Whose Business is Business?

on Saturday, 05 July 2003. Posted in Issue 40 An Ethic for the Third Millennium, 2001

Seamus O\'Gorman, SJ

June 2001

Business – An Uneasy Success Story

Given the amazing and lasting ‘success’ of the Irish economy over the last number of years, it is striking to note what a strong sense of unease there is in Irish society. At one level, the first year of the new millennium has been characterised by an almost irrational but niggling fear that much of what we have achieved could quite suddenly  turn to dust. Will we wake up and see the cranes have disappeared? Will we discover that the miracle epitomized in the potential  of the world wide web has turned out to be more one of its deceit rather than of its lasting contribution to real wealth creation? Will a contemptuously disregarded environment strike back? There are also indications of a deeper fear, the fear that all we have achieved may not have been very much anyhow.  That this feeling lingers is remarkable given the extraordinary change in our economic well-being perhaps most notably in relation to jobs and emigration. For all those real achievements, there is little evidence to suggest that we have become a happier, a  more content or more fulfilled people. As recent industrial action indicates there are significant sections of people convinced that they have not received an adequate share of the boom.  Others - the sick, the excluded - can equally wonder why the boom makes so little difference to them.  Could it be that we have been so enthralled by the experience of riding the Celtic Tiger that we have missed its meaning?


A key element in the growth and strength  of the Tiger has been  the  success  of  business  in Ireland.  It is true of course that business has not achieved it alone. The hints  that  the  Tiger might be limping remind us that it has been fed by a very favourable external economic environment, by massive hidden contributions of innumerable unsung and relatively under-rewarded heroines and heroes and by the related emerging widespread consensus across key sectors in Irish society that   Ireland  should entrust its future to business.  Supporting the development and growth of business, through wage restraint and through lowering of taxes, has been promoted as the principal way to support Ireland.

This is not to say that people do not have their remaining doubts about business. Tribunals and inquiries which reveal ways in which parts of business have sought to make their own rules, and to buy favour, provide plenty to nourish such doubts.  We still hear of job losses, of low pay, of harmfully stressful working conditions and practices which strike at human living, and of how business damages the environment. Intellectually, it is difficult to resist being swept along by the tide of praise for all that the Tiger has done. Yet in the stomach of Ireland there are disturbing and disquieting rumblings which point to a residue of discomfort with the claims of business to pride of place in the creation of not just a more prosperous but also a better Ireland. At this moment in history, having had a few years to contemplate the beauty of the Tiger and when we are clearer on what business – at its most successful - has to offer, perhaps it is a good time to muse on some different basic question.  If so many are calling us to support business, what are we supporting it for?

The Purposes of Business – “Internal Views”

a) Models

There are many people for whom such a question is a dangerous intrusion. Questions about the purpose or the meaning of business are seen as treacherous interventions from an outside world.  They are necessarily loaded questions, tainted with anti-capitalism, and with the answers inevitably and crudely stacked against business.  For many such people, the question of what business is for is self-evident: it flows from the obvious nature of business. Business exists to make a profit, in fact to make the most profits it can. Full stop.

There is another view of business which holds that business must be somewhat more responsible. The primary purpose of business remains the maximisation of long term owner value, but now this aim must be situated within the framework of a varied and competing  responsibility to different stakeholders, including suppliers, customers, workers, shareholders and wider society.  This is a wider but still strictly limited responsibility which almost never reaches beyond the best overall interests of the business itself.

If such are some of the more widely endorsed models which stress the very limited purposes of business, it is interesting to wonder why there seems to be so little discussion in our society and in our public life about the role and limits of business activity.

b) Beliefs

Beneath these models it is possible to detect a range of powerful, though perhaps rarely explicitly articulated, beliefs which seem to underpin such views.

i) First among these, there is a tendency to make an easy division of the world into “business people” and “non business people”, into insiders and outsiders. Business people understand the way of business, non business people generally  do not.  This is not unique to business people. As social beings,  we do group according to interests. However, it is much more significant for society if business people drift towards discussing  their issues with each other, than that football fans only talk to each other.

ii) Then there can be the “claiming of reality” by business people, often in the simple phrase prefacing a conversation: “in the real world…” With this, imagination and almost any suggestion of an alternative approach – to the whats and hows of business - can be dismissed as perhaps desirable but ideal, unrealistic, unworkable.

iii) In addition there can be the propagation of a “two worlds theory”, where a sharp separation is made between the standards one may aspire to or live by in one’s personal or private life and the standards by which one lives in the world of business.

iv) Furthermore, the widespread sense that business is generally highly regulated as a public activity can lead to a tendency to believe that a general compliance with the law - itself a time consuming activity - must suffice for attending to the ethical dimension of business activity.  It can be as if, because it is legal, it is ethical enough.

