Just prior to the start of the pandemic, I began teaching Business Ethics alongside my typical Business Law and Negotiations courses at Belmont University. Teaching Business Ethics is challenging; it can quickly devolve to moralizing clichés. While Belmont is a Christian university, many of our students are not Christians, and I have found literature to be one of the best ways to illuminate universal truth. As poet Emily Dickenson instructs, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant —…The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind —.”
Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road is one of the many pieces of literature that can speak into the ethical issues business people face. In The Road an unnamed father and son navigate a world that has embraced cannibalism and dark predatory violence. The novel’s post-apocalyptic environment is filled with a kind of panic that we saw pale forms of during the early days of the pandemic. Like the father at the center of the story, I immediately centered my reaction on planning for my family and making sure we were prepared for whatever would come next. As the months dragged on though, I started thinking more about what it means to truly live through difficult seasons, not merely survive. I’ve found lessons from The Road to be helpful not only in my personal life, but also in how I think about the role of business.
For many of us, our businesses feel like our children. We obsess over them, protect them, fight off competitors and do everything in our power to keep them alive. I am not going to try and dissuade you from those instincts because elements of them are healthy. I do, however, want to reflect on how prioritizing our progeny over our principles can leave us with a cutthroat world without any real winners.
When we sacrifice virtue through a myopic focus on profit, all stakeholders, including our shareholders ultimately suffer. To be clear, a profitable business can be incredibly beneficial for society, and businesses will not survive long without a profit. But to riff off a concept from legal scholar Jeff Van Duzer, profit for business is like breathing for humans—both are necessary for existence, but very few of us claim that respiration is the ultimate purpose in life. As poet Mary Oliver reminds us, “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”
The question remains though: how do leaders cultivate virtue and build more meaningful businesses, while trying to remain profitable in a competitive environment? Answers to complex questions do not usually arrive neatly packaged. The proper ethical path for businesses will always be full of difficult decisions, especially when resources are sparse as in pandemic. Still, I offer three brief suggestions to help promote ethical choices in your business.
Biblical wisdom literature reminds us to be slow to speak (Pro. 29:20) and encourages us to seek understanding rather than just hastily expressing our own opinions (Pro. 18:2). Further, we are told that plans succeed with many advisors (Pro. 15:22). Truly listening to a variety of stakeholders, may seem obvious, but is nevertheless often ignored in businesses.
After listening, good business leaders seek to involve stakeholders in the governance process. In the United States, most stakeholder groups are largely left out of decision making, even after the Business Roundtable boldly announced a more stakeholder-centric conception of corporate purpose in 2019. While handing over rights may feel risky, involving a broad range of stakeholders in governance can lead to a more purposeful organization with a much wider base of support.
In a business culture where success is often measured by net worth rankings, sacrificing financially may seem counterintuitive. However, I do not think it is naive to say we should value a healthy community more than our own wallets. Jesus’ life of selflessness provides a model for radical sacrifice. Even the British utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose writings have sometimes been used to justify exploitation, recognized the superior value of rising above the more animalistic parts of ourselves, like greed, and embracing the common good.
More Than Simply Breathing
None of these concepts are novel, but neither are they easy. As Mill noted, “[i]n most people a capacity for the nobler feelings is a very tender plant that is easily killed, not only by hostile influences but by mere lack of nourishment.” Nevertheless, in moments of more deliberate thinking, we can pre-commit to transcendent principles that can help elevate us in our decisions during difficult times like the pandemic. While the specific business pre-commitments will vary, Christian Scripture suggests our actions should be animated by love and not by fear of shrinking resources (1 Jn. 4:18).
Following his father’s death, the son in The Road meets a stranger. In accordance with his father’s advice to “always be on the lookout,” the young boy points his gun at the approaching figure. After the exchange of a few words, the son lowers his gun, trusting and following the man. This move is not without risk, but unlike his father, the son has given himself the chance to become part of a broader community. In the last sentence, McCarthy simply speaks of a world that “hums with mystery,” inviting us to imagine something beyond the defensive, violent world of the father. During a pandemic, it is tempting to focus solely on survival. Yet, flourishing for ourselves, our children, and our businesses, exists in a world where principles transcend profit, selflessness builds communities, and life is more than simply breathing.