The doctrine of social responsibility holds that individuals and organizations should advance the interests of society at large. They can do this by abstaining from harmful actions and by performing socially beneficial acts. Although the doctrine of social responsibility applies to people and organizations, much of the discussion focuses on business and the extent to which social responsibility should influence business decisions.
The American Society for Quality (ASQ), which advocates socially responsible actions by corporations, defines social responsibility as people and organizations conducting business ethically and with sensitivity toward social, cultural, environmental and economic concerns. In so doing, individuals, businesses and other organizations can positively impact society at large. ASQ contends that good business decisions extend beyond the short-term bottom line and consider the long-term impacts of decisions on people, customers and communities.
Management scholar Peter Drucker (1909-2005) once wrote that there is no conflict between corporate profit and social responsibility. Drucker believed the first social responsibility of business is to earn a profit because without it no other social responsibilities can be exercised. He also contended that socially responsible actions by business lead to benefits beyond good public relations. Dr. William Cohen, who studied under Drucker, cites retail giant Sears as an example. Under the leadership of Julius Rosenwald, who became president of the company in 1895, Sears' sales soared from $750,000 to more than $50 million. Rosenwald donated millions to colleges, agriculture and endowed the Tuskegee Institute. These actions not only helped people, Cohen wrote, but also expanded Sears' customer base.
ASQ identifies other benefits of social responsibility among business. These include improving the public's trust in corporations, which has declined in the wake of corporate scandals; building consumer confidence; and demonstrating the value of long-term sustainability over short-term profits. ASQ links quality business management and operations with social responsibility to illustrate its view that profitability and social responsibility are not contradictory.
Not everyone shares the views of Drucker or ASQ regarding social responsibility. The late Milton Friedman, a Nobel laureate in economics, dismissed much of the doctrine of social responsibility in a 1970 essay in The New York Times. Friedman wrote that only people have responsibilities and that the only social responsibility of business is to increase profit for its shareholders.