In the 1800s to the early 1900s, businesses and the general public appeared to have little interaction with each other, as summed up by Vanderbilt's famous words, "the public be damned." How has the relationship between big businesses and society changed since then, and what obligations to communities do corporations nowadays owe?
The relationship between big business and the public has changed in some ways, but in others it remains similar to the way it was in Vanderbilt’s time. The issue of corporate social responsibility is a matter of personal opinion.
During Vanderbilt’s time, it was much more possible for companies to disregard what the people wanted. There are two main reasons for this. First, the government was not inclined to listen to popular demands and to rein in big business. This meant that companies could abuse customers and workers more freely without having to worry about regulation. Second, it was much harder for the general public to get together and demand change. This was a time when many more people were uneducated and had jobs that made it very hard for them to become involved in civic affairs. It was a time when it was hard for people to communicate with one another and to find other people who had opinions like their own. Today, if someone is unhappy with a company, they can easily use the internet to find and communicate with other people who have similar opinions. This makes it much more possible for them to strike back at businesses that harm them.
I would argue that companies do not have any real obligations to communities. Companies need to be able to make money or they will disappear. They do not have an obligation to do anything that will hurt their ability to make money unless those actions are required by law. I do think that it is good for companies to care about their communities because they will be likely to get good publicity and, thereby, to help themselves economically. However, I do not believe they are under any obligation to be “good citizens.” As long as they obey the law, they have no other obligations.