The Moral Purpose of Doing Business

CULTURE / Sunday, May 31st, 2020

By james Otteson on Law and Liberty

Business has a bad reputation. “It’s just business” is often code for “I’ll take what’s mine and the devil can take the hindmost,” and the villain of Hollywood movies is often a sinister CEO or shadowy cabal of wealthy businesspeople manipulating the world for their own selfish benefit. Profit is almost as dirty a word as capitalism.

This is by now familiar, but when I had my first experience teaching in a business school several years ago, I was surprised to find that even business students become defensive when asked what they think of business. If asked why they are studying business, it seems the total universe of possible responses amounts to two: either to get a job or to make money.

Now, do business students want to get a job and make money? Certainly. (Do other students also want to get jobs and make money? Of course.) Yet getting a job and making money, though important, by themselves do not seem particularly inspiring. Is there no higher purpose that might be served by going into business?

Perhaps philosophy can help.

First, however, consider a comparison between medicine and business. Both are professions. Both have specialties and subspecialties, require technical training and expert knowledge, and require long experience before one can be successful. And in both cases, if one is successful, one might make a lot of money. In these ways, medicine and business are similar, but consider how differently they are viewed by the wider culture. No one says to the successful medical doctor, “Now that you have made your money, you need to give back to society.” But they do say that to the successful businessperson.

Note that businesspeople are not told they should give, but that they should give back. When you were a child, if your mother told you that you needed to give something back, what does that mean you had done? You stole something! You took something that did not belong to you, and now you need to return it.

Is that why people say that successful businesspeople should “give back”—that if they have been successful, they must have done something wrong, for which they now need to atone? I think the answer is yes: that is exactly what people believe. They might not know what you did wrong, but if you have been successful in business, they are sure that you must have done something wrong. In the popular imagination, success in business means having engaged in malfeasance somewhere along the way.

If it is true, however, that one can be successful in business only by behaving badly—that immorality is inherent in business—then our response should not be to ask successful businesspeople to give back: we should prohibit business altogether. We do not say to the thief, after all, that it is fine to keep on stealing as long as he gives some of what he steals to charity. We do not say to the murderer that it is fine to keep on killing, as long as some of the people he kills are bad. We say to both of them: stop!

If, therefore, we are going to keep teaching business, if we are going to have business schools, train students in the technical areas of business, and encourage them to dedicate their professional lives to business, then we need to have a conception of honorable business. That is, there must be a way of engaging in business that is both morally acceptable and valuable in itself, one that creates genuine value in its very activity, not only in what it might do afterwards. If there is no such thing as honorable business—no business activity of which one can be justly proud—then we should not engage in business at all. As St. Paul taught, if someone claims that he can do evil as long as something good results, then we are right to condemn him.

Yet business is what generates wealth, and the unprecedented wealth that has been created in the last two centuries has alleviated poverty and its attendant suffering and misery to an unprecedented degree. For over 99 percent of humanity’s existence, people lived on an average of about $2 per person per day (in contemporary dollars)—a level the United Nations identifies as “absolute poverty.” Since around AD 1800, however—that is, in just the most recent 1 percent of humanity’s history—we have steadily reduced the proportion of human beings in absolute poverty to less than 9 percent, despite an over-seven-fold increase in worldwide population. For the first time ever, we stand today on the precipice of eliminating absolute poverty from the world—an astounding achievement, though one that almost no one seems to know about.

Given what we have accomplished, and given the critical role business has played in it, I believe two specific mandates follow.

First, we need to articulate a conception of honorable business. This is necessary not only to recognize the good that honorable businesspeople have done and continue to do, but also to provide both proper encouragement and moral guidelines for future honorable businesspeople.

Second, we need to look beyond the technical areas of business—beyond marketing, accounting, finance, and so on—to humanities, and more particularly moral philosophy, to articulate business’s proper role in a just and humane society. We must develop a philosophically informed conception of the human person and the human good that can enable us to understand which public institutions enable the construction of flourishing lives consistent with our human personhood—and the role honorable business plays in them.

Human personhood comprises two central features: autonomy and judgment. Our autonomy comprises, as Kant argued, the ability to choose. We are moral agents capable of assessing various routes to our ends, and capable of choosing which routes to take. We have near-term, or proximate, ends, which serve medium-term, or intermediate ends, which themselves serve long-term ends. But this means we should also have some final end, for the sake of which we do everything else but which is valuable in itself and not for any further end. Aristotle offered eudaimonia as this final end. That word is often translated as “happiness,” but it means something like full use of our abilities and opportunities in constructing a life of proper meaning and purpose. Here is the idea: imagine ourselves at the end of our lives, looking back on the life we led, and ask ourselves whether ours was a life worth having been led. Once we imagine what kind of life would lead us to a favorable end-of-life judgment, we reverse-engineer our intermediate and proximate ends so that what we do today stands a chance of realizing our ultimate end of eudaimonia. A rationally ordered morally life is one in which all of our ends integrate into a proper path toward eudaimonia.

Of course, we will change our minds over time about what constitutes such a life for us, and we will have to use our judgment to revise and update our plans to achieve it. This implicates the second aspect of human personhood. Judgment is a skill, and, like other skills, it must be practiced under correction to develop in good directions. That requires that we not only have the freedom to choose, or autonomy, but that we be held responsible for our choices as accountable moral agents.

How does this relate to business? Although a full explanation requires a longer story, one implication of our moral agency is what I call an “opt-out option.” The fact that we are moral agents entails that we be allowed to choose the path our lives take. It requires that others respect the path we choose, and that we respect others’ paths, even when different from ours. This, in turn, entails that we have the right to opt out, or say “no, thank you,” to any offer, proposal, or suggestion anyone makes to us—and that others have the right to say “no, thank you” to us.

The increasing wealth and prosperity the world has seen in the last couple centuries has been owing to a transition away from involuntary extractive exchange, which benefits one party but only at the expense of the other party, to voluntary cooperative exchange, which benefits both parties. Cooperative exchange recognizes and respects others’ opt-out option, showing them respect as persons of dignity and as full moral agents.

Cooperative exchange is the foundation of honorable business. Honorable business thus calls on businesspeople to seek ways to benefit themselves only by benefiting others—which means, in essence, that they must put others’ needs, desires, and well-being on par with their own. The honorable businessperson accordingly rejects, on principle, engaging in extractive activity that harms others or that benefits himself at others’ expense. Then he actively searches out cooperative ways he can use his talents, skills, and expertise to generate value for others and to contribute, even if only in a small way, to their well-being—and, ultimately, to their eudaimonia.

To become an honorable businessperson, then, requires not only technical training, but also a philosophically grounded understanding of what the purpose of that training is. And that requires drawing on humanities—philosophy, theology, history, literature. Honorable business has enabled unprecedented numbers of people to rise out of poverty, but its potential to reach still further frontiers of human achievement and to address yet further challenges of human life can be realized only if people with the right technical training and the right moral orientation apply themselves with energy, courage, perseverance—and proper direction. Figuring out the proper direction requires drawing on the intellectual resources of the humanities. Properly executed, honorable business can lead, then, not only to increasing prosperity but to mutual respect and mutual recognition of our shared human dignity. That is a philosophically informed, humanities-based conception of moral purpose that can be both inspiring and worthy of dedicating one’s life to. Indeed, so understood, honorable business ought to be understood as a moral calling.

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