Montréal, 31 mars 2001  /  No 80
<< page précédente 
Dr. Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.
by Edward W.Younkins
          Throughout history, Western culture has at best been ambivalent and oftentimes has been disdainful regarding the moral merits of business. Of those engaged in various professions, businessmen have been the most denounced, vilified, and misunderstood. The hostility toward gains and contempt for commerce can be traced to cultural inheritances from the days of the Greek philosophers who emphasized the essentially vulgar characteristics of retail trade.
From Plato to business 
          Plato consigned the trader to the lowest level in his ideal society. He ranked men from the bottom up beginning with workers, tradesmen, and artisans whose function it was to provide life's necessities. Warriors were assigned a higher status and philosophers were at the top. Plato valued rational ability over courage and declared that the philosophers should rule. Contemplation constituted the worthy life. Plato's otherworldly dualism denigrates man's worldly nature and assigns the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of man to a higher level. The mind is thus held to be morally and ontologically superior to the body. Although Aristotle disagreed with Plato's otherworldliness and on many other philosophical issues, he agreed with him that intellectual contemplation was man's highest activity. 
          Much later, the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, taught that if a person acts in order to gain benefits, the act has no moral value. It follows that since the goal of business is to make profits, then business cannot be said to have moral worth. In essence, Kant removed prudence from the province of morality, thus debarring business from any chance for respect. 
          The avowal of self-interest renders the businessman and the business system suspect. Once business has been deprived of its moral standing, it was not long before people began questioning and renouncing as evil its inherent profit motive and means of seeking wealth through capitalizing on people's earthly desires. It is impossible to separate business from its goals. 
Universal bias 
          The views of the above philosophers were only the beginning. There has been an almost universal bias against business and the businessman on the part of intellectuals, historians, writers of fiction and nonfiction, filmmakers, socialists, the popular culture, the Church, cartoonists, etc. To this day television, radio, newspapers, magazines, books, and plays tend to portray the businessman as evil, greedy, crooked, and immoral. Even business ethics texts usually say that self-interested behavior leads to immoral actions and caution businessmen to restrain their self-interested behavior. It is no wonder that business activities are regarded with cynicism by the public at large when what they are exposed to are largely unfavorable, untrue, and incomplete images of business. The public image of business includes many villains but only a handful of heroes (see SEARCHING CINEMA FOR A CAPITALIST HERO, le QL, no 71).  
          In truth, businessmen are as good or as bad as the average man. Businessmen do not always behave morally. Some lie, cheat, and act irresponsibly or with impunity, but in the long run such behavior is certainly unwise. Capitalism rewards business behavior that is honest, civil, fair, compassionate, diligent, prudent and heroic. In a free society, people in business are neither better nor worse than those in other professions. There are good and bad in all walks of life and certainly no justification to believe that all business people are evil. Moral principles which are valid for all people are equally valid for those in business. 
          Hostile public opinion may result from the absence of adequate and true information and the presence of misinformation regarding business. Most businessmen earn their rewards by personal ability and free trade in a free market. Business is essentially decent, but corruptible. Business provides earthly well-being. Business supplies a rational and humane system of rewards in exchange for individuals' productive efforts. Wealth is the result of a creative process. The purpose of business is not to help mankind by producing and selling goods and services. Businesses do benefit others but this is only a secondary consequence of their actions. Although businesses thrive from satisfying customers, their primary purpose is to generate profits for their owners who want to be happy and live well. In a free economy, people can advance their own lives by pleasing customers who through their voluntary actions determine the distribution of rewards.  
The right to private property 
          The moral justification for business profits is the right to private property. Men must be permitted to act to ensure their own survival and pursue their own flourishing. Living well involves all that makes us human. To survive and thrive on earth requires a concern for one's material well-being. Material prosperity enables a man to cultivate his mind and spirit, to seek wisdom, and to develop his character. Business is a natural moral consequence of this concern and an essential activity of what is required to live a full life. When people are criticized for acting selfishly, they are oftentimes being derided for exercising their right to pursue their own happiness. 
          So-called intellectuals, those who deal with ideas expressed in words, disproportionately oppose capitalism and business. These social critics report, interpret, analyze, and comment on public affairs. They include scholars, professors, journalists, literary critics, novelists, playwrights, filmmakers, television newsmen, political staffers and speechwriters, and others who see part of their function as observing, finding faults, and proposing societal changes. Unlike the man in the street who tends to be ambivalent toward business, most intellectuals take great joy in maligning business and verbalizing anti-capitalist viewpoints. They look down on businessmen and wonder why they did not choose to use their talents to achieve social goals. 
