Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
March 15, 2004
Tycoons take spiritual account
The Vatican conference held earlier this month with business leaders from around the globe was a very significant event (Page 5). Business leaders came obviously to reflect on ethics, rather than to say, brush up their marketing acumen.
Simplistically, one could hope that they will be inspired to practise what the Church preaches.
What makes this conference so interesting is that at least some major business leaders are more than casually interested in having their enterprises serve moral, as well as financial, ends.
It raises the question, What is going to get society headed in a decent moral direction?
In recent decades it has often been thought that it was the role of government to control greedy capitalists who, if given the chance, would lead the world to wrack and ruin in their mindless pursuit of profits.
Well, government certainly has a role in creating a better world and regulation is part of that role.
But regulation can have a deleterious effect on those who are to be regulated. It undermines the role of personal initiative and conscience in bettering the human condition.
And the lack of trust it shows in those being regulated can have the opposite effect of what was intended.
The classic example is Prohibition. In the decades prior to the banning of alcohol, progress was being made in reducing consumption by educational means. But once alcohol was legally forbidden, alcohol use and abuse actually increased.
If you want society to head in a better direction, it will depend largely on the exercise of moral responsibility by large segments of the population. Churches, families, universities and voluntary organizations are all sectors of society where people can exercise their consciences to make a difference.
But Western society is, in large part, business driven. It was failures of personal conscience that led Talisman Petroleum to prop up a murderous regime in Sudan, that led to various stock market scandals and that led to the sponsorship scandal now being uncovered in Ottawa.
Whenever someone talks about inevitable forces such as globalization forcing companies to undermine the dignity of their workers or the environment, you can be sure there is a failure of moral conscience lurking nearby.
The late marketing guru Robert Greenleaf, the author of Servant Leadership, maintained, "The typical large business may be more sensitive to the need to adapt and change than most outsiders are aware."
In fact, Greenleaf believed large businesses are more adaptable and more able to exercise social responsibility than any other sector of society. "When the heads of (institutions such as churches, universities and social agencies) are confronted with evidence of a deficiency they cannot deny, they sometimes seem to put on sackcloth and ashes and go in for self-flagellation, but they do not do anything about it.
"Businesses, when similarly confronted, sometimes stoutly assert their innocence and proclaim their virtue, but then they quietly take some remedial action."
Businesses, Karl Marx to the contrary, need not be driven by allegedly inexorable forces. They are run by people, many of whom seek to do the right and good thing.
Enlightened businesses strive to adapt to a changing world, want to be environmentally and socially responsible, and want to keep good employees by treating them well.
The majority of business leaders do not see themselves and do not want to be seen as robber barons.
The meeting of 70 corporate heads at the Vatican is a testament to the fact that business can provide a forum for people to pursue the common good as well as their individual good.
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