In Search of a Common Ethical Ground: Corporate Environmental Responsibility from the Perspective of Christian Environmental Stewardship

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  • ABSTRACT. In recent years, corporate environ-mental policies have become urgently needed,demanded by influential environmentalist groups andlaunched by an increasing number of companies.Those demands and efforts, however, often lack anethical underpinning. This paper deals with somebasic ethical issues and outlines three perspectives forfurther investigation: (1) How can we take intoaccount ethical pluralism that characterizes mostcontemporary societies?; (2) What is the content ofenvironmental ethics viewed from a Christian per-spective, taken as an example of various existentdoctrines in the pluralistic world?; and (3) Whatrelevance may this Christian environmental steward-ship have for the understanding of corporate envi-ronmental responsibility?

    The topics suggested by this title cover a broadfield of complex and controversial issues thatcannot be discussed adequately in a few pages.Therefore, what I present here is no more than

    a theoretical framework, one that I hope willhelp clarify some central issues in the debate onenvironmental responsibility. My approach is twotiered: First, I shall make some brief generalremarks about the circumstances which everyreligious, philosophical and moral doctrine beit Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, atheist orother faces in most contemporary societies; andsecond, I shall use these general remarks in orderto make more comprehensible the meaning ofChristian environmental stewardship and itsrelevance to corporate environmental responsi-bility.

    Searching for a common ethical groundin a pluralistic society

    In our pluralistic societies, there is no uncon-tested common ethical ground in general and noundisputed conception of environmental respon-sibility in particular.1 Of course, one may believe as many do that we need no such commonground or that, even if we needed it, it wouldbe impossible to reach. Although I do not denythat there are numerous and extremely difficultproblems hindering such a search, I think itwould be too dogmatic to claim that searchingfor this common ground must fail. Moreover,there is, in my view, an urgent need for suchan undertaking because without it, the conse-quences of not finding a common ethical groundwould be disastrous: our difficulties wouldbecome even greater, and would only besolved by force and power. I share Hans Kngsconviction2 that the one world in which we live

    In Search of a Common Ethical Ground:Corporate Environmental Responsibilityfrom the Perspective of ChristianEnvironmental Stewardship

    Georges Enderle

    Journal of Business Ethics 16: 173181, 1997. 1997 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

    Georges Enderle is Arthur & Mary ONeil Professor ofInternational Business Ethics in the College of BusinessAdministration at the University of Notre Dame,Indiana. His research interests focus on understandingthe ethical challenges of international business for cor-porate decision making. He is author, editor and coeditorof eight books, including HandlungsorientierteWirtschaftsethik, Grundlagen und Anwendungen[Action-oriented Business Ethics, Foundations andApplications], Bern 1993, and Lexikon derWirtschaftsethik [Encyclopedia of Business Ethics](coeditor), Freiburg 1993. He is co-founder of theEuropean Business Ethics Network and serves on theBoard of Advisors of several academic journals.

  • has a chance of survival only if there is no longerany room in it for spheres of differing, contra-dictory and even antagonistic ethics. This oneworld needs one basic ethic. This one worldsociety certainly does not need a unitary religionand a unitary ideology, but it does need somenorms, values, ideals and goals to bring ittogether and to be binding on it. (Kng, 1991,p. xvi)

    Taking the need for a common ethical groundfor granted, we are faced with the fundamentalquestion of its contents, recognizing that oursocieties are deeply pluralistic. This seems to meso important that we can hardly take it moreseriously. First, within many religious and philo-sophical traditions, there seems to be no uniformand generally accepted doctrine about environ-mental responsibility. And even if it is possibleto delineate certain basic features of, for instance,a Christian (or another) doctrine and I thinkit is possible this does not mean that the vastmajority of its adherents, or most of its leaders,effectively live up to such a doctrine. Second, inthe world today, there exist many other doctrinesand beliefs about environmental responsibility.Therefore, each particular view, be it Christianor else, has to meet the challenge of defining itsplace and role within a pluralistic world and ofmaking a positive contribution to a world-wideethic without imposing its own view upon others.

    With regard to our common environmentalresponsibility, I should like to make three generalremarks that will help to ground the followingconsiderations.

