Research article — When Is CEO Activism Conducive to the Democratic Process?
Article by Aurélien Feix and Georg Wernicke
Publised in Journal of Business Ethics
Activism undertaken by CEOs has been on the rise in recent years. Research on this practice has been primarily concerned with determining the conditions under which a CEO’s public statements on sociopolitical issues are beneficial or detrimental to her firm’s business performance.
We complement this instrumental perspective on CEO activism with an ethical investigation of the implications of CEO activism for the democratic process. Drawing on political philosophy, we show that the answer to the question of whether CEO activism is conducive to the democratic process depends on the view of democracy that is adopted.
From the perspective of liberalism, the sole requirement that an instance of CEO activism must fulfill is that it is lawful, provided that the applicable law sufficiently protects people’s essential rights. However, from the viewpoint of republicanism, this is not a sufficient condition. Besides being law-abiding, CEOs should be “civic-minded” when intervening in public debates, i.e., concerned with the quality and fairness with which those debates are conducted. Based on the literature on republicanism, we suggest four possible criteria that civic-minded CEOs can apply to gauge the democratic conduciveness of a possible public intervention: added insight, timeliness, constructiveness, and transparency.
Our article complements the predominantly instrumentally oriented literature on CEO activism and contributes, more broadly, to the literature that explores the normative dimensions of corporate political involvement, as well as to a growing strand of research that draws on philosophical theory to inform business leaders’ ethical decision-making.