|Posted on February 23, 2014 at 9:50 AM|
Written by Hope Bicknell
From the very early stages of civilization, business and ethics have both encountered questions of purpose, direction and practical application. As the world of commerce matures in the 21st century, two interrogations become one in a modern scrutiny of business, when it seems the consumer conscience polices corporate aims.
Tax-avoidance scandals stand starkly in the foreground of multinational enterprise, aspersions engulf the global financial system and third-world labour exploitation rolls on unapologetically. If you look at the world of commerce in this light, business ethics is reduced to nothing more than an oxymoron. It follows from the rudimentary template laid down by Plato in his philosophy: 'the pursuit of the material and the temporal has no part in the greater pursuit of the abstract and eternal'. In other words; go for it - pursue the temporary maximization of profit and receive its resulting wealth, but in doing so, compromise your integrity – morality, even. It seems Jesus is with Plato on this one: in Matthew 16:26 he asks, “What good is it to gain the whole world, but loose your soul?” Maybe we should direct that one to Simon Cowell… I’ve always wondered if sipping piña coladas on a private beach tastes just as good if you’re dead on the inside.
But piña coladas and private beaches aside, there’s confusion. When it comes to how far the ethical responsibilities of a business go – the jury is still out. In fact, they’ve been out for so long, their mums are getting worried. Supposedly, the new mantra of our times is “good ethics is good business”. And as much as I’d love to believe it, personally, I’m dubious… taking a good look at the world of industry, this slogan seems far from true. If this really is the new mantra of our times, it would appear that “our times” is more than misguided, it’s delusional.
The confrontational relationship between ethics and business continues. It’s unavoidable, but more importantly, it’s utterly necessary. Of course, Primark’s history would be eager to tell you that the two were never bound for a happy marriage (and the honeymoon period certainly wasn’t blissful either). However, the ceaseless demand for reconciliation is challenging those on the front line of this battle to establish harmony, if only practical. When the hunger for profit and the hunger for justice inevitably collide, the fundamental conflict of interests (that our beloved mantra would fail to see) provokes us to reevaluate the purpose of such appetites – particularly in regard to business. If it’s not ‘good ethics’, what it is that makes a business good, or even great?
Challenging the concept of ‘good’ is central in evaluating attitudes towards ethics - more than central - it’s absolutely core! If ‘good’ means a generous topping of whipped cream, how could a bare and skinny Costa hot chocolate possibly be ‘good’? On the other hand, if ‘good’ is defined as a low calorie Frappuccino alternative, then that hot chocolate has suddenly regained its virtue… and water has become perfection!
Most of our western philosophy finds its roots in ancient Greek thought, and notably the work of Aristotle who shaped more than philosophy, but the foundations of modern science. And so, with such great influence at his disposal, I’m sad to say that for Aristotle, goodness wasn’t found in whipped cream, but rather in the effective fulfillment of purpose. This poses yet more questions to our mantra… if “good ethics is good business” we are forced to examine what the principle function of each of these really is. How could we call a thriving business ‘good’ if its primary function was actually to go bankrupt and sink into liquidation? Clearly this is not the case; the overarching function of business is virtually self-explanatory, but is this its only function? The pursuit of practical harmony in this failing marriage requires those asking this question to delve beyond clinical dealings with economics.
So what is the purpose of business? Again, it seems an unintelligible question to ask. But in identifying the purposes of any business, more and more responsibilities come to light – and with it, more and more legislation. And the more legislation - the more that trading standards begin to change - the further the question is complicated. It might be true that Fairtrade products frequent the cupboards of only the minority of the population with both awareness and the disposable income. However, by interrogating the purposes of business, it may not be just as true tomorrow. Will a day come when justice gets so hungry that it swallows profit whole?
Perhaps, but for the time being, just a nibble will suffice. Our question is beginning to be answered, trading standards are changing on a weekly basis and many businesses readily promote their environmental and labour responsibilities. Perhaps there is some truth in our mantra after all. Perhaps we’re not as delusional, or even misguided, as previously thought.
Experience leads me to believe that if the 21st century advocates, as economist Milton Friedman does, that “the only one responsibility of business towards the society is the maximisation of profits”, then it is the acceptance of this truth that is misguided. Plato and Socrates taught that the just man is happy. The Philosophy of Epicurus asserts: “It is impossible to live the pleasant life without also living sensibly, nobly and justly.” I am drawn to wonder what Mr. Cowell might say to that one! Nonetheless, the wisdom of the ancients rolls on just as unapologetically as third-world labour exploitation may seem to. More debate rolls with them.
As consumers, we assume that businesses will demonstrate their ethical responsibility. The huge increase in consumer influence and its instrumentality in the landscaping of commercial ethics affirm this authority and parallel the theologian John Newman’s approach to the understanding of conscience. Newman argues that if we feel moral responsibility, “there is One to whom we are responsible . . . whose claim upon us we fear.” The rapidly evolving intertwinement of ethics and business would suggest that consumers have a claim upon industry that it fears. Human beings are powerful in their morality. Consumers will never have their authority undermined – industry exists to serve us.
The struggle for a happy matrimony between the pursuit of profit and ethical operation is one that persists (to the comfort of many who labour to change the landscape of global trading) and encourages a greater understanding of the nature of a flourishing society. Subsequently, we are led to reevaluate more than what makes us flourish as a society, but what makes us first flourish as individuals - what makes us human. Our global, national and individual perspectives have power to pave the future of commerce and so we have a responsibility to seek profound understanding of our innate nature in order to maximize our interdependence as thriving entities of the modern world.
Image © Magnus D, licensed under Creative Commons. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/magnus_d/6039917390/)