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Business is Business

‘Business is Business’

What is this thorny little tautology supposed to mean exactly? It’s tempting to dismiss it as meaningless but if you do that you risk missing something quite terrifying. For many people, among them some of my students, ‘Business is Business’ actually means something like this:

‘Business is a special area of human activity where usual moral considerations like integrity, respect for persons, justice, equality and virtue simply don’t apply.’

There’s a now legendary (ish) story about this attitude at Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied (IDEA CETL) the institution at Leeds University where I sometimes work. When faced with a lecture theatre of clever, enthusiastic business students a colleague of mine, introducing business ethics for the first time asked:

‘Who thinks ethics is important in medicine?’ (A sea of hands up) ‘And who thinks ethics is important in Law’ (still plenty of hands) ‘…and what about Business, who things ethics is important in Business?’

Not a single hand.

When I had an opportunity to talk to some students about this they told me with all sincerity: ‘Business is Business’. It seemed to them so self-evident that it barely needed unpacking at all, but when we did discuss it a little further they told me that business people make money: that’s their job and that’s it.

It seemed as though our quaint case studies about ethical sourcing of wood or exploitation of indigenous communities were irrelevant anomalies caused by a misunderstanding of the single most important principle of business: Maximise profit. If you can get that right (and ensure you don’t break the law) there’s nothing more to worry about.

But there’s A LOT more to worry about.

There are people in tents outside St Pauls and all over the world acutely worried about the nightmarish consequences that this strange half-articulated notion that commerce can be pealed apart from questions of what matters. Even some city workers themselves are calling this into question.

Ethics is the philosophical exploration of moral values in human life. It is a fundamental practice that is culturally, socially and psychologically embedded in human beings. There are clearly no areas of human life where we cannot ask: Is this good? Good for whom? And who is this harming? It is perfect legitimate in business as in politics, religion or art to ask: Why are we doing this? For what good? What about the consequence’s? And is there a better way?

So why aren’t we equipping people to engage critically and creatively with these questions? Where is the non-tokenistic business ethics in every undergraduate degree? Where is open-ended, challenging business ethics in Business Studies A Level or at GCSE? When do younger children have the opportunity to freely explore the world of money and its relationship to human flourishing?

In my work with very little children we sometimes talk about money and what matters. In a school in Leeds last year I told a Year Three class a story about a magic wish. In the story a girl wishes that she could be perfectly happy; the magician had waved his magic wand and when the smoke cleared she found on her lap a purse that would never run out of money.

I asked he children if they thought the magician had answered her wish.

What followed was a long and illuminating discussion on happiness, wealth and what matters. By the end of the session many of those eight year olds had begun to recognise something that those much older often seem to forget. Money and what matters cannot be easily separated, they are intimately linked yet their relationship is far more complex than
money = happiness.

Now more than ever, there’s a need for philosophical enquiry with Children, as well as with College Students, St Paul’s Campers and CEOs of big companies.

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P.S. If you’re still there, you might find these marking guidelines from an A level Business Studies paper interesting / depressing:

“Ethical issues are ones (sic) involving moral issues which are not illegal but can impinge on firms’ activity. Include factors such as environmental factors – manufacturer might be polluting – good practice in the treatment of employees (eg redundancy or outsourcing of jobs), healthy living issues (eg soft drinks, fast food, tobacco or alcohol). Can be opportunity for firms to produce ethical products, eg fair trade goods.”

i.e. You should care about ethical issues insofar as they might impact negatively on profit. On the plus side you can make more money out of being seen to be ethical so it’s not all bad.

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P.P.S. While we’re on this subject, a great stimulus for an enquiry with teachers or adults (via a colleague Myrelle at a recent SAPERE event).

BBC Speechless As Trader Tells Truth: “The Collapse Is Coming…And Goldman Rules The World”

And more recently:

Financial ‘Vulture’ funds

This post is by Grace

Philosophical Questions