Kristian Hoyer Toft, Corporate Responsibility and Political Philosophy

In: Journal of Moral Philosophy
David C. ScottDepartment of Philosophy, Bellarmine University, Louisville, ky, United States,

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Kristian Hoyer Toft, Corporate Responsibility and Political Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2020), 182 pages. isbn: 9781138065543 (hbk.). Hardback/eBook: $160.00/$44.05.

This an ambitious book, covering an impressive range of conversations about the moral agency and social responsibility of corporations. Toft aptly observes that there has been a dearth of cross-fertilization between political philosophers and business ethicists about corporate social responsibility (csr), notwithstanding the myriad global injustices (e.g., climate change, online vulnerability, and sweatshops) that appear unresolvable without corporate assistance. Thus, the book’s aim is three-fold: “first, to give an overview of how business firms fit into the broader landscape of political philosophy; second, to explore the prospect of a coherent philosophical account of corporate social responsibility; and third, to defend a particular conception of the business firm and corporate social responsibility – the social liberal corporation” (p. 1). The social liberal corporation (slc) is not formally defined, but some characteristics are offered throughout. Toft makes clear that it has positive duties to ameliorate public harms, even those it does not directly cause (but that its supply chain did), and otherwise contribute to a socioeconomic culture marked by deliberative democracy.

Toft is largely successful in his first two aims. He takes us on a well-researched, wide-ranging, and interdisciplinary tour of historical and contemporary conversations about the corporation’s sociopolitical status, how we might make sense of its moral agency (and hence, its responsibility), and how the slc might resolve contemporary global injustices. He also makes a convincing case that political philosophers should more frequently reflect on the corporation as a political actor. Regarding the third aim (the positive defense of the slc), I found the book somewhat less persuasive, due to brevity in important parts of Toft’s argument and vagueness about the kind of defense he intends. Nonetheless, this book contributes significantly to the project of bridging the disciplinary divide between political philosophers and business ethicists.

The book’s three-part structure is clear and intuitive. Part i, which is comprised of three chapters, traces discussions of the corporation’s social role through modern and contemporary political philosophy, concluding with an introduction to recent conversations about corporate moral agency. In Chapter 1, Toft adeptly demonstrates, contrary to the popular understanding of each thinker, that Smith, Hegel, and Marx each gave “much thought to how corporations can support the general good of society as well as how they can be obstructive” (p. 31). Notwithstanding their limited focus on the corporation itself, Toft is persuasive in roughly locating contemporary theories of the corporation’s social role in each of them: libertarianism (Smith), social liberalism (Hegel), and socialism (Marx). In Chapter 2, Toft criticizes Rawls and Habermas for their relegation of the market (and hence, the corporation) to the private sphere, as their doing so excludes the possibility of a political theory, and normative assessment, of the corporation. Toft argues that there are nonetheless resources within their approaches, Habermas especially, to construct just such a theory; indeed, an openness to deliberative democracy becomes a key feature of the slc that is sketched in the second half of the book. Finally, given his critique of the lack of agency accorded to the corporation in 20th century liberalism – which examines the corporation from the “outside” – Chapter 3 provides an “inward” look at theories of corporate moral agency, focusing on the conversation that has taken shape around Christian List and Phillip Pettit’s work on group agents (see Group Agency (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)).

One point of unclarity arises in Chapter 2. Toft generally represents Rawls and Habermas fairly, but remains unclear about why Rawls’s exclusion of the corporation from the basic structure forecloses political discussion of csr. His analysis mostly cites A Theory of Justice, with limited discussion of Rawls’s later work, including the “institutional turn” (see p. 42) in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. But there is, in fact, much emphasis in Political Liberalism (see especially Lecture vii, §§ 3–5) on the importance of nonpublic associations in shaping the public, political culture and the necessity of “background justice,” including language that opens the door for csr. Thus, more clarity is needed to prove Toft’s claim that “the door is irreversibly closed to corporations” (p. 40) in Political Liberalism based on a brief mention of that book’s broad strokes. This point is not at all harmful to the heart of the project, however, as the latter part of Chapter 2 focuses on elements in Rawls (and Habermas) that can contribute to a theory of csr.