    The idea of an overlapping consensus

    According to John Rawls (1993, pp. 3638),democratic societies are characterized by

    the fact of reasonable pluralism, i.e., by theirpermanent condition of opposing religious, philo-sophical and moral doctrines. Even if society isfree, that is, even if the basic rights and libertiesof free institutions are guaranteed, this pluralismwill not pass away (for it is part of the burdens ofjudgment; Rawls, 1993, pp. 5458).

    That is why it is usually very difficult or even

    impossible to achieve a fundamental consensuson many ethical issues, including environmentalones, in pluralistic societies. Of course, a singlecomprehensive doctrine would save us from thesedifficulties. Yet it does not exist and it cannotbe introduced unless the state uses force toimpose such a doctrine and repress all others. ForRawls, this is the fact of oppression: If wethink of political society as a community unitedin affirming one and the same comprehensivedoctrine, then the oppressive use of state poweris necessary for political community. (Rawls,1993, p. 37) To illustrate these societal circum-stances, which every belief and doctrine aboutenvironmental responsibility is faced with, thefollowing diagram, titled The Idea of anOverlapping Consensus (Fig. 1), might behelpful.

    Within this framework, the fundamentalproblem is how reconciliation is possible. Howcan we, on the one hand, affirm the pluralismof rather comprehensive conceptions of envi-ronmental ethics (A, B, C, D; e.g., Christian,Buddhist, atheist, etc.) and, on the other hand,find a common, more restricted conception ofenvironmental responsibility (an overlappingarea)? The latter would regulate the way howhumans relate to the environments, while beingsupported by the different conceptions ofenvironmental ethics.

    Such an overlapping consensus approach(Rawls, 1993, pp. 133172) is, in my view, theonly solution. That means, no particular reli-gious, philosophical or moral doctrine can claimthat only its moral values and norms are relevantand binding. This also applies to environmentalmatters. A common minimum consensus is the onlyethical solid basis attainable for meeting theenvironmental challenge. This consensus isabout a freestanding view that is presentedindependently of any particular comprehensivedoctrine but which may be derived from orrelated to several such doctrines and gain addi-tional support; in other words, the commonminimum consensus should find maximumsupport. Otherwise, it would remain alien to therespective doctrines. As long as the elementsconstituting the overlapping conception ofenvironmental responsibility are not incorporated

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  • into, and accepted by, each doctrine, the con-sensus would remain unstable.

    In conclusion, with regard to environmentalresponsibility the common ground valid forChristians (or adherents of other doctrines) is notidentical with the common ground valid forall citizens. Yet the Christian view should supportthe common ground for all, which, in turn,should be supported by other views ( Jewish,Islamic, Confucian, etc.) as well.

    Complementary, not substitutive, types of commitment based on the common ground

    If often occurs that various types of commitmentsare presented as if they would exclude each other.Some require radical structural changes, whereasothers insist that only a totally new life-style willsave the planet from imminent environmentalcatastrophy. In my opinion, there is no either/orsituation; both personal renewal and changes ofstructures are urgently needed in order to assumethe present environmental responsibility. Theindividual ethical and the social ethical approachare two sides of the same coin of this commit-ment.3 We should not play them off against eachother.

    Three levels of human action

    We can distinguish at least three qualitativelydifferent levels, each with its specific goals, inter-ests and motivations: the micro-, meso- andmacro-level (see Goodpaster, 1992; Enderle,1993 and 1993a). At each level, the fact ofpluralism may exist, and environmental respon-sibility has to be assumed.

    At the micro-level we ask what the individualperson as employee or employer, colleague ormanager, consumer, supplier, investor, etc. does, can do and ought to do in order to perceiveand assume his or her ethical responsibility. Atstake here is the decision-making and consciousacting of the individual in his or her particularspace of freedom, which, of course, is limitedby numerous constraints.

    At the meso-level, we focus on economicorganizations, foremost on companies, but notforgetting trade unions, consumer organizations,professional associations, etc. Although theseorganizations are ultimately composed of indi-viduals, their conduct cannot be described solelyby the actions of its individual members. Hencethere is some type of collective action. Organ-izations have their own goals, interests andpatterns of behavior, and may develop a certain

    Environmental Responsibility and Christianity 175

    Fig. 1. The idea of an overlapping consensus.