     « Many people do not seem to understand that to be a businessman is to serve others. Businesses must satisfy their customers if they are to survive. Service is a prerequisite of profit. Businessmen create goods and services for themselves and others. »  
          Businessmen appear materialistic, unreflective, and mundane to the intellectual. Intellectuals are also apt to think of wealth as a finite quantity and to view it as stolen if made and as underserved if inherited. They also see business proficiency as in opposition to the moral tradition of duty which says that we must sacrifice selflessly and serve others. The doctrine of altruism says if a person possesses something needed by another, he must surrender it or be guilty of theft. Strong believers in Marx's labor theory of value, most intellectuals perceive the relationship between employer and employee as one of exploiter to victim. To the business moralist, success in the market looks like exploitation. The businessman is also frequently blamed for depressions and recessions. Intellectuals also like to promote the idea that political crusaders and humanitarians, rather than businessmen, are responsible for America's well-being. 
Unfair system 
          Intellectuals have a hard time giving the market its due credit. After all, in their minds the market system does not appear to be fair to the intellectuals themselves. They were the most valued, rewarded, and successful in school where standards differ from those in the free market. Whereas schools reward intellectual achievements and verbal ability, the market rewards business skills and character traits such as honesty, friendliness, rationality, practicality, realism, creativity, self-reliance, hard work, etc. They therefore resent the capitalist system in which they are not held in as much esteem as when they were in school and are not rewarded financially as much as many businessmen. Intellectuals are predisposed to perceive the market as too disorderly and to prefer rewards to be centrally distributed like they were in their schooldays. 
          Many novels, films, plays, and television programs are not representative of the real business world. These media have often been unflattering in their depiction of business and capitalism, have attacked business for destroying an old communal order based on equality, and have lamented the businessman's preoccupation with material success and the domination of large organizations in people's lives. The businessman has been depicted with hostility and derision and has been portrayed as materialistic, greedy, miserly, villainous, corrupt, unethical, hypocritical, insecure, insensitive, anti-cultural, exploitative, smaller-than-life, depersonalized mechanized, repressive of emotions, and subservient to the system. 
          A small percentage of our society's fictional works have characterized the businessmen in a more favorable light by emphasizing: the possibilities of life in a free society; the inherent ethical nature of capitalism and the good businessman; the strength, courage, integrity, and self-sufficiency of the hardworking businessman; and the entrepreneur as wealth creator and promoter of human progress. A few positive images do exist, but more are needed in order to illustrate the value of free enterprise, innovation, and personal initiative. People should be shown the positive and honorable qualities of business, businessmen, and careers in business.  

A Noble Calling 
          Although businessmen represent one of the leadership groups in society, they tend to feel uneasy, self conscious, and even guilty about their positions. After all, Western culture has frequently derided and criticized the free enterprise system and generally holds business in low esteem. Although the benefits of business are welcomed, there has been a general prediction for people to begrudge productivity and those who cause it. As a result, many businessmen believe that if they are to earn respect, they must do so by doing more than performing well in business. Many attempt to prove their value by « giving back » to education, the arts, the community, etc. There is a tendency to defend their profession by pointing to socially responsible activities such as charity or to external consequences of their commercial activities such as jobs created or taxes paid to the government. 
           The goal of many business critics appears to bring down the more able to the level of the less able and to make the producers feel unearned guilt for their accomplishments. This envy can be viewed as an egalitarian outcry against the reality of individual differences in abilities, attainments, and rewards. These critics appear to be opposed to the departure of business and the free market from their unattainable ideals of egalitarianism and collectivism. They also do not like the fact that capitalism permits moral pluralism. Many social critics would prefer a universal ethical code imposed by fiat or at least by consensus. 
          Most professionals are mainly viewed in terms of services provided and only secondarily in terms of their profits. Businessmen, on the other hand, are primarily perceived in terms of its profits. Many people do not seem to understand that to be a businessman is to serve others. Businesses must satisfy their customers if they are to survive. Service is a prerequisite of profit. Businessmen create goods and services for themselves and others. Every product and service that sustains and improves human lives is made possible by the world's creators. Businessmen should take pride in their achievements and their virtues of rational thought and productive work that make them possible. Business is a noble calling. There is no justified reason for an honest businessman to be ashamed of his profession or to feel guilty about his earnings. 
          Too many misconceptions and misstatements have been disseminated about business.  Business has rarely been treated fairly or accurately. We need to proclaim the truth about business. Many Americans and Canadians are uninformed about the workings of business, the free market system, and the nature of government powers. They have not been taught the concepts underpinning free enterprise. Many do not realize that our economy has moved away from capitalism and, thus, they frequently blame capitalism and businessmen for faults of the « mixed economy. » Each of us needs to do our part in words and deeds to improve the image of business and the businessman. Our goal should be to match the image of free enterprise with its reality. 
Previous articles by Edward W.Younkins

<< retour au sommaire