Part ii – which is comprised of 5 chapters – provides an overview of five corresponding conceptions of corporate responsibility: Aristotelian Organizations (Chapter 4, which Toft associates with virtue ethics, conservatism, and communitarianism), Market Liberalism (Chapter 5, which discusses a range of views from Milton Friedman’s rejection of csr to Joseph Heath’s “market failures approach,” which embraces it), Republicanism and Corporate Citizenship Theory (Chapter 6), Political csr (Chapter 7), and Critical Theory (Chapter 8). Corporate Citizenship Theory and Political csr are described as “aspects” of the slc because there is no separate part of the book in which Toft outlines and defends his own conception. Instead, at the end of Chapter 7, which is perhaps the most important chapter of the book, Toft emphasizes that the slc is largely grounded in his overview of these two aspects. In each chapter of Part ii, Toft describes the social role that one or more variants of that theory imagines for the corporation before: (1) describing elements of that view that are amenable to csr, and (2) raising challenges to locating a workable theory of csr within that view.

An important methodological point appears at the end in Chapter 7 (see pp. 124–26), in which Toft reiterates that the argument of the book is built on assumptions underlying csr. His positive argument is therefore best read as a coherentist or pragmatic one. As I understand it, the slc is defended insofar as it coheres with the concept of csr, or is best situated to advance csr-related social outcomes that we more-or-less likeminded readers agree are morally important (much as Rawls proceeds in Political Liberalism from our considered convictions). Thus, the reader should not expect to find a detailed moral argument in favor of the slc (e.g., on consequentialist grounds) that would be persuasive to the market liberal or critical theorist, as Toft is clear that he doesn’t offer such an argument.

This is a sensible approach, but the book might not convincingly make this pragmatic case to an unsympathetic reader. Toft’s critical assessment of each theory of the corporation, including those theories that are constitutive of the slc (in Chapters 6 and 7), is quite brief. Though his even-handedness is an admirable quality of the book, I wasn’t left with an impression of why the slc corporation is better positioned to respond to the call for csr than, say, the market failures approach. At the beginning of Part iii, however, this is precisely what Toft claims to have demonstrated (see p. 141). This omission doesn’t at all detract from the book’s many other accomplishments. Part ii does much important work in that it both demonstrates how each of the theories discussed are more amenable to csr than one might think and raises probing, critical questions that proponents of each view must answer if they want their view to contribute to csr.

Finally, in Part iii, which is comprised of three chapters, Toft aims to clarify how the social liberal corporation ought to respond to “contemporary issues of the supply chain [Chapter 9], financial and digital firms [Chapter 10], as well as climate change [Chapter 11]” (p. 141). These chapters are brief (despite the enormity of the subject matter), as the entire section, excluding the conclusion, spans just 19 pages. For this reason, Part iii does not shed much further light on the distinct features of the slc or why it is best positioned to respond to these global problems, which might have been helpful insofar as Toft hopes to provide a more robust defense (and understanding) of the slc. Each chapter, especially Chapter 9, does include issue-specific suggestions about the ways in which corporations can play a political role where the state is “weakened, unwilling, or absent in situations where globalization has disempowered the nation state” (p. 162), as is arguably the case regarding the issues Part iii examines. Toft is candid about limits on the corporation’s ability to assume this role, which requires a political and economic culture that is somewhat willing to be changed in the democratic direction the slc intends. Each chapter also poses some originally formulated and intriguing questions that any theory of csr must face in responding to these pressing global challenges, which provides a fitting launching point for further research.

Notwithstanding some argumentative threads that require clarification and elaboration, this is book is an incredibly valuable and timely tool for students and researchers in business ethics, political philosophy, and group epistemology. I strongly recommend it, especially for those interested in connecting parallel conversations between these disciplines and the important questions that they might better explore in tandem.

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