Review: Business and corporate citizenship

NYC – Chelsea: IAC/InterActiveCorp Headquarters by wallyg, on Flickr

In Doing Virtuous Business,* Theodore Roosevelt Malloch argues for the importance of classical virtues in the lives of business leaders, suggesting that an individual’s ethical self can resonate in the “soul” of a business itself. He discusses virtues such as faith, honesty, gratitude, compassion, humility, courage, respect, discipline, generosity, and thrift (34-43), and tries to suggest key ways that these virtues can transform the professional as well as her or his company — and even that company’s relation to other stakeholders.

The author does a great job with case studies that reflect the impact that cultivated personal ethics can have on a business, demonstrating how the moral person can’t be divorced from the business person. But this remains a study of ethics intensely focused on the individual:

“The most interesting feature of Aristotle’s discussion of justice is his recognition that it is a quality of the individual and of the individual action. . . Aristotle’s notion of justice is also grounded in a disposition that is entirely internal to the person. This is, for Aristotle, justice begins as a personal virtue, even though it ultimately has a social application as well.” (Malloch, 30)

Malloch holds this individual-focused ground throughout the book, taking jabs at liberals to show how his call for ethics doesn’t necessitate any real self- or corporate sacrifice in the face of wider human need. Rather, he insists, individual ethical reflection will lead to corporate prosperity.

The fascinating and saddening thing about this book, then, is how Malloch can address things like social capital — a core sociological concept — while entirely ignoring how social class and power sometimes structure our companies and societies in deeply unjust ways.

He’s right that a single person can be powerful, but I’d argue that personal power is also often thwarted by more systemic issues (in any institution, from business, to government, to universities, to churches and families). Had Malloch been able to grapple with these issues — with spirituality and business in the context of power — his book could have been not merely a nice exercise in personal piety, but one with the ability to have far-reading impacts of the kind he himself praises.

Corporate Citizenship?

Towards the end, Malloch does discuss corporate social responsibility. He suggests that businesses must be “responsible citizens” (135), citing how genuine and long-standing projects like UPS’ education projects in Poland (135-139) can have lasting effects for the business and community. This is great, and I wish Malloch would have leaned further into this. What does corporate citizenship mean? And what is the role of both business professional and corporate as participants in nation, communities, religious congregations, and family spiritual and economic health?

I find this especially pressing given our recent national debt debates. Many things, from legal rights and freedoms, to financial incentives (tax breaks and bailouts), and even a recognition of corporate personhood in the eyes of the law, have all allowed American corporations to prosper. But when trouble hits, what responsibilities and obligations should a corporation consider? If corporate citizens have a social contract like the rest of us, what is it? Without really addressing these questions, Malloch leaves us hanging as to exactly how personal ethics can be transformative of communities and businesses in lasting ways.

I’d love to see this conversation occurring, to see Malloch address the collective responsibility of the business world in relationship to the nations and communities that have enabled its prosperity. He’s correct to situate ethics within the individual. But if we want more than just another feel-good book, inspiring PR piece, or B-school case study, ethics has to go further. It has to move from the personal to the communal conversation, and then to voluntary and collective action, one that situates businesses and their professionals within the real social world to which we all belong.

[Disclosure: read for free through BookSneeze].

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