The Business of Business
What is business (manufacturing, commerce) for? Today the spontaneous response to this question is: The business of business is to make money for those who are engaged in it. In fact, this answer is now regarded as so obvious that you might be thought stupid or uninformed if you even ask the question. But that is only one of the effects of the pervasive mis-education that goes on in contemporary society, which fosters an understanding of success essentially in terms of fame, position and material goods. However, that only reflects a quite recent view of the professions—of which we will here assume business to be one—and, even today, is definitely not the view of success in professional life shared by the public in general. No business or other profession that advertises its ‘services’ announces to the public that it is there for the purpose of enriching itself or those involved in it. With one accord they all say their purpose is service, not serve-us. I have never met “professionals” who would tell their clients that they were there just for their own self-interest. Still, many professionals today are dominated by self-interest, and that is the source of the constant stream of moral failures that occupies our courts and what we now call “news.” And many who would never say it publicly really do think of their success in terms of self-advancement, and will say so “after hours.” The role of the “professional” is really a moral role in society, and not just one of technical expertise in the marketplace of untrammeled competition.
The older tradition of the profession as, at bottom, a moral role in society was more obvious and defensible before the days of mass society and urban anonymity in which the individual doctor, lawyer, etc. more or less disappears as a person living together with other persons. The special training, position and respect given them was, in other days, an appropriate response to the special and potentially self-sacrificing good that they made available to ordinary people in the social setting: to the public or ‘common’ good, as used to be said. With respect to the merchant or manufacturer there has always been less clarity about this than with the older professions of clergy, medicine and law, but his or her special position and power in the community was nonetheless understood to bring with them unique and unavoidable moral responsibilities.
Writing of this in 1860, John Ruskin remarks: “The fact is that people never have had clearly explained to them the true functions of a merchant with respect to other people.“1 He then puts what we today would call “business” in the context of the “Five great intellectual professions” necessary to the life of “every civilized nation.” With respect to that nation:
“The Soldier’s profession is to defend it.
The Pastor’s to teach it.
The Physician’s, to keep it in health.
The Lawyer’s to enforce justice in it
The Merchant’s to provide for it.”
He appends to this list: “And the duty of all these men is, on due occasion, to die for it.” The soldier to die “rather than leave his post in battle,” the physician “rather than leave his post in plague,” the pastor “rather than teach falsehood,” the lawyer “rather than countenance injustice,” and the merchant…rather than…what? It is here, Ruskin acknowledges, that people are apt to be unable to finish the thought. What is it that the “merchant” would die rather than do?
The answer to this question is supplied by the merchant’s or manufacturer’s function and the good that it supplies to the people in his community. His task is to provide for the community. His function is not to pluck from the community the means of his own self-aggrandizement. “It is no more his function,” Ruskin continues, “to get profit for himself out of that provision than it is a clergyman’s function to get his stipend. The stipend is a due and necessary adjunct, but not the object of his life, if he be a true clergyman, any more than his fee (or honorarium) is the object of life to a true physician. Neither is his fee the object of life to a true merchant. All three, if true men, have a work to be done irrespective of fee…. That is to say, he has to understand to their very root the qualities of the thing he deals in, and the means of obtaining or producing it; and he has to apply all his sagacity and energy to the producing or obtaining it in perfect state, and distributing it at the cheapest possible price where it is most needed.”
Ruskin proceeds to emphasize the responsibility of the “merchant” for the well-being of those in his employ. The merchant has a direct governance over those who work for him. So “…it becomes his duty, not only to be always considering how to produce what he sells in the purest and cheapest forms, but how to make the various employments involved in the production or transference of it most beneficial to the men employed.” Hence the function of business requires “…the highest intelligence, as well as patience, kindness, and tact,… all his energy… and to give up, if need be, his life in such way as it may be demanded of him.” As the captain of a ship is duty-bound to be the last to leave the ship in disaster, “…so the manufacturer, in any commercial crisis or distress, is bound to take the suffering of it with his men, and even to take more of it for himself than he allows his men to feel; as a father would in a famine, shipwreck, or battle, sacrifice himself for his son.”
That Ruskin may not be left to stand alone in the field, we also cite the words of Louis Brandeis, one of the greatest of past American leaders of thought and government. In his Commencement Day address to Brown University of October 1912, titled “Business—A Profession,“2 Brandeis remarks that “The recognized professions…definitely reject the size of financial return as the measure of success. They select as their test, excellence of performance in the broadest sense—and include, among other things, advance in particular occupation and service to the community. These are the basis of all worthy reputations in the recognized professions. In them a large income is the ordinary incident of success; but he who exaggerates the value of the incident is apt to fail of real success.” “In the field of modern business, so rich in opportunity for the exercise of man’s finest and most varied mental faculties and moral qualities, mere money-making cannot be regarded as the legitimate end.” Brandeis gives most of his lecture to illustrating “real success” in business, “comparable with the scientist’s, the inventor’s, the statesman’s,” from the careers of contemporary businessmen around the turn of the last century. He, like Ruskin, emphasizes the nobility of the “merchant’s” function. If we take such careers as models, he says, “Then the term ‘Big business’ will lose its sinister meaning, and will take on a new significance. Big business will then mean business big not in bulk or power, but great in service and grand in manner.”
Well, needless to say, this change of meaning has not yet happened. Texts by Ruskin and by Brandeis, along with similar ones,3 are not popular references in our schools of business today. These schools, for all their good, are, instead, far too much given to “The excuses which selfishness makes for itself in the mouths of cultivated men,“4 to quote another person from the times of Ruskin and Brandeis. Certainly in business one must make a profit, and one’s business must survive if it is to serve. But not at the expense of the public good and the well-being of individuals who depend on you—not, for example, if you must sell tainted food or shoddy furniture or electronic devices to stay afloat or thrive. And certainly not as the aim or goal of those involved in business. It is not enough to say that “the market” will drive you out if you don’t do what is right.
That slogan, with its grain of truth, is brain surgery with a meat cleaver, at best; and in fact it rarely turns out to be true. It serves at all only because, at this particular time in our history, the weight of moral calling and moral character is unable to serve as established points of reference for individual practice and public policy. They are not treated as aspects of reality which must be appealed to in judgment and with which any decent person must come to terms. There is no legitimating support, therefore, for the idealism of young people who go into the professions or the justifiable demands of the public to be served. It is a convincing framework of calling and character that must be restored if professional life is to be directed in a manner which—surely everyone deep-down knows—is suited to its function as provider and protector of the public good and of individuals throughout our neighborhoods and beyond. The greatest challenge to an officially Post-Christian world is to provide that framework. To this point it is not doing very well with the task.5 Surely the best course—find a better who may—is to take up one’s profession as an appointment from God, through intelligent discipleship to Jesus Christ. This provides a time tested and experiential foundation and framework for professional life that yields the nobility seen by Ruskin and Brandeis—and much more.