Short-term profits and “pay for performance” carry far more weight in our capitalistic system than does “doing the right thing” and placing people over profits.  Truly, the current hallmark of capitalism is making a profit and not ethical conduct.

Wall Street offers little consolation for those companies who may have taken current charges against profitability in order to do the right thing for the long term.  Access to financial capital and executive compensation are both heavily tied to the existing bottom-line.

To be sure, acting ethically oftentimes helps ensure profitability over the long-run, but there is little or no monetary reward under free market capitalism for acting ethically in the short-run.  Being a saint in the marketplace carries little weight if that saint is unprofitable. In business you either make a profit by contributing to the bottom-line or you are eventually asked to go home.  It’s that simple. Or is it?

“Doing the Right Thing” According to each Person’s Moral Compass

Most people want to do the right thing in business and in their private lives. The trouble is there is no clear definition of what the right thing really is in this culture of moral relativism. In many cases when we are free to set the polarity of our own moral compass, each of us has our own version of what is true north. In the process, many sub-ethical acts can become masked and rationalized in the moment, while giving pretense doing the right thing in the long-run.

Still, our marketplace is dependent upon discerning objective truth for its long term survival which will not be gained through subjective reasoning alone.  Unfortunately, the secular world has determined that it no longer needs the bible or sacred tradition to help define what is true, what is moral, and what is right.  Instead of forming our conscious’ about what it means to do the right thing grounded in God’s will, in many cases we’ve become the sole arbitrator of what means to do the right thing in accordance with our will.

Even more disheartening is the notion that we can craft an enduring business culture rooted in ethics that are separated from God.  While committing ourselves to learning more about ethics through self-knowledge and self-realization, and practicing its pros, is surely a positive step in developing the right business culture, it does not replace the need for a self-surrendering that allows the Holy Spirit to work through us.  Only by moving past the primacy of our own self-interest can we become rightly positioned with God to cultivate a business culture that advances the common good and loves others.

What’s our reference point for making ethical decisions?  The answer for St. Thomas More, in refusing to take an oath acknowledging the primacy of King Henry the VIII as the head of the church, was in recognizing that although he was the King’s good servant, he was God’s first.  For More, who was beheaded for his “treasonous” refusal, ethical decisions were beyond man’s law and the light of this world.  Rather, ethical decisions could only be made considering God’s law and the light of the world to come.

A Moral and Cultural Crisis that Requires Intervention at its Root

A few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI challenged world leaders to make major changes to our global financial system, saying that short-term answers to the financial crisis weren’t sufficient. Speaking about the global financial system, Pope Benedict asked: “Are we ready to make a profound revision in the dominant development model, to correct it in a farsighted and concerted way?”

Believing the world to be in a cultural and moral crisis, Pope Benedict viewed the failings of the marketplace as “a serious symptom that required intervention at its root.” In particular, the now-distant financial meltdown showed the need for greater solidarity with the poor.

Under the Pope’s economic model, private profit and public virtue are by no means mutually exclusive. However, doing well for ourselves and doing good for others requires that our investments of time and economic resources be in those undertakings which foremost help promote life, human dignity and the common good.  In the final analysis, profitable businesses should be structured to serve people and not the other way around.

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