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University of San Francisco Law Review





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Corporate Social Responsibility (“CSR”) has been a topic of discussion within corporate law and policy for over 40 years. CSR, in its broadest sense, explores what obligations a corporation should or can undertake to further the goals of society. Business academics have described four social responsibilities that any company has to society: economic, legal, ethical, and philanthropic. The progressive advocates within the legal academic debate surrounding CSR argue that a corporation should seek to do more than just turn a profit; it should seek to make society “better.” However, by seeking to make society “better,” the corporation begins to act more and more like the state. This raises interesting questions about the role of corporations within society. Ethical and political philosophy can help answer these questions. Much has been written from the Utilitarian and Kantian perspectives of business management, especially from the Law and Economics movement and its critics. In the context of CSR, this viewpoint is often represented by a shareholder primacy norm, in which the allegiance of the corporation is to itself and it shareholders. However, there is a third branch of ethical/political philosophy which argues that social goals are best pursued by discussing the kinds of characteristics people should have, especially the characteristics of rulers. Two of the most important works that follow this approach are Plato’s REPUBLIC and Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE.

Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE provides one paradigm for rulers. For Machiavelli, the chief focus of the ruler is to ensure the survival of the state, which is done best by ensuring his own survival. CSR’s usefulness to a corporate prince is that it allows him to let his corporation appear to be virtuous, but gives him the freedom to act in the best interests of the corporation and himself. In the REPUBLIC, Plato proposed that rulers owe citizens more than survival; they must protect citizens from injustice. The wise ruler, the philosopher king, recognizes that virtue is not only a means of doing good; it is a better means of ensuring survival. Applying this rationale to the corporation as a ruler would seem to support the progressive proponents of CSR. However, applying Plato’s paradigm to the CEO and officers may actually support a shareholder primacy norm if the corporation’s citizens are equated to the shareholders. On the other hand a Machiavellian approach to CSR in particular and business actions in general could strongly support a shareholder primacy viewpoint of business law.

This article seeks to explore the aspects of CSR in light of Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE and Plato’s REPUBLIC. These two philosophers sought to explain and justify how the rulers of large, socially important institutions, i.e. civil government, operate for the good or ill of those who live within them. As corporations are themselves similar mini-states, akin to the city-states and poleis in the times of Machiavelli and Plato, and as some CSR proponents seek to have the corporation take on many tasks that have, in the past, been performed by the state, exploring CSR through these two works provides useful insight. Our topic, however, is not the paths of justice in the ancient or renaissance world, but whether these two philosophers can help us understand how CSR can be applied today; perhaps even to warn us of its abuses or encourage CSR’s healthy application.

Recommended Citation

Colin P. Marks and Paul S. Miller, Plato, THE PRINCE, and Corporate Virtue: Philosophical Approaches to Corporate Social Responsibility, 45 U.S.F. L. Rev. 1 (2010-2011).

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