Pundits sometimes quip that “business ethics” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms because it is said that there is an inherent conflict between ethics and the pursuit of profit. But more and more, as we see the effects of such unmitigated self-interest, we begin to wonder whether the mantra of the 1980s, “Greed is good” has not visited disaster on so many people today. Today we find ourselves in a quandary—is our world spinning out of control? Has evil taken root in every sphere of our lives, so that even the very means of our efforts to sustain our existence are now suspect?
In our time Pope Francis said in his Ecumenical, Evangeli Gaudium, humanity is experiencing a turning point in its history, as can be seen from the advances occurring in the sciences and in technology. We are in an age of knowledge and information, and he has commented that this “has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power.” He notes that today we have “an economy of exclusion and inequality.” In a system that idolizes increased profit, everything that stands in its way is pushed aside. Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics. Ethics has come to be viewed with derision, as being counterproductive. It is felt to be a threat, because it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person, and that “ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response, which is outside of the categories of the marketplace.”
Likewise, referring to Pope Benedict XVI’s third Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office observed, “…the Encyclical offers a message of hope: Humanity has a mission and the means to transform the world and progress in justice and love in human relations, even in the social and economic field.”
Among other things, Benedict XVI emphasized that the economy is not a moral-free zone. Perhaps, Caritas in Veritate’s most important truth-claim about economic life is that the market economy cannot be based on just any value system…market economies must be underpinned by commitments to particular moral goods and a certain vision of the human person if it is to serve rather than undermine humanity’s common good.” He stressed that, “The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly—not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centered.”
And indeed, today, there is talk of ethics in finance and business. Corporate governance, which has become a buzzword in financial and capital markets is ethics-based. And so, we have seen a rise in government regulations, in the adoption of corporate governance codes, in the formulation of codes of conduct, in the strict observance of international financial standards. We are seeing that ethical behavior is the best long-term business strategy for a company. However, as the world struggles to “laymanize” ethics and ethical behavior, it seems to lose sight of what the Church has continually emphasized—that the heart of social doctrine remains to be the human person. This has to be the source that should inspire the thinking and behavior of businessmen and government leaders—their policies, actions and responses must always consider the centrality of the human person.
Unfortunately, growth and development, as the world sees it, are independent or differentiated from the question of faith, as if human promotion is one thing, and the proclamation of faith is another…hence the idea that ethics and business are incompatible…that economics and religion never the twain can meet.
The development of peoples, “is intimately linked to the development of individuals.” But all too often governments and political systems consider the development of peoples as matters of technological progress, of opening up markets and removing tariffs, of more investment in production, of financial engineering and institutional reforms…in other words, outside the realm of spirituality. It must be said, however, that true development is about integral development, which is about the whole person, and includes his spiritual development. In other words, ethics must be central to any ordering of human affairs.