Natural law, human rights and corporate
reputational capital in global governance
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to present a theoretical model for systematizing human rights
norms to facilitate their integration into global business decision making.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper relates a natural law conception of human rights to global
Findings – The paper shows that natural law theory gives a basis for integrating human rights into
global governance while also making a business case for taking human rights seriously.
Originality/value – The paper offers a theoretical framework related to jurisprudence and introduces
the concept of reputational capital as an intangible asset that is built up by a ﬁrm’s proactive
advancement of human rights.
Keywords Human rights, Governance, Law
Paper type Conceptual paper
Attention to the responsibilities of business for human rights has been mounting for decades.
Following Shell’s experience in Nigeria, and Levi-Strauss’ deliberations about outsourcing in
China, the United Nations’ Global Compact for Business enlists corporations to uphold
human rights. More recently, the UN has launched other human rights initiatives, including a
code of ethics for transnational corporations. And at a meeting in Switzerland of the Caux
Round Table business leaders from ﬁrms in Europe, Japan and the USA subscribed to an
international code of ethics, providing a global framework for conduct and ethical standards.
Consequently renewed interest is being kindled about the place of human rights in the
modern global economy.
This article develops a conceptual framework for facilitating systematic incorporation of
international human rights into corporate governance and for harmonizing two emergent
perspectives informing corporate responsibilities for human rights initiatives: the
‘‘reputational capital’’ view and the ‘‘rights-based’’ view. Whereas the ﬁrst view
advocates corporate respect for human rights as part of a strategy for reducing
investment risks and maximizing proﬁts, the second view stresses the constitutive aspects of
the well-being of human persons and the communities they form, and sees human rights as
norms that provide more than just instrumental reasons for corporate action and
self-restraint; in their essence they are rights people have simply by virtue of their
humanity. Although they present different rationales for taking human rights seriously, the
two views are not mutually exclusive; rather, the case is made that they are mutually
supportive. The argument is framed around three theses: human rights form the core of
global corporate governance; normative exemplars systematize human rights and
incorporate standards of practical reason; proactive compliance with human rights
simultaneously builds reputational capital (intangible assets), while advancing integral
VOL. 8 NO. 4 2008, pp. 440-455, Q Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 1472-0701 DOI 10.1108/14720700810899185
Kevin Jackson is Professor
of Legal and Ethical Studies
at Fordham University, New
York, NY, USA.