What’s love got to do with it?

A business ethicist offers a professional view of Pope Benedict XVI's latest encyclical on ethics in business, 'Caritas in veritate'.
Alejo Jose G. Sison | Aug 13 2009 | comment  



Big businessAs with most other people, I like to spend summer reading things I usually don’t have the time for during the rest of the year. But alas, on the 29th of June Pope Benedict XVI decided to publish his social encyclical "Caritas in veritate" (Charity in truth). To underscore its timeliness, journalists were quick to remark that it was just a week before the G8 Summit in which the global recession took center stage. Adding drama, the meeting took place in L’Aquila, the capital of the Italian region devastated by an earthquake a few months earlier. "There go the novels I’ve been saving for the vacations", I said to myself.

But frankly, after having overcome my initial reluctance, I couldn’t think of a better use of time, especially for a business ethicist.

Over the past 40 years, business ethics has developed from what some considered a passing fad to a global cottage industry in which everyone would like to have an equal say. So it is certainly reassuring to read that despite the "increasing awareness of the need for greater social responsibility on the part of business", "the ethical considerations that currently inform debate … are not all acceptable from the perspective of the Church’s social doctrine" (Caritas in veritate, henceforth CIV, 40). "It would be advisable," therefore, "to develop a sound criterion of discernment, since the adjective ‘ethical’ could be abused … even to the point where it includes decisions and choices contrary to justice and authentic human welfare" (CIV, 45).

From the Church’s vantage point, what would be an acceptable "underlying system of morality" for business? The encyclical offers the following signposts. first and foremost, it has to be consistent with the datum of man’s creation "in the image of God" (Gen 1:27), from which derives "the inviolable dignity of the human person and the transcendent value of natural moral norms" (CIV, 45). How do the major schools of thought in business ethics compare with this requirement?

Utilitarian or consequentialist thinking, which informs a large part of business ethics today, falls short on account of both "the inviolable dignity of the human person and the transcendent value of natural moral norms" (CIV, 45). According to this school, the ultimate justification of business would be that its consequences prove "useful" to the agent, however this "usefulness" may be construed. Although usually couched in terms of profits, power or pleasure, it could also stand, nevertheless, for "what is beneficial for the environment" or "what promotes my social agenda", for example. There is no "inviolable dignity" in other human beings, who exist exclusively as means to serve the end or purpose one deems to assign them. Neither can one speak meaningfully of a "transcendent value of natural moral norms", since there is nothing ethically relevant outside such "usefulness".

On the other hand, deontological, or rights-based, approaches to business ethics, as those behind many stakeholder initiatives, despite agreeing in principle with the dignity of the human being and the transcendence of moral norms, nonetheless fail to make room for the major premise of man’s being made in the likeness of God. Instead, it professes scepticism over any possible foundation for human dignity, except perhaps for the presuppositions of rationality and autonomy. This explains the self-referential nature of most of their reasoning -- accessible and convincing only to those who already have been conveniently initiated.

Surprising for a papal document is the frequent reference to profits and to their proper role: "Profit is useful if it serves as a means towards an end that provides a sense both of how to produce it and how to make good use of it. Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty" (CIV, 21). Surely, profit in itself is not to be rejected (CIV, 38) nor excluded from the scope of legitimate business objectives (CIV, 46). We are simply warned against seeking it as an end in itself, instead of as a means to achieve human and social ends. Furthermore, we are cautioned about falling into the trap of engaging in financial speculation for short-term profit (CIV, 40) and into believing that profit maximization is the sole rationale for business (CIV, 71).

If profits are rightly conceived as means or instruments, what ulterior end or purpose should they serve? The answer is the common good: "a good that is linked to living in society"; "the good of ‘all of us’, made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society" (CIV, 7). An equivalent expression is "integral human development" on which Paul VI expounded in the "Populorum progressio" (The development of peoples).

As acknowledged by Benedict XVI himself, Paul VI’s vision of authentic human development is a complex one (cf. CIV, 21). Framed in the negative, it consists in freedom from hunger, deprivation, endemic diseases and illiteracy. Put positively, it requires of all people "active participation, on equal terms, in the international economic process; from the social point of view, … their evolution into educated societies marked by solidarity; from the political point of view, … the consolidation of democratic regimes capable of ensuring freedom and peace" (CIV, 21). Implicit in this sketch is the challenge of articulating these multiple spheres of human action and the goods specific to each into an integral whole. Herein lies, to my mind, the core of Benedict XVI’s distinctive contribution to this discussion.

