The futility of business ethics
Andreas Widmer writes that business ethics without a clear understanding of the meaning and significance of work is a bit like playing ball without any rules. He suggests a shift from a focus on rules and regulations, from a focus on business ethics as a separate topic, to an integrated focus on teaching young entrepreneurs about business as a vocation . . .
Imagine you were leading a large sports team without being told exactly what game you’re playing. Someone places a nondescript ball in front of you and says: “Play!” So you start. Every so often when you touch the ball, the ref’s whistle admonishes you.
You stop, are told that this is not allowed, you shrug your shoulders and play on. The referee’s calls are mystifying, even arbitrary, and for you the game’s objective becomes simply to circumvent or avoid the ref all together.
Business ethics without a clear understanding of the meaning and significance of work is a bit like playing ball without any rules. When we think of business ethics, we think of regulations, laws and codes of behaviors: basically a litany of don’ts.
The list multiplies rapidly. After every scandal, there is a call for more regulation. After any new regulations, businesses devise new strategies to deal with these regulations — in essence, to figure out how to have them affect their business as little as possible. It seems a reasonable enough response if seen from the perspective of “avoiding the ref.” Except that this, of course, is the recipe for the next scandal, and the cycle begins anew.
It’s no wonder that popular opinion condemns business as selfish, corrupt and damaging to society. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. In reality, most businesses are run in a very different way than what I just described. Not because of any industry regulation or government law, but because they act out of their leaders’ fundamental understanding of what business is all about. This view is often informed by their faith.
God is a worker. The first thing we learn about God in the Bible is that he is creative: He conceived of and formed the world out of nothing. Then he made humans. He says that he wanted to make them in his image: a subject, immortal, a worker. This is where we find the primary purpose of business: God invited us to participate in his creative power. Every time we go to work, every time we engage in business, we accept that invitation and in fact, imitate God.
This is why Blessed John Paul II says that when we work, we don’t just “make more,” but we “become more.” Work is a path to holiness.
The ethics of any specific action finds its foundation and purpose in the intrinsic meaning and significance of that very action. This is why any kind of ethics in a relativistic society is at best transient and at worst completely incompatible with the common good. If I cannot ascertain the Truth, how will I know how to produce goods that are truly good and services that truly serve?
When approached from the deep meaning and significance of human work, however, business ethics becomes an instinctive exercise in excellence. It’s not how well I know the rules that makes me a better athlete, it’s that I’ve effectively internalized the game. That’s how an athlete gets what’s called “in the zone,” and it’s what happens when an athlete achieves perfection in his game.
And so it goes with business: If I internalize the very essence of business, it’s no longer about rules or regulations, but about perfection and excellence. It’s not about short-term or long-term, but about transcendence; not about profit and loss, but about sustainability; and not about me, but about others.
John Mackey of Whole Foods didn’t create his store to meet rules or regulations, but he offered products aimed at perfection and excellence. It’s the reputation of that excellence which made Whole Foods into the icon of healthy groceries.
Tom Monaghan didn’t focus as much on short-term performance as he did on making Domino’s a permanent and rewarding presence for his customers and employees. His approach allowed Domino’s to become one of the most positively recognized companies in the world. François Michelin didn’t set out to create a profit, but harmony between his company and the consumer, work force, investors and society. He credits this harmony with the immense success during his tenure.
Any business that can compete and has a positive impact in the long run is inherently other-directed. It is in giving that we receive. That holds true in business as well as in one’s personal life. Think of your last interaction with any company: Customers reward good products and positive service with loyalty — the critical ingredient in any company’s successful future.
What I propose then is to shift from a focus on rules and regulations, from a focus on business ethics as a separate topic, to an integrated focus on teaching young entrepreneurs about business as a vocation. Let’s teach the next generation that business is about more than making a living. Let’s teach them to make a meaningful and fulfilling life. The results will speak for themselves.
ANDREAS WIDMER is director of entrepreneurship programs at The Catholic University of America. He is the author of “The Pope & The CEO: Pope John Paul II’s Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard.”