Are business and ethics like water and oil?
I was once speaking to a person who has a very successful business profile. "Do you know what attitude towards life one should have to be a successful businessperson?"
I declared ignorance.
"Imagine you are on a boat full of illegal immigrants. They have nothing except the clothes on their backs. Something is floating in the sea. It looks like something of value. You are there, not because you are as needy as they are or you are one of them but for some accidental reason. You have to persuade yourself that you need that object in the sea more than those hungry, miserable individual do. You fight to get it. If you can do that, than you can become a successful businessman."
I was not interested.
I am sure that many people in business would protest at this description given by one of them. I am sure that many would say that they have a social conscience and that they do mix business with ethics. The average Maltese cynic would not agree. I think that there is a widespread belief that business and ethics do not mix. Business and ethics are, for many, like water and oil.
Is it like that? Should it be like that?
This week the Vatican organised a conference to discuss the subject. High-profile leaders from the manufacturing, industrial, banking and financial sectors including representatives from General Electric and Goldman Sachs, as well as Catholic experts in Catholic social teaching were handpicked for the conference. It was a multi- business, international and inter-religious conference. There was an attempt to reflect on principles commonly shared by many and which are also core to Catholic social teaching. Such principles include the principles of the centrality of the human person, subsidiarity, solidarity and the pursuit of the common good. During the conference there was also an attempt to marry principles and practice.
A profile of the business leader
The speech of Cardinal Bertone, the Vatican's Secretary of State, with its profile of the business leader was particularly interesting.
Bertone spelled out the difference between the business leader and the speculator.
He first gave the profile of the speculator.
"The speculator makes it his goal to maximize profit; for him, business is merely a means to an end, and that end is profit. For the speculator, building roads and establishing hospitals or schools is not the goal, but merely a means to the goal of maximum profit. It should be immediately clear that the speculator is not the model of business leader that the Church holds up as an agent and builder of the common good."
Then he gave the profile of the business leader.
"The business leader is first and foremost an innovator who generates and pursues projects: for him, for her, for them, business activity is never merely a means or a tool, but part of the goal itself. Logically, it is not possible to separate the activity from its goal, since business activity has intrinsic value. It has value in itself."
In Catholic social teaching "profit" is not a dirty word. However, it is not looked at as the ultimate justification of human entrepreneurial activity. Pope Benedict in his encyclical letter, Caritas in Veritate, says that "Charity in truth requires that shape and structure be given to those types of economic initiative which, without rejecting profit, aim at a higher goal than the mere logic of the exchange of equivalents, of profit as an end in itself" (No. 38). Catholic social teaching does not reject profit but aims at a higher goal than just profit. Bertone describes as "a great challenge" the task of balancing between these two goals.
Cardinal Bertone criticised those ethical theories concerned with business and social responsibility which propose the adoption of socially responsible practices primarily as a marketing device, "without any effect on relationships inside and outside the business itself, the destination of its profits, the demands of justice, worker participation, and so forth".
"Nowadays business leaders who want to take the Church's social teaching seriously will need to be more daring, not limiting themselves to socially responsible practices and/or acts of philanthropy (positive and meritorious though these may be), but striking out into new territories."
One of the examples he mentioned has to do with the administration of "common goods" such as water, energy sources, communities, the social and civic capital of peoples and cities. He said that the business sector has responsibility for the good administration of these common goods. The business sector cannot look at these common goods simply from the perspective of profit. "We need business leaders with a social conscience, leaders whose innovation, creativity and efficiency are driven by more than profit, leaders who see their work as part of a new social contract with the public and with civil society."
Structures besides conscience
Daniel K. Finn, professor of economics and theology at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., in his comments to Catholic News Service said that business leaders should not only talk about the efforts made by individuals but also about social and distributive justice and the wider issue of "the morality of the economy." Attention has to be paid to the larger structural injustices in today's economies.
According to Catholic News Service, Finn said there are four elements that need to be fulfilled for making a more moral economy: first is the moral behaviour of individuals and organizations, and second is the legal structure of markets, which cannot be allowed to be absolutely free and unregulated and must have legal limits to "prevent the worst abuses." Third, "the needs of all must be met," through employment and direct social assistance to those in need, he said. Lastly, "a vibrant civil society" is needed, where citizens come together in informal or formal groups like art associations or unions, to help improve different aspects of society, he said.
I think that the comments above are valid for our local situation as much as they are valid in other countries.
On being a priest
I was ordained a priest on June 19, 1977. Today is the anniversary of my ordination. I thank God for His great gift given to me, as we say during Mass "minghajr merti u minghajr ma jisthoqqli." Next week I will share with you my thoughts and feelings about these last 34 years of being a priest.