A statement I really hate is “I’m just doing my job.” People use this either as a humblebrag (“Piece of cake because I’m awesome”), or to evade moral responsibility (“I was just following orders”). While the first usage is annoying, the second is dangerous. Adolf Eichmann’s defense in the Nuremburg trial was nothing more than, “I was just following Hitler’s orders.” This defense did not convince the Nuremburg judges, nor will it convince God.
You can’t separate the person from the work. This simple truth lies at the core of the ever growing, overly complex subject of “business ethics.” Peter Drucker once said, “There is neither a separate ethics of business nor is one needed,” meaning that the same ethical rules that apply to man in his private life apply to him in his business life. An altruistic statement for sure, given our cluttered world of regulations and corporate law. Drucker, however, has a great point – as always.
As Catholic leaders, we must not allow ourselves to excuse or justify every decision we make with an unreflective “I’m just doing my job.” As leaders, we must take ownership of our actions and examine our individual consciences in light of what we profess to believe. If this reflection causes a few more sleepless nights, or, hopefully, more prayerful nights, then so be it. Actions have moral consequence. The corporation may be a legal “person”, but God judges real persons. He judges us.
Sometimes I wonder if the concept of a corporate entity, distinct from the people themselves, leads to a convenient disconnect between the person’s actions and the business’ actions. I remember the question being raised in metaphysics: does a community of persons have its own essence? And I remember a similar question being raised in corporate law: is this corporation a legal person? Both philosophy and law grapple with the same question. That should not surprise us, for it is an interesting and important question, especially for those of us for whom the answer is so fraught with significance. I understand the need for a legal entity and the need for a corporate veil. But we must not delude ourselves into thinking that the business actually took action. We took action. The legal entity is a fauxperson – convenient, yes, but faux nonetheless. It is we that will be judged, not the corporation.
In other words, God will pierce the corporate veil.
If we are virtuous through our businesses, God will reward us. If we are sinful through our businesses, God will punish us. “But God, I was just doing my job!” I would not want that as my defense on judgment day.
After being asked about corporate ethics, Milton Friedman once said, “So the question is, do corporate executives, provided they stay within the law, have responsibilities in their business activities other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible? And my answer to that is, no, they do not.”
I think my fellow Legates would disagree with the great Milton Friedman on this point. For we all know that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead, not the S Corp, C Corp, or LLC.
CONOR GALLAGHER is publisher at Saint Benedict Press and TAN Books. He is the author of If Aristotle’s Kid Had an iPod: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Parents and obtained his J.D. and M.A. in philosophy from Catholic University. He and his wife, Ashley, have 12 children.