The Power of Human Rights in Economics and Ethics

International Workshop of the Philosophical Research Group on Economics and Ethics

Thursday, November 28, 2013 - 13:00 to Friday, November 29, 2013 - 16:00

The Power of Human Rights in Economics and Ethics

International Workshop of the Philosophical Research Group on Economics and Ethics

Copenhagen + Roskilde, Denmark
28.+ 29.November 2013

The issue of business and human rights entered the global policy agenda in the 1990s, reflecting the dramatic worldwide expansion of the private sector at the time and a corresponding rise in transnational economic activity. These developments heightened social awareness of the impact of economic activity on human rights and also attracted the attention of the United Nations.

The role of human rights in the world of commerce is officially being promoted since 2008 in a framework that consists of three normative imperatives - protect, respect and remedy. The UN Human Rights Council  has specified the role of these normative imperatives as "guiding principles": The first principle is the duty of states to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business enterprises, through appropriate policies, regulation, and adjudication. The second is the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means that business enterprises should act with due diligence to avoid infringing the rights of others and to address negative impacts. The third is the need for greater access by victims to effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial. The (1) duty to protect lies at the very core of the international human rights regime, with states as the principal actors, whereas the principal bearers of (2) the responsibility to respect are corporate actors, this responsibility being the basic expectation society has of business in relation to human rights; and (3) access to remedy is important because even the most concerted efforts cannot prevent all abuse.

According to the UN working group, "the Guiding Principles’ normative contribution lies not in the creation of new international law obligations but in elaborating the implications of existing standards and practices for states and businesses; integrating them within a single, logically coherent and comprehensive template; and identifying where the current regime falls short and how it should be improved (…) While the principles themselves are universally applicable, the means by which they are realized will reflect the fact that we live in a world of 192 United Nations Member States, 80,000 transnational enterprises, 10 times as many subsidiaries and countless millions of national firms, most of which are small and medium-sized enterprises.”

So is all the work towards making human rights relevant for business already done? We think not. From the perspective of ethics, there are theoretically interesting and probably also practically important shortcomings in the framework at its present stage. To highlight some of the points that stand in need of philosophical discussion and elaboration:
(1) The semantics of human rights is barely connected to business ethics discourse and to ethical discourses about the foundations of human rights in human dignity.
(2) The key notion of CSR which, according to the framework, should absorb the normative responsibility to protect human rights lacks conceptual, and specifically: business ethical clarification.
(3) There is a tendency in the framework to collapse the conception of human rights into a narrowly legal conception, omitting the poly-normative character of human rights.
(4) Not enough attention is paid to problems of integrating recognition of human rights into the rationality constraints under which the strategic management of corporate commercial actors have to operate in order to adapt to the forces of competition in globally integrated capitalist markets.
(5) Too little attention is paid to the need to construct plausible narratives that would explain the importance and justify to sceptics from within the entrepreneurial world-view  the possible burdens of making human rights the business of business.

We find it worthwhile to reconsider Milton Friedman's famous dictum that the only responsibility of business is to increase its profits within the limits of the law. To wit: Limits of the law to which today, in its global scope, also belong human rights.

This conference is initiated by the German Philosophical Society's Research Group on Philosophy, Economics and Ethics and will take place at Copenhagen Business School  (day 1) and Roskilde University (day 2), November 29 and 30, 2013. The conference will involve participants and speakers from different countries.

We invite presentations on problems that are clearly focussed on, and analytically connected to, our key question - “are human rights the business of business?” Some especially salient topic areas are the following:
I.    Rationally supportable notions of human dignity and human rights;
      their limits in ethics, specifically in business ethics
II.  Pros and Cons of fitting human rights into Corporate Social Responsibility
III. Human rights between ethics and legal theory
IV. Integration of human rights in the globalization of business markets
V.  Human rights in entrepreneurship and specifically in social entrepreneurship
VI. Comparing the Global Compact Initiative with the Guiding Principles Approach

Papers from the conference will be collected by the organizers in order to propose a volume for the books series Ethical Economy, Springer International Publishers, edited by Jacob Dahl Rendtorff and Alexander Brink.

Registration is necessary: please contact Jacob Dahl Rendtorff, Dr. scient. adm. & ph.d., visiting professor, Copenhagen Business School & Associate professor, Roskilde University.

The full conference program can be downloaded below.

The page was last edited by: Centre for Sustainability // 12/17/2017