“It’s dog eat dog in business”
“Nice guys finish last”
“There’s no place for morality in business”
How often have you heard this stuff? Every time you talk to a businessman for a start.
If you establish a value system that says there is no morality in business, that profit is the only purpose of business and that profit always trumps honesty, integrity and compassion, then you are going to get businessmen behaving immorally (amorally at best). If you then marketise, commodify and privatise every aspect of human lives then this im/amorality will inevitably pervade every aspect of our lives. It’s not rocket science surely?
Since Milton Friedman’s 1970 article “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits,” was published in the New York Times Magazine, this attitude, that there is no place in business for morality, has become almost ubiquitous in global business circles.
The moral justification for the idea is that,
“for a corporation or other business entity to commit itself to compete solely, or primarily, through a free and open market, relying thereby for its success on the voluntary choices of consumers, is an ethical high road.”
This moral view holds that a company operating in a free and open market and within the law has no further moral obligations. Indeed, it goes further and suggests that the free-market system itself is the primary moral good that will inevitably bring about all other moral goods such as equality of opportunity, freedom and justice. As Adam Smith said:
“Every individual endeavours to employ his capital so that its produce may be of greatest value. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. He intends only his own security, only his own gain. And he is in this led by an invisible hand to promote an end, which has no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”
Adam Smith 1723-1790. The Wealth of Nations, 1776
This is how we get to the ‘Greed is Good” philosophy of global corporate capitalism so ably satirised in Oliver Stone’s, Wall Street. Under this moral system each of us behaving in our own self-interest are conveniently also acting in the common good; in fact being greedy and selfish is to be morally good! Which is very convenient if you happen to be a particularly greedy and selfish person.
As a teenage Socialist I was often patronised as being a ‘hopeless idealist’. The suggestion was that while Socialism and Communism were motivated by the highest moral aspirations they were also hopelessly unrealistic given the realities of human nature and the complexity of modern global economics.
Yet the alternative philosophy being put forward turns out to be that…….. if a few entrepreneurial individuals are greedy and selfish enough some ‘invisible hand’ will miraculously give us all what we want and need!?
And this is the ‘realistic’ alternative to Socialism and Communism!? Are you having a laugh? It’s bloody ludicrous. Even the most ardent free-marketeers have to acknowledge that modern corporate capitalism has an underlying predisposition towards instability, monopoly and exploitation and these dispositions have to be managed and moderated – which is why every advanced capitalist country have powerful anti-trust institutions and health and safety laws to give minimum protection to workers from the worst excesses of ‘greedy and selfish’ employers. The response of these ‘greedy and selfish’ employers has been to move their manufacturing businesses overseas where the health & safety regulations don’t apply.
Far from free-market Capitalism providing for all our wants and needs it inevitably leads to a tiny but obscenely wealthy elite and a majority left as wage slaves to these economic aristocrats.
Even Adam Smith himself recognised that the free-market vision of human nature is at best only part of the story:
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion, which we feel for the misery of others when we either see it or are made to conceive it in a very lively matter…. By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation. We enter, as it were, into his body and become in some measure the same person with him.”
Adam Smith 1723-1790. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759
Here Smith acknowledges the moral power of empathy and that our mutual responsibility for our fellow man is part of what it is to be human.
Greed and selfishness are just that and they almost always involve the exploitation of other men and women, often in the most brutal and horrifying ways. You only have to visit the slums of Mumbai or Rio De Janeiro to understand how that works.
The Murdoch scandal is just the latest example of the moral bankruptcy that underlies the whole free-market philosophy of Friedman et al. Nothing will change until the business and financial communities recognise that just like the rest of us they have a duty to behave with decency, honesty and integrity – even if that reduces their profits.
I Am Not A Number
 An Appropriate Ethical Model For Business, Richard W. Wilcke