One can philosophise about the “raison d’être” and the “société à mission” (social purpose corporation or mission-lead company), these new provisions included in the French PACTE law. But what is the point of this, in a context where law, legal doctrine, jurisprudence, and even practice, are in the making? Through a deliberately incongruous example, we show that philosophical questioning is (obviously) legitimate.

Some philosophical references

The word “philosophy” is not absent from the proceedings of the May 2, 2019 research conference on the société à mission, to which we referred in our previous article (1). Thus, in his interesting contribution, Michel Capron observed that “one could philosophise at length on the ‘raison d’être’ that sociétés à mission should have” (2); Virgile Chassagnon noted the “postures” denouncing the “new catechism” or the “philosophical misguidance” coming from a “reflection on the societal role of the company,” and invoked the pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey (3); On the subject of the distribution of the power of control of the company between shareholders and employees, Olivier Favereau (4) noted that employee representation on boards of directors was a partial response to “a thorny problem of political philosophy: how to reconcile the company that governs and the company that is governed?;” Finally, Charley Hannoun, who concluded the research conference, said this about the idea of raison d’être:

“Doctrinal discourse tends to provide some clarification. Thus it was affirmed that ‘the raison d’être of society refers to its essence, what defines it;’ it questions the ‘why’ of a society, it would come to ‘describe its philosophy, what it aspires to and what it wants to accomplish.’” (5)

Charley Hannoun continued with a development that goes further in its philosophical reference:

“The raison d’être would thus be ‘the moving or efficient cause… It is the principle or movement that gave birth to it.’ Others associate it with the necessary reference to values that refer to concerns of general interest; the raison d’être would be ‘the breath of the enterprise for a better world.’ Finally, some say that the raison d’être is the notion by which the company raises itself to a certain ‘consciousness’ of itself, finds its rationale; it allows the company to be perceived as a ‘being,’ it would refer to a form of legal existentialism.”


A (seemingly) incongruous example

Some of these comments are familiar to those in business ethics in particular who have wondered about the ontological and moral status of the company. However, the reference to Aristotle’s theory of causality, which begins the previous quote, may seem incongruous. This is indeed the case, since “the moving or efficient cause” is one of the four causes identified by Aristotle, and the phrase “It is the principle or movement that gave birth to it” is a direct allusion to his Physics or Metaphysics:

“[There] is the primary source of the change or the staying unchanged: for example, the man who has deliberated is a cause, the father is a cause of the child, and in general that which makes something of that which is made, and that which changes something of that which is changed.” (6)

However, a skeptic might argue that Aristotle’s theory of the four causes has nothing to do with the raison d’être and société à mission that are defined in the French PACTE law. What interest would there be in identifying each of these causes (material, formal, efficient, final) at the different levels of the law (7)? “We already have enough with the legal and practical issues,” the sceptic would continue. And he would not fail to add this remark by Monique Canto-Sperber:

“The Aristotelian notion of cause has little to do with the modern conception of causality or cause-and-effect” (8),

or this one, describing the four causes through the example of the construction of a house:

“The material cause is the bricks, mortar, wood and stones; the formal cause is the arrangement of these components; the moving cause is the builder or the art of building; and the final cause is the purpose of the builder: to provide shelter.” (9)

“So try to apply these types to the raison d’être or to the société à mission, or to the three stages of the PACTE law,” the skeptic would conclude. “And remember that these causes are not independent of each other. Didn’t Aristotle say this:

“Sometimes two things are causes each of the other; thus labour is the cause of strength, and strength of labour; not, however, in the same way, but the one is a cause as the end, and the other as source of change.” (9)

Finally, the same sceptic would point out that the previous assertion that the raison d’être would be, according to Aristotle’s typology, a moving or efficient cause is incorrect. For the raison d’être is the final cause. As for the efficient cause, it is the company that implements its own raison d’être.  

A philosophical answer

But an opponent (probably a philosopher) would have no trouble answering the skeptic. He would first draw his attention to the fact that they themselves applied Aristotle’s theory by qualifying the reason d’être as final cause. This opponent would add that “there is much to be said, and much has been said, about the concept of final cause, in the natural sciences, in the social sciences and in philosophy.” And he would go on to say:

“For example, the relevance of the idea of final cause to explain a phenomenon can be refuted on the grounds that it refers to a purpose, a goal, in short, a desirable state of affairs in the future; but since the future cannot cause the past, the final cause explanation (the so-called ‘teleological’ explanation) is not causal in the modern sense of the word; yet it is the desires and beliefs of individuals that, according to ordinary psychology, ‘cause’ human actions – in the case of the PACTE law, the desire takes the form of a raison d’être, and the belief is that devices such as the société à mission make it possible to achieve it; but this kind of explanation remains intrinsically teleological, which apparently brings us back to the starting point.” (11)

The skeptic will always be able to assert that worldviews, values, commitments, plans or beliefs in the practical consequences of laws have no causal effect because of their teleological nature, but will have some difficulty in making convincing arguments. He will probably try, because he will not want to admit defeat, but in trying, he will be philosophising.

Alain Anquetil

(1) “L’entreprise à mission. Réflexions sur le projet de loi PACTE,” 2 May 2019. (2) “La société à mission contre la RSE?” ibid. In support of his remarks, Michel Capron noted that the raison dsêtre has not yet received a legal definition. However, in its avis sur le projet de loi relatif à la croissance et la transformation des entreprises, delivered on 14 June 2018, the French Conseil d’Etat stated that the raison d’être covers “a design, an ambition, or any other general consideration relating to the affirmation of its values or its long-term concerns.” (3) “La théorie de la firme comme entité fondée sur le pouvoir : quelles missions pour l’entreprise?,” in “L’entreprise à mission,” op. cit. On the “new catechism,” see Jean-Charles Simon, “Loi Pacte : ‘Une entreprise viable est déjà, par essence, utile et bénéfique à la collectivité’,” Le Monde, 15 March 2019. (4) “Entreprise à mission, codétermination et… éco-détermination,” in “L’entreprise à mission,” op. cit. (5) “Synthèse des travaux,” in “L’entreprise à mission,” op. cit. (6) Aristotle, Physics, Books I and II, translated by W. Charlton, Oxford University Press,1992. (7) See our previous article. (8) M. Canto-Sperber, “Aristote,” Philosophie grecque, Paris, PUF, 1997. (9) Ibid. (10) Aristotle, Physics, op. cit. (11) This respondent’s comments are based on Alexander Rosenberg’s words, in Philosophy of social science, Westview Press, 1995. […]  

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