Release | Dissecting the empirical-normative divide in business ethics: The contribution of systems theory

Roth S., Valentinov V., and Clausen L. (2020), Dissecting the empirical-normative divide in business ethics: the contribution of systems theorySustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 11 No. 4, pp. 679-694 [SSCI 2.056, CNRS**, FNEGE**, CABS**, VHB**].

Abstract
Purpose: This paper aims to probe the limits of the empirical-normative divide as a conceptual framework in business ethics.

Design/methodology/approach: A systems theory perspective debunks this divide as a false distinction that cannot do justice to the conceptual complexity of the field of corporate social responsibility (CSR) scholarship.

Findings: Drawing on the systems-theoretic ideas of Niklas Luhmann and the “Laws of Form” by George Spencer Brown, the paper shows that the divide may be dissected into a four-cell matrix constituted by two other distinctions-descriptive vs prescriptive and categorical vs hypothetical-the latter of which was seminally suggested by Donaldson and Preston (1995).

Practical implications: The emerging four-cell matrix is shown to centrally embrace the multiplicity of normative, empirical and instrumental approaches to CSR. This multiplicity is exemplified by the application of these approaches to the phenomenon of CSR communication.

Social implications: A more general implication of the proposed argument for the field of business ethics is in tracing the phenomena of moral diversity and moral ambivalence back to the regime of functional differentiation as the distinguishing feature of the modern society. This argument drives home the point that economic operations are as ethical or unethical as political operations, and that both economic and political perspectives on ethical issues are as important or unimportant as are religious, artistic, educational or scientific perspectives.

Originality/value: In contrast to the empirical-normative divide, the perspective is shown to centrally embrace the multiplicity of normative, empirical and instrumental approaches to CSR.

Keywords: Pragmatism; Matrix; Corporate social responsibility; Tetralemma: Separation thesis; Social systems theory.

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