Can Business be Virtuous?

After years of booming business and unbelievable wealth creation, the economy has slowed. Perhaps we are even in a recession? We are stunned by a mortgage crisis that has only reinforced the notion of big businesses as insatiable masters of the universe with little regard for the public. The critics of capitalism have again emerged from every corner to harangue those who create wealth with charges of greed, thievery, and malice. Doubtless the politicians are getting ready to pounce.

Hold on! We need to answer these charges head on with the bold idea that the creation of wealth by virtuous means is the most important thing we can do for ourselves and for others.

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The downfalls of WorldCom, Enron, Adelphia, Tyco, and other once high-flying companies like Bear Stearns have flooded newspapers, television screens and courtrooms around the country with important, and often difficult, questions about the ethics of business – or the consequences of their troubling absence. From inventors to investors, venture capitalists to investment bankers, and employees to managers, people inside America’s businesses are all too aware of the need for better corporate governance, for more accountability and transparency.

But from what sources do the virtues that inform such good behavior arise? And why are they so essential to the modern economy we have come to depend on for our creative freedom and our prosperity? Many people have real anxiety about virtue – particularly as it pertains to business – because it is a concept that is increasingly absent from our public vocabulary. Today, the general public holds corporate CEOs in lower esteem than at any time in history, ranking them below lawyers and politicians. Because of the crimes and scandals perpetuated by some company officials, people are rightly disillusioned, even disgusted, by what they glimpse of corporate America’s goals and the nefarious means with which it seeks to achieve them.

Perhaps, profit-only companies are, in fact, parasitic, and they damage the economy at large with their limited and self-focused view of their role in the marketplace. But companies that commit themselves to a more holistic core mission and are steeped in spiritual capital rooted in virtue, succeed not only in righting wrongs but in creating genuine personal and social progress, while also succeeding in generating strong profits. The moral outrage that people feel in response to the past decade of scandal and the past year of deceit is indeed entirely legitimate, and it leads to compelling questions about the true purpose of business and the virtues that are necessary to sustain it and a free economy.

It is characteristic of the age in which we live to see the moral life as a matter of following rules or dictated principles, often enforced by regulations and enforced by faceless bureaucrats. Ancients seldom referred to such rules or principles and there were no bureaucrats. For them the moral life was not a matter of what you do but of what you are. The fundamental notion was not duty but virtue. And the task of the leader was to describe the virtues that we should emulate and teach to our children and peers.

We achieve the condition of happiness and respectability only through the practice and discipline of the virtues. We teach our children to be courageous, wise, just and temperate because we know that this will make them respected by their fellows, secure in their decisions, and able to take full responsibility for their lives. Success in business is similar. Success is not an accident or matter of luck. The crooks usually, in time get caught. We prepare for business success by acquiring virtues—dispositions that help us to take risks, to make decisions, to take responsibilities for our actions, and to accept wise advise and correction. These virtues are the most important part of our human capital. We do not invent them for ourselves. Instead they grow organically over time, through history, tradition and experience. Everyone knows that the best and lasting companies breed virtuous corporate cultures.

The three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) and the hard virtues (leadership, courage, patience, perseverance, and discipline) need to be combined with the soft virtues (forgiveness, gratitude, and humility). Only by returning to the question of ethical norms—things which people must possess before they go to market to compete can we regain our way and have some sense again of a moral compass. These are the indispensable supports, which preserve both the market and competition from degeneration.

Business is the real test of the moral life, and those who engage in it are putting themselves in a position where trust in goodness, whether from God or nature’s laws, is the surest guarantee of success. The immediate result is the shaping of the human character, which in turn transforms culture—national as well as corporate. Vices lose their attraction and virtues become easier as spiritual discipline exerts its hold over the human personality.

Business is all about the creation of wealth and that requires capital investment. I believe the most essential part of that investment is the spiritual capital with which enterprise begins, then flowers and bears fruit – talents creating and sustaining still more talents, and all of us thriving in a vital bond.

It is time to renew our spiritual capital by living the virtues in the business sphere and in specific enterprises. For only in so doing will companies realize an incomparable source of the certainties that they will need in order to succeed in the highly competitive and interconnected international commerce that we have come to experience. In so doing we will be able to sort out the good from the bad and to foster freedom and responsibility.

Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, is the author of Spiritual Enterprise: Doing Virtuous Business, recently published by Encounter Books, 2008. Hearst Media Syndicate.

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