Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life
by Dr. Edward Younkins
Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and author of Capitalism and Commerce.
In his previous works, Michael Novak, the preeminent Catholic social theorist of our times, identified and analyzed the underlying ideas that make the American system of democratic capitalism meaningful. His thoughtful, easy-to-read, and practical new book, Business as a Calling(1), may arguably be the best book ever written on business as a vocation from both religious and secular viewpoints. Business as a Calling continues Novak's project of illuminating the philosophical, political, economic, and religious dimensions of the free society, begun in 1982 with his masterpiece, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, and followed by Free Persons and the Common Good (1989), This Hemisphere of Liberty (1990), and The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1993). This latest work goes where none of his previous writings have traveled – to the heart and soul of the business world. In providing its moral perspective, Novak has written what is destined to become a classic. The book is a must-read for students and teachers of business, managers, and others concerned about the moral role of business in the modern world.
Using anecdotes from the experiences of a variety of entrepreneurs and executives, Novak describes how both religious and secular business people have a sense of calling that can come from a higher authority (God) or an inner drive for self-fulfillment – both types of business persons search for something they were meant to do. Novak explains that a calling is unique to the individual, requires the talent to do the job, and is accompanied by the enjoyment and sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and renewed energies that its performance gives to the called person.
Novak argues in the Aristotelian tradition that each person is involved in a life-task of human flourishing – to realize in community with others, the potential that is his by reason of his own humanity. He explains that character development is a critical ingredient for human flourishing and that business in a free economy not only requires, but also rewards, virtuous behavior by the participants. The free market rewards honest, trustworthy, fair-dealing, creative, discerning, tolerant business persons. Unethical behavior often leads to personal and business disgrace.
The author observes that most people are religious and therefore search for what God intends for them to do with the unique resources He has endowed in each person. The Creator did not make the world finished but to be finished. His purpose of making men in His image was to include each person in His own creative work as co-creator. This idea of being creative and cooperating in bringing creation nearer to its perfection is an important element of the human vocation. Work is the way to co-create with God. To be a whole person is to find transcendent meaning in our work – to encounter a God who is present in the business world just as He is present in the rest of the world. Business in Novak's orderly, purposeful, rationally structured, and spiritual universe is much more than what a person does to acquire material wealth or success.
Novak explains that a successful corporation is one that is morally responsible. Although individual business persons can be unethical, they are the exceptions since capitalism provides strong incentives for moral behavior. According to the author, successful business executives practice three cardinal business virtues – creativity, community building, and practical realism.
Novak goes on to suggest that business as a mediating institution has seven internal responsibilities that arise from the nature of the corporation itself and an additional seven responsibilities that are derived from Judeo-Christian religious teachings.
Included among the seven internal responsibilities that a business must fulfill in order to succeed are: to satisfy customers with goods and services of real value; to make a reasonable return on the resources entrusted to it by investors; to create new wealth and new jobs; to defeat envy by generating upward mobility and by demonstrating that talent and hard work will be rewarded; to promote inventiveness and ingenuity; and to diversify the interests of the republic thus guarding against majoritarian tyranny.
The following additional external responsibilities are not found in business qua business but in the convictions of its practitioners who bring their faith to the business world: to shape a corporate culture that fosters the three cardinal business virtues as well as other virtues; to protect the political soil of liberty; to exemplify respect for the rule of law; to reflect and act in practical effective ways, individually and with others, to improve aspects of society; to communicate often and fully with investors, pensioners, customers, and employers; to voluntarily contribute toward the improvement of civil society; and to protect the moral ecology of freedom.
Novak documents the various ways in which corporations benefit their local communities and the wider world simply by fulfilling these responsibilities. In addition, toward the end of the book, he discusses how business makes a great deal of money available for charity. Here the author uses the example of Andrew Carnegie, who attempted to give away his entire fortune before he died.
In this scholarly and inspiring book, Michael Novak convincingly argues that a career in business can be a serious moral vocation. Anyone interested in the moral role of business in a free society will enjoy and benefit from reading this challenging and thought-provoking new book.
1. Novak, Michael, Business as a Calling, The Free Press, 1996, 246 pages, $22.50. >>