This paper aims to explore the general question: Is corporate social responsibility (CSR) a business duty, as many contend, or really just a benign delusion?
To provide an answer to the question the CSR literature is examined from both theoretical and practical perspectives. This paper offers a broad general review and practical assessment of contemporary thinking about CSR. It investigates three precise questions. These are: who pays for CSR, who makes decisions about CSR, and what are the long‐term, potential implications of CSR?
The three most relevant theoretical frameworks are each found wanting. In particular, none offers managers clear operational guidance. So, although CSR is recognised as morally attractive, it is judged unhelpful to force it on business through regulatory or legislative means. From the questions posed it is revealed that answers to the first two questions are quite clear. The answer to the third is conjecture. The paper finds that none of these questions has yet received adequate attention. The paper offers three main findings: that CSR has costs which may go unrecognised; that it draws managers into decisions which may lie outside their competence; and, if it were widely adopted on a major scale, CSR would have implications for government and civil society which we have scarcely begun to think about.
At the same time, the proven capacity of business to contribute to society through discretionary expenditure is huge. The paper therefore concludes that it is sensible to encourage business to do more. It follows that CSR should be popularised but not imposed.
The paper provides useful information on CSR as a business duty.
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