|Montréal, 31 mars 2001 / No 80||
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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