Reading Milton Friedman liberally: Friedman and the doux commerce thesis

The final of Michaelmas term's R:ETRO - Reputation: Ethics, Trust, and Relationships at Oxford - seminar series.

Rosemarie Monge, Associate Professor, Opus College of Business, University of St. Thomas will be the guest speaker for a seminar being hosted by Alan Morrison, Professor of Law and Finance at Saïd Business School, and Rita Mota, International Research Fellow at Saïd Business School and Assistant Professor at ESADE Business School, as part of the R:ETRO seminar series - Reputation: Ethics, Trust, and Relationships at Oxford.

This manuscript is best understood as an argument with respect to how to read and teach Milton Friedman’s famous 1970 piece, 'The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits'. Namely, my argument is that his thesis can only be fully understood, appreciated, and adequately responded to if two conditions are fulfilled. The first is the more minor point that one ought to read him in a generous or openhanded fashion, according to the principle of charity. The second is that to do so, one ought to read him against the backdrop of what used to be referred to as a liberal education, with an emphasis on the doux commerce thesis. In other words, we need to read him liberally in two senses of the word. 

Reading and teaching him in this way does not necessitate that the reader go on to endorse his account of managerial responsibility. It does, however, help the reader to better understand the stakes in the argument and to appreciate its force. It also sheds light on some of the more puzzling aspects of his piece. One such puzzle is the asymmetry between the allowance he gives for corporate executives to engage in corporate social responsibility with a view to profits, and the denial of a similar permission for other stakeholders (such as customers, employees, and even shareholders) to engage in advocacy efforts for corporate social responsibility efforts.

I argue that, especially for those individuals who are already convinced by the goodness or rightness of CSR when first encountering Friedman, understanding this asymmetry and appreciating the force of Friedman’s argument requires going beyond him to Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and others who have grappled with the question of the role of commerce in society. Doing not only helps business ethics students and advocates of corporate social responsibility appreciate the strength of his argument, it also points to avenues for challenging Friedman that have been underexplored in business ethics.