The failure of pragmatism- CSR and the right to judge @Rana Plaza management

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Henk van Luijk Lezing in Nyenrode Business University, where Prof E. Freeman have an inspiring lecture on Business Ethics for a captivated audience of policymakers, researchers and business consultants.

Every business starts as an idea you want to share with the world, a service you want to bring.

First what I liked about Freeman’s lecture: he made a point to emphasize that no one starts a business to make a profit: people start a business because they have an idea that they want to share with the world. If they wanted to make a profit, they would have gotten a job and get paid. Profit is the condition for any business to be, not the purpose, as making red blood cells is a condition for living, not the purpose.

Pragmatism and the ‘old’ three  ways of thinking in business ethics.

In the past 30 years or so, business ethics in universities around the world were concerned with the three major ethical systems: Utilitarianism, principle based ethics, and Kantian-ism. Since a few years Prof Freeman did not teach from these three points of view, but held a pragmatic view before the students. Here are some of his questions to the students and the companies he met:

1. What is the story behind this dilemma? Can you get in the story?

2. What do you feel with this story? What can we converse about?

It gives a very thorough and open-minded way of thinking to consider complex problems in the field of CSR. Think about supply chain management, child labor, each one of the three older systems cannot simply ‘solve’ this problem, you need to get inside the complex situation and start a conversation, a road so to speak, where the journey in thinking  is more important than the outcome. Conversation is more important than judgement for pragmatists.

I truly believe that having an open mind, willing to go on a journey with a company to find a way out, using narrative language, is a plausible method to gain knowledge and maybe even find a good way to implement a business code, when you are dealing with sensible responsible business leaders. But not all are, if you look at the outcome of some of their actions.

Let’s us take for example the management of the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I bet they would love to start a open minded conversation after what happened there, instead of a judgement call. But luckily for the family of the victims, the Bangladesh government came to a judgement first, and arrested the management. Maybe there will be a form of conversation later on, in court….

Pragmatism can only be used when you have made (sometimes even without the companies consent!) a certain judgement at first to see  if this business problem is

A A case for a conversation (It’s too complex to tell  right away what is right and wrong)


B That somebody has to call the company to a halt, be it to their face of through a whistle blowers office, headquarters, or the building inspectors.

Art in the fields of Nyenrode 2015
Art in the fields of Nyenrode 2015