These kind of beliefs play a key role in creating barriers between business and wider society, making it more difficult to cultivate a space for deeper public discourse about the real values, limitations and evolution of business.  If  business - and business people - wish to have the active as against  passive participation of society, it needs to allow for  genuine dialogue with the rest of society about what it is doing. If business wishes to claim it is so essential to society, that the economic policy of the nation should be directed primarily to supporting its success, then society must be allowed its say in the broadest possible discussion and evaluation of business. There is need for a discussion of a more fundamental nature than can take place in the pressurised atmosphere involved in negotiations by government, union, voluntary and business leaders in the context of social partnership.

The Purposes of Business – “External Views”

The present moment in Ireland gives business – and to be fair, Irish society more widely - an excellent opportunity to attend to this unease. Business is part of society. It needs society - society gives it its workers, its customers, and its markets - but it also needs it in deeper ways. To engage people, to get people to study, to train, to innovate, to work long hours, to stay in the work force, to keep at it, business needs society to endorse what it is trying to do. The best prospect for succeeding in this involves entering into dialogue with society about what it has to offer.

There are many possible dialogue partners for business, including government, political parties, trade unions, and the voluntary sector.

A less obvious one, and one with whom there tends to be less real and meaningful public dialogue, are with people of religious faith gathered in faith based communities. In many ways business and religion are profoundly alike, and could have a lot to learn from each other. Business for many, functions socially as a new religion, claiming total allegiance, holding control of rewards and punishments and offering ultimate salvation. The churches have centuries of experience in this role.

Clearly there are many reasons why such dialogue does not take place. As institutions, both can tend to place their dogmas before learning from others. The Churches have  hierarchical structures which consciously place all leadership in the hands of experts in the sacred rather than the secular.  This can seem to undermine the critical interest that people may have in what the Churches have to say about the world of business.   Christians – sadly - can easily be seen to be totally naïve about issues of wealth and to be ideologically hostile to its pursuit. In addition they have often failed to make adequate distinctions about a justifiable concern with the distribution of resources, especially to those in great need, with an indifference or almost chronic reluctance to engage with issues regarding wealth creation.    On the other hand, the apparent strength of business means it has less need to listen to outsiders.  Given its astonishing success in the 1990s it has little need to listen to institutions whose more recent years have through media eyes been presented as embarrassing failure.

However, there are also good reasons why such a dialogue could  take place, and particularly in Ireland. [i]    From the point of view of the Christian communities, what happens in the world of business is crucial. If more recent theology makes us realise that great sins may be as easily committed in the board room, as the bedroom, the more positive corollary may need to be highlighted:  as the greatest acts of love may also occur in bedrooms, so they can through decisions made in board rooms. Huge numbers of Christians spend their daily lives working in business. As Christians, and as people living in the world of business, it is vital that they be given a chance to explore the connections between where their faith draws them and where their lives root them on a daily basis. The world of business has a profound impact on the lives people lead and on the meaning they discover within them. The success or failure of business largely determines the resources there are to meet social and public needs in society and in the wider world.

From the point of view of business, there are things which can be learnt from faith-based reflections on the meaning, the regulation and the purpose of human activities which could make a valuable contribution to the shaping of business.  The ‘unease’ within business points to the possibility that its key resource – its people – want more from life than business has so far provided. This is so even despite the resources business can dedicate to financial and other quality of life incentives.

This dialogue could happen at top level, but it is also conceivable that it would happen at lower levels between people who care about business – about keeping the company going, about developing its potential, providing decent jobs, making positive links to the community, -and people who care about Christian faith.  It could happen in homes, in families, in churches, in pubs, wherever people gather to celebrate life’s joys and to review life’s disappointments.  Rooted in such places, the dialogue would need to allow space for the large scale horrors committed in the name of business (and if necessary of Christianity), for example, the notorious abuse of environment and workers prevalent in certain internationally renowned firms.  Yet such a focus ought not distract from the importance of exploring and discussing honestly the performance of the more ordinary and less dramatic side which constitutes much of the real business world.

