is not necessarily the case that active citizenship should atrophy too. Other types of transnational organizations may step in forming a field within which such deliberative citizenship (with both national but also increasingly cross-national ends in view) may be re-activated. We can thus see in these two cases what the new ethico-political issues that corporate responsibility is linked with are and how it can be argued that an optimistic outlook may not be incongruous here.