Theory to Practice

Beyond good and evil: supererogation and CSR policies

The context

Human actions can be divided into three categories: the ones that we have an obligation to perform (duties), the ones we have an obligation to omit (wrongdoing), and those which are morally neutral. More and more often, the way that companies act toward their stakeholders (customers, employees, local communities, the environment and so forth) seem to run counter to their economic interests. This is referred to as supererogation: ethically praiseworthy actions that are not ethically required, actions that go above and beyond the call of duty, that are more than what we would expect from businesses. To explore this topic, we conducted a recent study published here. Our findings suggest that these voluntary actions are exactly what Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is all about. By this we don’t mean a normal response to external pressures, but rather an innovative form of corporate engagement in questions that relate to society and the environment.

The study

To more accurately conceptualize corporate supererogation, we need to draw a distinction between unqualified and qualified actions. The former refers to deeds that are freely done with no moral obligation attached; the value of these actions lies in sacrificing personal good for the good of others. Qualified actions, instead, are considered moral obligations as a rule, but they are performed in special circumstances in which businesses would normally be exempt. So the value of qualified supererogation lies in the choice of the company to act despite the fact that the circumstances would give it permission not to.

Unqualified supererogation stems from personal choices that do not depend on external demands; they are expressions of good will, generosity, and altruistic intensions. The actions in question are neither obligatory nor prohibited, and warrant neither criticism nor sanction if omitted. Excluded from this list are legal or ethical obligations, or any type of strategic business move that aims to attain some immediate or long-term benefit. Unqualified supererogation also includes moral heroism (putting a firm’s financial viability on the line to do the right thing from a moral standpoint, such as the voluntary recall of Tylenol by Johnson & Johnson in 1982), volunteerism (like when The Home Depot provided substantial aid to the communities hit by Hurricane Katrina, and paid the price by taking economic losses), and corporate charity initiatives. These examples suggest that unqualified supererogation is an extraordinary initiative that goes beyond CSR-related activities.

Qualified supererogation, on the other hand, consists of actions in which the company exercises moral good when there are valid reasons not to do so (in particular economic reasons). Such supererogation generates noteworthy benefits to others (i.e. other than shareholders). Instead the company incurs costs or losses in revenues, with no guarantee of receiving any benefit in exchange, even in the long term. In our study we analyzed five exemplary cases: Coop, Patagonia, REI, General Motors and Interface.

In 2010 Coop, Italy’s largest retail chain, launched a multi-media campaign urging customers to buy less bottled water; this in a country with the highest consumption pro-capita of bottled water in Europe, second in the world only to Mexico. As another example, during Black Friday 2011 Patagonia launched its famous “Buy Less” campaign. A full-page ad was published in the New York Times next to an image of one of the company’s best-selling items, with the words: “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” The message to readers: cut down on your consumption to protect the planet. Another clothing retailer, the Seattle-based REI, made the unprecedented decision to close all its 149 stores on Thanksgiving Day, missing out on the biggest shopping weekend of the year. And then there’s General Motors, which in 2015 offered its 48,000 employees an unexpected bonus: $9,000 in profit sharing, far more than the company was contractually obliged to pay. And last, we have Interface, a producer of modular carpet, which became famous for its “Climate Take Back” campaign. The aim was to shift attention from avoiding negative impact on the climate (a mission already achieved by the company with its Mission Zero® program), to providing a positive contribution, through voluntary atmospheric decarbonization policies. All these examples share certain common characteristics: not only philanthropic policies but supererogation implemented by companies that want to play a more active role in society, even if it means sacrificing long-term economic benefits. These actions can be considered CSR in the broadest sense of the term.

Conclusions and takeaways

Our study recognizes the fundamental conception of supererogation in the CSR sphere. Compliance with the law, respect for ethics, and constructive responses to the legitimate demands of stakeholders are indispensable even when managers, when free to make their own choices, would rather act differently. At times, the financial advantages generated for the company by a given initiative compensate for any uncertainty, making the investment a lucrative one. These advantages erase the moral merit of the case, but may add to the number of companies that move in the direction of socially advantageous decisions.

The tension between moral reasons and utilitarian reasons can motivate companies to find inspired solutions, creating value in new ways. What’s more, supererogation can activate learning processes through which companies come to understand that certain initiatives (such as paying bonuses that exceed contract obligations or proactively tackling climate change) are perfectly legitimate even in the business world. Supererogatory actions are a sign of a company’s ethical values, and as such build trust with stakeholders, the very resource that the company needs to create value over time.

Last of all, supererogation responds to a growing public demand that businesses identify the ultimate objectives of their policies and build strategic lines of action according to a relational perspective. From this viewpoint, supererogators are capable of creating value thanks to a ‘learning by doing’ process based on an ongoing dialogue with those outside of the company, a process that leads to more responsible, attentive, and sustainable policies.