Asserting one’s responsibility is not enough; the word also has to have meaning. What do we want to achieve, what position do we place ourselves in, who are we, when we define ourselves as a responsible player? The notion of responsibility remains to be expounded beyond its consensual uses, particularly in how it applies to economic and financial players, who most often rely on an implicit conception of what it can mean.

We can distinguish several types of responsible subjects.

The first figure could be defined as that of the apostle. Here, responsibility is essentially defined by the affirmation of a set of moral convictions that are held to be absolute. By definition, a moral requirement is something that cannot be compromised. In practice, however, and particularly in a global arena, moral convictions can clash with those of other players.

The second figure could be defined as that of the judge. Here, responsibility is defined in relation to standards that must be respected and enforced. An investor then tends to become a form of auxiliary to the public authorities, checking that companies comply with a binding normative framework.

A third position would be to define responsibility in relation to goals rather than to absolute beliefs or standards with which routine compliance would be deemed satisfactory. This is the position of a humble responsible subject, who considers the world as it is, who has a progressive and ameliorative vision, who judges the way a company evolves rather than sanctioning a priori.

The proliferation of “responsible players” raises the question of the legitimacy of judgement. Who is empowered to set standards, to enforce constraints? Should investors take the place of public authorities in enacting and enforcing standards of good behaviour? Are they legitimate to do so? Are they justified in sanctioning in the name of morality what the laws do not prohibit? What position of authority can they claim? Whose role is it to tell what is permissible and what is not?

Issues pertaining to pure morality are traditionally judged by oneself and by public opinion, not by law. But there is a transition from morality to law: judicialisation follows moralisation. The responsible subject is not only in a position to judge, but also to be judged. In this concept of “social responsibility”, to whom are we accountable? Are we accountable to public opinion and its new modes of expression and advocacy, or to constituted legal bodies? What is the role of law in this debate on social responsibility? Can ethical engagement become legally enforceable, and if so, is there not a risk of responsibility being diminished?