The Deeper Dimension of Business Ethics

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The traditional semester for undergraduate and graduate courses begins in just two weeks. I and my fellow professors are now finishing revisions to our courses. This happens often for me, as it does this year, after reading new material, new scholarship, or catching up on topics we have felt some weakness in. I know others do the same as me because we talk about it. For me this summer has meant immersion in Reformation history through travel and reading, reading and writing on Christian and Muslim relationships and mutual understanding or misunderstanding during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some broad reading in what we might call “the modern predicament” as part for ongoing work for teaching modern history, and working through my general approach to business ethics. It’s an eclectic bag, but it is in the last area that I want to offer some thoughts.

As I have taken up the teaching mantle again, I have taken the opportunity to review some of the work I have previously done, and re-read some of the works I have used and recommended to students in the past. (I have posted a list of readings for business ethics here).

Business ethics is often taught as how to make good or ethical, and how to avoid bad or unethical decisions. If only it were that simple. There are good things a business can do to set itself up encourage ethical work throughout its personnel and operations. We not only discuss various options, but study companies that work ethically and how they do it, and we practice developing policies and structures that lead in this direction. When I talk with alumni, Board members, friends of FPU, or personal friends and colleagues, I am often gain examples about what they are doing, how they are managing, and these sometimes end up in class discussions (often with the names changed to protect privacy).

When you have a community of business people who come together with a shared ethical commitment, as we do at FPU, we can support each other, draw on others’ experience, and encourage the best and most faithful impulses we have. Businesses are able to make good decisions when they have learned through practice how to achieve good results, how to pursue good ends, and how to act well in doing it. Good decisions are the result of good character, and a bit of experience and wisdom. Businesses and other organizations can and must develop ethical character to in order to thrive.

For this kind of approach to ethics we need not just technique and data, though these help. We need more than dilemmas and problems to resolve. We need motivation and commitment certainly. But we also need a way of seeing the good in the work we do, the highest purposes we have, the true nature of the people we work with and for, and the goals of service and creation that we seek to achieve. We also need a sense of the high calling we have serving. In my preparation, this summer three books reminded me of the deeper meaning of the work we do in businesses and other organizations.

The first is Michael Novak’s Business as a Calling, Work and the Examined Life (Free Press, 1996). Novak is a Christian theologian, political thinker, and winner of the Templeton prize in religion. He writes about the Christian calling to serve, the virtues required of businesses and business people, the moral institution of business, and the responsibilities of businesses as social institutions. He says “Man the discoverer is made in the image of God. To be creative, to cooperate in bringing creation itself to its perfection is an important element in the human vocation. This belief that each human being is imago Dei—made in the image of God—was bound to lead, in an evolutionary and experimental way, to the development of an economic system whose first premise is that the principal of human wealth is human creativity.” He goes on to note that this work is with and for others, and raises whole populations out of poverty when allowed to work.

The second volume is James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, and why People Demand it” (Josey-Bass, 2003). Many know Kouzes and Posner from their The Leadership Challenge—also highly recommended. Throughout this discussion of credible leadership, Kouzes and Posner reflect on the values by which leaders act, the virtues required, and the necessity of one’s actions conforming to his or her words—the integrity of a leader that brings credibility. They have chapters titled “Discovering Yourself,” “Appreciating Constituents and their Diversity,” Affirming Shared Values,” “Serving a Purpose,” and “Sustaining Hope.” These are the underlying practices, capacities, purposes, and qualities that a credible leader develops, one whom others will follow and with whom they will succeed in an organization or effort. These titles reflect the deeper personal ethical and spiritual qualities of a leader. If we are to understand ethics in business we must understand ourselves and what we seek individually and corporately in deep ways.

The final volume is Tom Morris’s If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business (Henry Holt, 1997). Morris spoke at FPU’s Business Forum about 10 years ago, and received some of the most outstanding praise for any speaker we brought in the series. A former professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, Morris now consults with businesses. He translates the wisdom of philosophers for everyday life, for work, organizations, and leadership. He explains that we must see the good in what we do, the beauty in what we create, the truth as opposed to the lies swirling around us, and the spiritual dimension of our work. I have assigned this last work for a graduate course this semester. We will attempt to see the beauty, spiritual dimension, the truth, and the good and how to encourage it in what we do. This is the purpose of the study of ethics, the deeper dimension beyond decisions, processes, and rules businesses must follow. I am always encouraged by the desire and capacity of our business leaders and students to engage in this kind of of reflection.

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