At a more formal church level, such dialogue could be initiated by such simple measures as inviting people involved in the world of business to speak in church of what it is they are doing and struggling with in their lives. If the churches do not actively seek to create spaces where people can name and explore issues, issues which absorb their energies and creativity, are they not guilty of neglecting a major part of their mission to engage with the world? For if it is true that we have largely lost the ability to talk meaningfully of sex, could it not also be said that our religious services seldom help us touch the mystery, with its lights and shadows, of what money – and so business - does to and for us?

What kind of things might a Christian sponsored dialogue be able to offer to the belief system underlying business, both in its more spectacular multinational version, but equally in the ordinary businesses with which we are continuously involved?

First, perhaps there is need to acknowledge that many business people have an understandable  reluctance to allow their work be questioned by people outside the world of business.  A great deal of business activity is carried on in a very pressurised and competitive context. Sales targets have to be met, customers satisfied, staff paid, creditors kept happy.  Many people experience that they have very little freedom or ability to really control the vital variables which shape the futures of their business.  To find space in such a setting to ask deeper or different kinds of questions is not easy.

If there is to be dialogue these difficulties have to be acknowledged in some way.  Ignoring where people are, and what they experience as the reality of their situation rarely allows for worthwhile meeting.  Yet, if non business people need to step out of their worlds to empathise, so too must business people in some way acknowledge the legitimacy of other peoples’ experience and their wanting to hear more comprehensive answers about the purpose of business. The grounds of this depend on  a recognition that before we are business and non business we are people with a common humanity.  The recognition of this common humanity is fundamental to meaningful dialogue in society about the purpose of business. The acceptance that we share a common humanity also raises serious questions about the notion that we can justifiably compartmentalise moral concern in our lives, in the sense that we treat humans with fundamentally different standards depending on which sector they occupy in our lives. Clearly, it is true that as a parent you have a different role in relation to your children, than in relation to your staff. A question to be considered is whether such different roles and contexts justify a view that the  “world  of   business”   is   so    profoundly different  that   we   would   allow   a   different standard of morality to rule there than we would expect in  other areas of our lives? It is interesting to note that our society does not generally accept such a separation of private and public morality.  For example, in the case where we entrust vulnerable parents to the medical profession or our young children to child workers, while we may be comforted by the professionalisation of such services, do we place our trust in this or in the fact that the doctor may recognise her father in your father or his son in your son? Clearly there are extras which we do for those who occupy the more intimate spaces of our lives, partners, children, family, close friends. However, the minimum of what we do not do to them also constitutes a minimum which should be observed in the rest of our lives. If you would not sell it to your son, if you would not ask your mother to work for that wage, then maybe you should not treat your customer or employee this way, because they happen to be more vulnerable, as for example, in the case of migrant workers.

Perhaps room could also be found to look again at what the real world is, and who defines it. Different groups – including a male clerical church - need to question their monopolies on defining what ‘the real world’ is.  Meeting sales targets and the need to make profits are important elements in this. Yet they seem inadequate ways of getting at the whole of  reality.  Outsiders know that.  Numerical profits made on the back of unliveably stressful lives, or permanent damage to the environment, in many ways do more to conceal rather than reveal reality.  The encouraging thing is that business itself knows

this. Despite the harsh image of many business people it remains true that very few people easily accommodate to the more brutal logic which “cut throat” business imposes on them.

Supporting the Goods of Business

What then might a Christian inspired reflection have to offer by way of answer to the question – why support business? One of the difficulties of thinking ethically about the function of business is the sheer scale of business and the many different shapes it takes, from small corner shop to multinational oil company. Also the kind of questions which arise seem to be endless. However, precisely in order to be able to address different types of business and questions, it would be very useful to have some more fundamental framework around which basic questions could be gathered. The question, what is business for, can be usefully addressed in terms of three sub-questions:  what is produced, how is it produced, and why is it produced?

i) What?

If the purpose of business were really to make maximum profits, or to respond to the demands of stakeholders then what is produced should never really matter. It is clearly possible to see a value in an almost infinite variety and range of products which businesses produce.

