“We ought to pass a law that no man worth $100,000,000 should be tried for a crime.”
— U.S. Senator Norris, in the 1920s, after an industrialist was acquitted of charges of corruption
While the rhetoric in much of today’s corporate environment is all about money and power, a growing number of individuals is seeking an alternative perspective. They want firms to not just do well financially, but to do good also. There is a renaissance of interest in the views of Adam Smith, the Scotsman who many people call the “Inventor of Capitalism” and the “Founder of Free Markets.”
But those who assert such opinions usually haven’t studied Smith’s ideas. They are therefore surprised to learn that he was not an economist at all. He wrote his well-known classic, The Wealth of Nations, in 1776. But his most important writings were published earlier in his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In it, he called for a new civil society based on principles such as “justice,” “benevolence,” “sympathy,” or “fellow feeling.” He advocated the need for new actors who possess characteristics of higher human character: “humanity, justice, generosity and public spirit.” Crass capitalism was not for him.
Adam Smith today is widely misunderstood by many dealers on Wall Street and CEOs in company boardrooms today. But a few enlightened business leaders have tapped into Smith’s vision. For example, David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, reported that it was a spiritual calling “to do something useful” that led him to build that great company. The need for a sense of usefulness is a great force in human life, a spiritual need that will not be denied.
Likewise, CEOs of progressive smaller companies like Tom’s of Maine are heavily involved in developing ecologically-based products that ensure the firm’s high ethics and long-term sustainability. Ben Cohen, a co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, labored to create “caring capitalism,” and the company gave workers shares of stock, tried to provide a rough egalitarianism in terms of salaries, and gave away 7.5 percent of pre-tax profits to charities around the world. Similiarly, Michael Novak, Catholic philosopher, has written a deeply moving book, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life that captures the essence of a set of management values which is quite congruent with ethical principles held by many of the world’s moral traditions.
The links in this section of my website contain some of my research and publications on work and spirituality, corporate social responsibility, corporate criticisms, and business management topics, each of which also lists relevant links to further information.
“In terms of power and influence, you can forget the church, forget politics. There is no more powerful institution in society than business—I believe it is now more important than ever before for business to assume a moral leadership. The business of business should not be about money, it should be about responsibility. It should be about public good, not private greed.”
— Anita Roddick, Founder of The Body Shop
Business Ethics Links
“The only way to achieve true success is to express yourself completely in service to society.”