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On Being a Generalist

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In 1968, when Raymond C. Baumhart, S.J., published his ground-breaking text, An Honest Profit: What Businessmen Say About Ethics in Business, his intentions were quite modest. His attempt was to survey what business persons thought about, believed in, and actually did in regard to ethics in their business lives. By his own admission, he never consciously set out to create or anticipate the study of business ethics as a formal discipline. His book does not cover all of the major categories and issues in the field of business ethics, but in publishing it, he, in fact, helped to initiate an important area of study as we know it today.

         In some sense, Baumhart was making the first self-conscious academic attempt to address and bridge “The Problem of the Two Realms.” “Ours is the business-centered society,” said Baumhart. “No group in America is more influential than business persons. Their influence, for good and evil, enters every life and every home… As Henry Ford II observed: ‘Around the world, we are oftendescribed as a business society.’If that is so, and if it is judged that businesses are corrupt, then it will be assumed that society itself is corrupt.”[1] What is important to recognize is that Baumhart made the person doing business the object and focus of his study. He wanted to understand how and why individual business persons made moral choices in the context of actually doing business. His inference here, I think, is clear. Individuals, not institutions, are the loci of moral decision-making and moral responsibility.

          As a management scholar, Baumhart wanted to defend the concept of Homo Economicus as a natural part of the fabric of life. Life is about material gain. It’s about getting stuff. It’s about transaction and exchange. It’s about self-interest and the interest of others. As a student to philosophy and theology, he also wanted to argue that we are not only economic creatures. Ethics is also a part of the fabric of human experience. It’s about deciding how we ought to behave with others. It’s about our obligations and rights with respect to others.

          For Baumhart, the assertion that “business is business” and that ethics is what we try to do in our private lives simply does not hold up to close scrutiny. Business is a human institution. Just as governments come to be out of the human need for order, security, and fulfillment, so too does business. The goal of all business, labor, and work is to make life more secure, more stable, and more equitable. Business exists to serve more than just itself. No business or businessperson can view themselves as disconnected from other individuals and society. Ontologically it is important to remember that “business is not only for human beings, it is also of and by them. A business cannot simply serve itself because it isn’t and it distinct from human relationships, and thus the human beings that make it up.”[2] As such, both business and businesspersons are required to ask the question: What ought to be done in regard to those who we work with, work for, and come to work to serve?

          Since the publication of An Honest Profit, business ethics as a formal discipline has ben, to say the least, a growth industry. And, I agree with John Boatright that the discipline will continue to become more and more focused and specialized in regard to topics, research, and specific classes taught.[3] How can it be otherwise when you consider the complexity of the modern world of business: the global marketplace, international banking and finance, and our instantaneous online inter-connectivity. And yet, it does not follow from the fact that because business is more complex that the moral feature of business are more complex. As one NPR commentator has suggested, the sins and foibles we find in today’s headlines (“Bernie Madoff Bilks Clients out of $65 Billion”) are not different in kind from the headlines of the past (Charles Ponzi Dupes $20 Million From His Unsuspecting Customers”). In the end, the moral failures of business are the moral failures of businesspersons.[4]

          Like Ray Baumhart, I’m old school, and I want to make an argument for being a generalist. For me, the issue is not only “what’s wrong with business?” but the larger question, “why is it so hard to be good?” I remain convinced that we have to teach ethics as a way of looking at the world, as a way of making decisions about others. Then we need to apply this way of thinking, this methodology, to our public and professional lives. The moral issues facing a person are age old, and these are essentially the same issues facing a businessperson everyday – only write in large script.[5]

          An introductory class in business ethics should cover some, but need not cover every topic listed, for example, in the table of contents of Joe Des Jardins’ and John McCall’s text Contemporary Issues in Business Ethics. The real purpose of a class in business ethics is to challenge students to be reflective, to be critical, and to think ethically. Every ethics class needs to create an environment that encourages students to ask the baseline question of the entire enterprise: What ought I to do – whether in my private, public, or professional life – with respect to others? There is no “disconnect” between ethics and business ethics. Ethics is “how we treat each other, every day, person to person. If you want to know about a company’s ethics, look at how it treats people – customers, suppliers, and employees. Business is about people. And business ethics is about how customers, employees, and everyone involved are treated.”[6]

          Tom Donaldson once said that “a course in (business) ethics is not like a polio vaccine. We can’t inoculate students against doing wrong … But we can offer them diagnostic skills and tools for critical thinking.”[7] He’s right, no single class can cure you forever, or teach you all you need to know for the rest of your life. Nor can a class in ethics make bad people good. If the sight of a CEO on the national news doing the perp walk doesn’t dissuade dishonesty, I very much doubt that a two week lecture on Kant will either! But you can create an intellectual environment in the classroom that requires students to reflect on their own values and expose them to new and novel ideas. You can encourage students to ask questions that could possibly shake and shift the ground under their feet. And, perhaps most importantly, you can point out that when Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” what he implied is that in examining life, we become more a part of life. In questioning life, we make ourselves more responsive to and responsible for the life we live. In the end, the purpose of any course in ethics or business ethics is somehow to communicate to our students that the goal of life is not just to gain wealth and escape suffering or inconvenience. The goal is to escape doing wrong and to live well with others.

[1] Raymond Baumhart, S.J., An Honest Profit(New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968), xiii

[2] Alexei C. Marcoux, Memo: “On being a Generalist,” amarcou@luc.edu, July 22, 2009.

[3] John Boatright, Memo: “The Future Strategic Research Focus of Loyola University Chicago SBA,” jboatri@luc.edu, November 12, 2008.

[4] Al Gini, “Never Having To Say You’re Sorry”, 848, NPR, WBEZ – Chicago Public Radio, April 9, 2009

[5] Thomas Donaldson, Corruptions and Morality (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1982), 14.

[6] Edward R. Freeman, “The Problem of the Two Realms”, Speech, Loyola University Chicago, The Center for Ethics, Spring 1992.

[7] Thomas Donaldson, Memo: “Absent Minded Professor”, donaldst@wharton.upenn.edu, July 13, 2009.

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