Friday, October 12, 2007

Jesuit Business Ethics?

Tibor R. Machan

Chapman University’s Argyros School of Business & Economics was host to the inaugural Ethics Academy presented by the local Leatherby Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Ethics and the Passkeys Foundation, Jefferson Center for Character Education. The keynote speaker was Dr. Robert Spitzer, Ph. D., S. J., a Jesuit priest and president of Gonzaga University, as well as founder of the Spitzer Center for Ethical Leadership.

I was asked to give a very brief welcoming remark, which lasted about a minute. In time Dr. Spitzer took the podium and delivered his lecture. His first and, to my mind, central point was that there is a decline of ethics in American culture and it is due to the prominence of striving for what he called “comparative identity,” in contrast to what he dubbed a
“contributory identity.”

The former consists of evaluating oneself in terms of
how much better, richer, intelligent, learned, more powerful, effective, skillful, etc., one is compared to other people. The latter consists of evaluating oneself in terms of how much one contributes to family, neighborhood, society, and so forth. As applied to business ethics, the focus of the Ethics Academy on this occasion, having a contributory identity means, in the words of Dr. Spitzer, focusing on “the stakeholders” of the enterprise in which one is involved. Focusing on advancing the benefits of stakeholders secures oneself his or her contributory identity, a far better goal than gaining a comparative identity.

I think that Dr. Spitzer got it only half right. Focusing on how one compares with others has its place (for example, in figuring out the price of one’s goods and services), but it should not be an end in itself. He was right about this—focusing on comparisons when it comes to self-assessment tends to leave one unstable, constantly worried, even unfocused and ethically confused.

But what of Dr. Spitzer’s alternative, striving to gain a contributory identity? Is that really a good idea?

The notion, at bottom, is nothing but the ethical system of altruism laid out in great detail by the French philosopher and father of sociology, Auguste Comte. One should serve others. That is at the heart of the stakeholder theory of corporate management, also, one that now dominates the field of business ethics. It contrasts with the idea that those in business ought to focus first on making their enterprise prosper, for the shareholders and investors. The opposite, the stakeholder theory, is a non-starter, when push comes to shove.

Figuring out what benefits others is always difficult
and it inclines people to become meddlesome. They need to concentrate on other people’s needs and wants, something most of them are unprepared for. This is what leads to the pushiness of politicians and it certainly isn’t what is most desirable about people in business. Yes, to some extent businesses flourish by figuring out what other people want, but only in the context of an exchange, of what they can professionally contribute to others in return for payment in accordance with the market price of the
goods and services they can contribute. It is a tit-for-tat relationship, not a contributory one.

As to ethics, a contributory identity tends to involve second-guessing what others want and need and this can involve some pretty wrongheaded notions. What if what others want to have contributed to them is seriously objectionable, immoral? The first thing that must be considered in all professions, including business, is whether one can produce something worthwhile, something important, and then one can see if there is a demand
for this. Otherwise, in a primarily demand driven approach to business—or any other profession—one will again be judging what one should do based on what others want regardless of whether their wants have merit.

But perhaps the greatest paradox of the contributory identity comes from the quip by W. H. Auden: “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know.” In other words, if one’s identity must, first of all, be contributory—rather than, say, thoughtful and professional—what should those do to whom the contributions are made? What
kind of identity should they have? If they too must be contributory, who, ultimately, will be the beneficiaries of all that contribution? An endless daisy chain of self-sacrifice is generated in such a system.

So, I agree, it is unwise to focus on comparisons as an individual charts one’s personal or professional conduct. But neither is it wise to focus mainly on benefiting others. The focus should be on doing one’s work well, including the work of living one’s life and whatever profession one takes up based on one’s talents and opportunities.

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