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Value vs. Values: Public Companies' Duties Debated

Do publicly traded companies have any moral obligations besides maximizing shareholder value?

Sterling Burnett, senior fellow at the National Center For Policy Analysis, believes that task is a virtuous end in itself. Andrew Logan, oil program director at investor coalition Ceres, thinks shareholders are best served when firms see the bigger picture. The two joined CNBC's Sue Herera on "Power Lunch" to debate how Exxon Mobil fits into this notion.

Burnett declared that corporations have three duties: "They should obey the law, provide jobs, and provide a product that people want." With this triad of accomplishments, he says, Exxon is being "held to a higher standard."

Burnett also says that the world's biggest petroleum company does, in fact, have a social conscience and furnishes a "good social service": By reinvesting in itself, the corporation "assures people" that investors can "retire and not have to depend on social security" payments.

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But Logan claimed a flaw in Burnett's reasoning. He noted that Ceres represents "very large pension funds" controlling some $4 trillion in assets. And he said many of those pension recipients have voiced "concern" that companies that "ignore certain social issues, for instance climate change, will underperform in the long-term."

Logan said, "We agree that it's important to have returns," but maintained that those social issues are often inextricable from the black-and-white financial matters.

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