Sistine Chapel and Silicon Valley: Business Ethics Revisited

Warning: The following piece is long and somewhat detailed. Sorry, I’m a former business major and worked in industry for several years. It’s a topic “in my wheelhouse.” I’ll accept the criticism.

In the opening paragraph examining the business practices, ethics and ideals of high-tech Silicon Valley executives, author Rob Cox wrote, “Silicon Valley likes to think of itself as morally exceptional. When Google went public in 2004, the Internet search company’s wunderkind founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, penned a letter to prospective shareholders that has become the Internet industry’s version of the Magna Carta. In it, they pledged that Google was “not a conventional company” but one focused on “making the world a better place.”

Do you believe that statement? In his article, “The Ruthless Overlords Of Silicon Valley,” Cox applies a healthy dose of skepticism that I found refreshing and probably realistic.

I matriculated at the University of South Carolina, International Business School in 1982. We discussed the challenges that US multinationals faced when doing business in other countries. This meant dealing – not only with different laws – but also with different customs, norms, mores, religions and ideas about ethics. We talked about business ethics - a lot! What was fascinating was that 50% of my class was non-Americans which brought a whole different range of thinking and experience into the discussion.

At that time, the U.S. “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act” had recently been passed (only five years previously) and was a hot topic in the classroom as well as the boardroom. Two items struck me then, and continue to color my thinking now:

  1. There seems to be no black and white solutions and so an “It depends on each individual situation” approach is quite popular and would often seem reasonable
  2. But this can, perhaps, lead you directly down a slippery slope towards “proportionality” and “consequentialism” approaches which might be immoral, illegal and even deadly (depending on which country you’re in at the time).

The European Business Ethics Network held a conference on the topic of business ethics in Dublin, Ireland in 2011. I especially found the ethical framework of Thomas M. Garrett (more noted for his ideas on medical ethics and business ethics) intriguing and perhaps helpful.

Why is this topic still germane today? Have your heard the presidential debates lately. Can we trust our politicians? Can we trust corporations? Can we trust the relationships between corporations and politicians?

And in what way does the Catholic Church have something to say about this topic? There are a number of landmark documents on the topic:

The encyclical Rerum Novarum or “On the Conditions of Labor” by Pope Leo XIII written in the midst of - and in response to - the massive changes in society and the implications (both good and bad) of the “Industrial Revolution.”

Centesimus Annus - or the Encyclical of Pope John Paul II on the One Hundredth Year Anniversary of Rerum Novarum. This was the Holy Father’s thoughts on social justice, economics, economic systems, etc… in the midst of the technological revolution immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism.

More locally, in 1986 the U.S. Bishops penned a “Pastoral Letter” entitled, “Economic Justice for All - A Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.”

I’ve read all three. Centesimus Annus is my personal favorite. On a personal note, this is in no small part due to the the insights of that document, provided to me personally by Father Robert Sirico at the Acton Institute.

All three documents, while long-ish are also quite readable, especially if you have any kind of interest or background in the subject matter. What I found fascinating was while surfing the web about the “Cox” article, I kept running into references to the US Bishops’ document. There were several calls to the US Bishops to revisit and rewrite the document especially in the wake of:

  • The pending presidential election.
  • US economic policy.
  • The deficit.
  • The entire “Occupy Wall Street” movement and their concerns, especially the growing disparity between rich and poor (which, incidentally, also greatly concerns the US Bishops).
  • The past decade’s sub-prime housing and mortgage crisis.
  • The 2008 banking crisis and bailout.

True, the ideas in “Economic Justice for All” are probably dated and the world has certainly changed dramatically since 1986.

But here’s what I found fascinating. Read, below, a critical excerpt of the Bishops’ Letter by Professor Christopher L Pines (University of Rio Grande, Professor of Philosophy and Humanities). (Access to full article available here) Emphases are mine:

Of the major criticisms of contemporary capitalist society which the bishops’ pastoral letter raises is the increasing economic, political and social marginalization resulting from the concentration of wealth and power in the form of monopoly capital. The bishops condemn these contemporary inequalities as unjust, undemocratic and antithetical to the teachings of the Church and Catholic humanism. …Hence, their proposal for economic democracy and economic planning can be seen as one possible solution to this general problem of monopoly concentration and marginalization.

However, as I criticize in my paper, the bishops’ policy prescriptions are undermined by contradictions in their position as well as questionable assumptions implicit to their model for economic democracy. On the one hand and as motivated by the bishops’ desire to promote greater democracy and social justice for marginalized groups, the bishops’ propose greater state intervention in the economy, particularly in areas concerning the planning and control over investment decisions. On the other hand and on behalf of the rights and liberties of private property owners, the bishops’ want to preserve a measure of laissez-faire and private initiative in the marketplace. In short, the bishops’ seem undecided about which of their social sentiments should have priority — their egalitarian or libertarian sentiments.

Sound familiar? The phrases could be lifted from TODAY’S business and economic discussions heard at ABC, NBC, CBS, MS-NBC, CNN, Fox or AM talk radio.

Remember what I said above? “No black and white solutions” readily available?

Are the bishop’s concerns outdated or were they actually prophetic?

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