In "Caritas in veritate" Pope Benedict establishes the true hierarchy of social institutions, disciplines and objectives in keeping with the order and harmony of the virtues. If there is such a thing as truth, then not any ethical opinion or arrangement of the different overlapping spheres of human activity will do. Only those that respect the truth will in turn allow the virtues of justice and charity to flourish, affording all peoples their integral human development or the common good.

At the base of this social structure is the market, the institution of wealth-creation and object of study for economics. Despite its importance, we are reminded that the market does not exist in a "pure state" nor can it be called upon to solve all social problems (cf. CIV, 36). It would equally be "erroneous to hold that the market economy has an inbuilt need for a quota of poverty and underdevelopment in order to function at its best" (CIV, 35). Definitely market transactions should conform to the "logic of exchange", of "giving in order to acquire" (cf. CIV, 39), but that is just one dimension of the virtue of justice, commutative justice (cf. CIV, 37). Market transactions are, above all, "authentically human social relationships" and as such should be open to "friendship, solidarity and reciprocity"; they are "neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to society" (CIV, 36).

Superior to the market is the political community or the State, entrusted with the task of the redistribution of wealth and the focus of the science of politics. Contrary, however, to the widely-extended deterministic view of globalisation, in which an economic process overruns not only State sovereignty and authority, but even the human will itself, the encyclical echoes John Paul II’s judgment that "globalisation, a priori, is neither good nor bad. It will be what people make of it" (CIV, 42). Globalisation, "if badly directed, … can lead to an increase in poverty and inequality, and could even trigger a global crisis"; but at the same time, "suitably understood and directed," it could "open up the unprecedented possibility of large-scale redistribution of wealth on a world-wide scale" (CIV, 42). State action ought to be guided by the "logic of public obligation", of "giving through duty" (cf. CIV, 39), as corresponds to the higher dimension of social or distributive justice. Only then could the State rise up to the challenge and "steer the globalization of humanity in relational terms, in terms of communion and the sharing of goods" (CIV, 42).

Benedict XVI, who dedicated a previous encyclical to explain that "God is love" ("Deus caritas est"), following the logic of man’s creation in God’s image and likeness, now teaches that "the human being is made for gift" -- is made for love-- "which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension" (CIV, 34). Like faith and hope, love or charity is "the absolutely gratuitous gift of God", it "bursts into our lives as something not due us, something that transcends every law of justice. Gift by its nature goes beyond merit, its rule is that of superabundance" (CIV, 34).

The "logic of gratuitousness and communion", the "logic of unconditional gift" finds institutional expression -- as John Paul II earlier pointed out -- in civil society (CIV, 38). Civil society is not meant to replace either the market or the State in their respective functions, but to overcome by elevation the perverse dialectic that often plagues this binary model. It provides human beings a higher plane within which to give themselves freely to others, without asking for anything in exchange, and for such self-giving to be reciprocated. Behind this logic of self-giving is a sense of fraternity, the recognition of belonging to the same family or having a common origin, God himself, and of solidarity, "a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone" (CIV, 38). In "charity in truth" both commutative and distributive justice, the logic of exchange and the logic of public duty, the market and the State, economics and politics find their perfection.

The business ethics that this globalised world needs, therefore, is one that fosters not only the virtues of truth and justice, but above all, the virtue of charity or love, understood as self-giving. The encyclical may not spell out exactly how such business ethics is to be designed and implemented, although it certainly indicates the necessary conditions to be fulfilled. In particular, it calls our attention to the human significance of all work -- including, of course, all business activity -- as "personal action" (actus personae), which is prior to its professional one (CIV, 41). It is reminiscent, in this regard, of the priority of the subjective element of work, the worker himself as a free and rational being, over the objective element, which encompasses technology and all products of human activity (cf. CIV 69). For this reason, the document dwells on essential features of "decent work": "work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society; work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their need and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labour; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one’s roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living" (CIV, 63).

We should realize, however, that the above-mentioned conditions characterizing "decent work" serve mainly to enable human beings to respond to their transcendent call or vocation (cf. CIV, 16-18) to self-giving, inspired by God’s love or charity. Here is where the ultimate meaning of work and all human activity can be found. Lastly, the encyclical also furnishes us with valuable guidance for business ethics to navigate the complex interconnections with the economy, law and politics, with technology, the environment and so forth.

So what Pope Benedict is essentially suggesting is that, in a discussion of business ethics when the strange question: "What’s love gotta do with it?" is raised, the ready reply should be: "Everything!"

Alejo José G. Sison is a Business Ethics scholar at the University of Navarre. His latest book is entitled Corporate Governance and Ethics: An Aristotelian Perspective (Edward Elgar, 2008).



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