However support for business can never be total or unqualified.  Again this is something we can easily see if we think about business  in the light of how we live the rest of our lives. Relationships are to be supported, but not between bully and child; education too, but not the teaching of racism to young kids; health care, but not against the will of the patient.

According to economic theory the market will play a major role in determining which goods are produced. Only those goods which meet the demand of consumers in terms of quality and price will be purchased. However, even after the market has done its filtering, there are still many products which seem to raise ethical questions.  There are  basic differences between producing bread and tobacco, or medicine and arms. We also know that the market drastically underestimates the negative environmental value of many so-called ‘goods’.

The problem which often stops people going beyond a vague doubt, or uneasiness, about being involved in the production of ethically questionable products – such as tobacco or arms, - is the difficulty of determining which products should be allowed and which not. The idea of developing a list of ethically more acceptable and less acceptable goods and even  banning the production of certain products seems a dangerous assault on our basic liberal instincts.  There is disagreement about tobacco and what harm it really does. No one is forced to buy it. Also there are people who are addicted to it, and for whom the ending of tobacco consumption would cause them more harm than its continuation. Tobacco exists because people want it. The same kind of points can be made about pornography or violent movies.

There is something intuitively unconvincing about this line of argument. From other areas of life, we know or  discover a sense of obligation not to cause harm to others, even when people seem to be willing accomplices in their own harming. Do we not shudder a little at the thought of allowing our children watch brutal horror movies late at night, even if they feel a certain fascination for them?

Perhaps more interesting has been the campaign to ban land mines in recent years. There is a line of acceptability about what is produced. And in the end landmines crossed over it. Despite the fact that there was great money in landmines, and that shareholders could do very well, the land mine ban shows that the subjecting of profits to the criteria of the harm they cause to people can be carried out.

So whether you are an owner, a manager, or an employee, what you produce does matter. It is never just business, nor is it ever just our business. Whether it is agriculture or banking or computers or services, the questions about the real as against financial value of the product is there to be answered.  Do you believe it’s good for people, and is it sustainable?

ii) How?

Contrary to what has increasingly become  the popular caricature of business there is a great deal to admire in how business is carried out. Business allows for the expression and use of enormous human talents and virtues  in terms of attention to needs, identification of opportunities, design of solutions, co-operation, planning, risk taking. Just as we can be stunned at a concert to hear someone’s mastery of a musical instrument so we can legitimately admire what an individual or group manage to do through a business or company.  Bringing it all together so that jobs are provided, staff are rewarded, needs are met, and the economy is built up, requires admirable skills and commitment.

The fact that business can be done well alerts us to the fact that it can be done badly. The means do matter.  What people have to say of the places they work, and particularly of the atmosphere within which they work, over the first pint on a Friday evening, bears powerful testimony to the fact that the vast majority of people have strong and persistent expectations of how business needs to be run. An exclusive focus on meeting targets while ignoring the human cost to staff well being is  unacceptable to most people. Workers need adequate pay,  manageable patterns of work, an ability to humanise what they do in their work in all sorts of ways, including adequate influence in shaping their own areas of work.  This means that what is asked of them and provided to them in work must strive towards acknowledging and positively respecting their humanity rather than expecting  them to park this  outside.

In this regard it is worth thinking not only about what a firm produces for sale on the market, but also about what it produces internally. In working in this business, in giving their time, their energy, their creativity, their intelligence, what is done by the firm to the people working in it? It is undoubtedly true that business cannot be expected to  satisfy  all of society’s  or all  of any individual’s needs. At the same time, as business asks more from society and of individuals, the question of its responsibilities to society and individuals become broader, in terms of how they impact on the quality of life.  One of the real dangers of having so much regulation to cover protection of staff in so many areas is that it establishes a legalistic mentality amongst business managers. It is important that managers fulfil their legal  duties towards their workers, but a spirit of mere compliance with minimal obligations  is  unlikely to satisfy  the legitimate desires and longings of workers. Businesses which genuinely seek to attend to the how of business, and which  let go a focus on what they  can get away with and replace this with a more vivid sense of the social significance and value of how they produce, have a stronger claim on the support of society.

iii) Why?