  • autonomy that may contradict the interests ofindividuals. For a business ethics perspective, thisimplies that organizations, in particular com-panies, have to be considered as a kind of moralagents.

    Essentially different issues are at stake at themacro-level. Here we look at the economic systemas such, the shaping of the overall economicconditions for business, economic, financial andsocial policies, international economic relations,etc.

    To illustrate this three-level-conception, let ustake the example of the ecological challenge:The question of what environmental policycorporations should pursue differs not only fromthe question of what ecological behavior thesingle consumer should be committed to, butfrom the question of what environmental policythe government should adopt as well.

    Although the recognition of at least threedistinct levels micro, meso, macro is notparticularly original, it is of paramount impor-tance. The crucial point is that these three levelsare not to be confused and none of them mustbe reduced to one of the others. Nevertheless,we often tend to ignore one of those levels whenwe discuss only individuals and society (as awhole), when we focus exclusively on thetensions between individuals and companies, orwhen we simply forget the individuals, althoughthey might exert considerable influence onorganizations and systems. In spite of multipleand mutual relations that exist between the levels,none of them is able to determine the other(s)entirely. Even if at one level all problems couldbe resolved completely, at the other levels theproblems would not be resolved automatically.For instance, even if the economic system werejust and impeccable, corporate ethics and respon-sible personal action still would be necessary.

    After these brief general remarks I now turnto the main topic. On the one hand, the con-ception of Christian environmental steward-ship, while being just one conception amongother Christian and non-Christian conceptionsof environmental responsibility, pertains andpermeates all levels of human agency. On theother hand, I shall concentrate now on its rele-vance to corporate environmental responsibility

    (hence on the meso-level). Therefore, I am goingto address the following questions:

    What does the conception of Christianenvironmental stewardship involve?

    What does it contribute to a better under-standing of the common ground ofenvironmental responsibility, valid for allhuman beings?

    What is the relevance of these answers tocorporate environmental responsibility?

    The conception of christian environmental stewardship

    Before describing the relatively modern concep-tion of Christian environmental stewardship,I want to recall briefly the fundamental themesof the Judeo-Christian tradition which confessesthat the world is Gods creation.4 This means: Theworld is purposeful (neither random nor value-neutral); contingent (wholly dependent upon itsCreator), yet distinct from God; in essence,good; made out of nothing; reflecting divinecommitment. The belief in creation is confes-sional, not based upon scientific observation orphilosophical speculation.

    Several problems have been associated with thisdoctrine: biblical literalism (creationism); creationunderstood as an event only in the past ratherthan as an ongoing process; salvation interpretedas salvation from the world.

    A relatively new problem is anthropocentrism.That is, by concentrating so wholeheartedlyupon the well-being of the human creature, it hasfostered a civilization whose manifold crisis(C. F. von Weizscker), in part, is its apparentlyinevitable propensity (to befoul and . . .) tobefoul and destroy the natural environment.Many contemporary environmentalists (withhistorian Lynn White, Jr) have accused theJudeo-Christian tradition of containing thehistorical roots of our ecological crisis. Whilesuch an explanation as an historical analysisappears to be simplistic, it cannot be taken lightlybe contemporary Christians. Among them, thereis already a growing criticism, focusing onvarious aspects. Human stewardship of naturewas interpreted as mans mastery and Gods

    176 Georges Enderle

  • lordship as if the language of stewardship wasalmost synonymous with that of mastery. Thedoctrine of human sin seldom, if ever, criticallyaddressed its possible over-emphasis upon thehuman creature; or, even more to the point, itrarely explored the Judeo-Christian tradition forits positive and independent valuation of extra-human creation. Moreover, the secular mentality,embraced by certain Christians, would notoppose the technological society vigorouslyenough.

    As a consequence of the increasing awarenessof these problems, the following theologicalperspectives should be developed:

    That creation should be considered for itsown sake and not only as the setting for thehuman drama.

    From the biblical and traditional bases of thefaith, a theology of nature should beworked out which can function both criti-cally as a prophetic critique of the rampanttechnocratic manipulation and rape of thenatural order and as a source...


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