Finally a business that produces what is good, and does it in a good way, will be in a better position if it is able to provide some answer to the ultimate question of why it produces this product at this moment in history, and why it draws energy and resources into this area.  While this type of question can seem to be too abstract and pointless in that there can be no final answer to it, it is also clear that it is a question that the total commitment of business does itself raise. People who work long hours, who face great pressure, who take real risks almost inevitably come to face this kind of question. The pressure - to the point of imposing a real strain on quality of life for self, family and workers - means that people cannot for ever avoid looking at this question. What is all the effort for?

It is becoming clearer that the intrinsic rewards of business do not ultimately seem to provide an adequate answer to this question.  It seems that salary increases, bonuses, perks, the sense of achievement, the prestige of succeeding do not adequately fill the hunger which drives business.  To some extent, this is to the advantage of business, as it may provide the motivating force to keep people going at the pace business requires. It works as long as people do not wonder about whether, rather than looking for more, they are actually looking for something different.

Ultimately, the answer to this question depends on a sense of the ultimate purpose in life.  Such a question often seems a million miles from the daily cut and thrust of business. Yet, the very pace and frenetic activity of business also pushes people to ask this ultimate why.  Far from being the last question, or a question too deep to be answered, this question could be considered to be the first question. We cannot avoid answering it. We may not put it into words, but the way in which we live our lives actually constitutes and expresses our operative answer to it.  We cannot avoid wondering what it profits us even if we make millions, but do so by dedicating our most precious personal resources to producing things which we do not value,  in a way which we cannot believe in and for  reasons we cannot find.

In relation to this question Christianity may have something useful to say.  It is possible to debate the question of the ultimate purpose of business and of life in some sort of abstract vacuum. However, at its best Christian thinking urges us to explore such a question within the context of concrete human history.

Within Ireland, perhaps one of the great ironies of the ‘success’ of business has been how much more difficult it has become for people to  get the housing they aspire to. It is very difficult to see how a business which through hoarding of land, and resisting legislation aimed at tackling the housing problem can present itself as having an ultimate purpose which is not fundamentally in conflict with the wider social good.  If business ignores the wider cultural aspirations of the society in which it must work, it will find it much more difficult to win social support.

Among all the challenges facing the business community, perhaps one stands out. It is quite clear that the best foreseeable efforts of governments,  of  developing  countries  and  of

NGOs will never succeed in the battle to reduce world poverty. To do so, they will need the support of business.

There are those who deny that business can have any noble purpose.  However, it is possible to argue that the activity of business could be amongst the most noble if a greater part of the business community were to take on the challenge of showing that it believes so much  in globalisation that it works for a world order where poorer countries can be effectively included.  Then such business could be supported because it would be directing investment to where it is most needed, targeting production at real human needs and using its power not just to maximise profits, nor to keep stakeholders happy but to contribute to the common attainable and global good.

Conclusion - A brighter future for business

If we are to address the unease with the success which business brings, we need to discover that there are ways in which we can influence the shape of business in the years to come. The climate of business is constantly changing. Business lives with change or it dies. Business then has the capacity to accommodate to new questions from its practitioners and from the society in which it is carried out. For business people, a key is to find time and space to attend to the full range of questions which being involved in business raises.  Practically, it seems vital that such questions are attended to not only at crisis moments when ethical questions force themselves to the fore.  Questions about where resources are placed, how they are used, and to what end need to be addressed at set up phase, and also within the context of strategic planning.

There are grounds for fear about the future of business, and of business in Ireland. Some of these are economic.  The story of ‘success’ could end.  But the deeper reasons for fear are social.  Business requires extraordinary levels of human co-operation, and consensus. For an activity that  is routinely characterised as competitive, it actually depends on being able to create trust, and a profound level of co-operation among people. For a time, it can forge ahead, but the future for business - or for parts of business - would be much brighter if it could honestly propose that what it produces, and how it produces it is really for some agreed social purposes which respond to the real needs of our world, and the real good of society.


My thanks to Tom Giblin SJ  for comments in relation to this article.


[i] While the focus of this article is on dialogue about the purposes of business, the possibility that a range of challenging questions could arise in the context of such a dialogue about the churches and what Christians do in the world, should I think be welcomed from a Christian point of view.

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Working Notes is a journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The journal focuses on social, economic and theological analysis of Irish society. It has been produced since 1987.