Business Can Change The World…?!
Chris Houstonon 03 October, 2014 at 12:10
Here we are, more than 20 posts deep into publishing your Telosity blog, and I’m still grasping for something just outside my reach. As your editor, I immerse myself in your voice and point of view with every post. I imagine how you want it to sound and how I think the readers will hear your words, striving to bring those two—expectation and experience—together. During that exercise, I have no difficulty grasping that you’re on to something vital, but then, as I let go of your sensibility and the reader’s, too, that conviction fades.
I agree with you on so much of what you’ve written.
Yes, both consumers and employees are looking for a large and capable response to the blindingly obvious social needs we see today.
Yes, governments have started to seem ill suited to those tasks—after all, world governments have proven their ability to mismanage the short and long term of late.
So, I get it: when they want action, people turn to business over governments, over educational institutions, over courts, and over religion.
And, no. No, I can’t hold on to the faith that the world you envision will ever come to pass. Once I exit your sensibility, my faith in the feasibility of your solution wanes. There’s a new generation remaking the world now, and these Millennials bring with them new imperatives, methods of communication, and social contracts. I want to believe that they are leading institutions and individuals to embrace something other than the profit of the individual over all. I don’t believe it yet.
See, you’re a Boomer. Your generation brought us idealism and collective action. You also brought us Enron and collective bankruptcy. As I crouch in the demographic valley between these two population humps, I am skeptical.
Chris, convince me. Here’s where I lose faith:
- Evidence: There is no proof that the new factors and changes you advocate are really coming to business, nor that companies would desire or prove capable of them.
- Profit: Businesses will not stick to any purpose other than just making money. They are for business ends and not social ones.
- Selfishness: In the end, people are in it for themselves, and businesses are designed to follow suit.
You know I’m in this for the duration. You know the world you envision is the one I want to see. But at some point on this journey together, I need to move from knowledge to belief.
Your cynical editor,
I am the son of a theologian and a man of faith, but I know that belief is not a natural posture for you. You call yourself cynical, and say you have no faith that what we both want will come to pass. Yet you still work toward it. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that seems like an act of faith to me—and one that is utterly devoid of cynicism. I disagree with you. You are neither cynical nor disbelieving; you are, instead, afraid of being disappointed, and you are right to be disappointed in us Boomers.
I cannot relieve you of that fear, but I think you don’t really want to be unburdened. I wonder if you cherish your cynical posture as a method of believing in something without appearing to be naïve. If so, fair enough. But I’m not fooled, and I don’t think you are either.
Still, you bring up three solid objections, and I think it’s worth answering each in detail:
Evidence: Fact-based evidence is an appropriate way of knowing some things about the world, just not everything. We have words for non-evidentiary forms of knowing such as intuition and instinct and sixth sense, and I know that you are proud to have excellent intuition. I’ve seen it in action. Can you explain it with facts? I don’t think you can.
Inherent in humans is a desire and capacity for relationships and yet if we subject this dimension entirely to only one way of knowing – through science – we limit our experience of gifts such as beauty, friendship and most certainly love. We don’t require evidence of friendship. So why assume that we can only know if consumers and employees are engaging in a relationship with businesses through evidence and fact? That makes a mockery of any community of friends. Whole tracts of discovery about the attitudes and actions of people lie beyond mere observable data. I know you read science. Do you read philosophy, too? You should.
Profit: Your second objection that businesses are for profit and not for social cause is historically sound, but may be woefully inadequate for the future. As the quintessential toolmaker, human beings have always fashioned instruments to avail their causes. Our institutions do not own themselves; they are a product of social will. In Western democracies, we can see from the data collected in the Edelman Trust Survey that trust in governments is falling, while, in recent years at least, trust in business is growing—in part because businesses are proving to be a more worthy ally to society’s growing alarm about the state of the world.
Businesses have traditionally been for profit because we asked corporations to create and deploy capital and we rewarded owners with an uneven distribution of wealth. Customers and employees have changed their tune. We believe now that businesses must solve social problems, and as responsive institutions, that is what they are starting to do. It will take a while for the accountants to catch up and for us to get rid of such unhelpful distinctions as “for profit” and “not-for-profit”. Perhaps we may come to find that businesses are simply “for smarter planets”, or “for putting a ding in the universe” or “for-safer-places-to-live-and-work” or even, “for meeting everyday needs for nutrition, hygiene and personal care”.
Selfishness: Your third objection is the most nettlesome. In the end, are people inherently selfish, or will they choose to put the needs of another before their own? The rise of individualism as a social philosophy is a relatively new phenomena and was largely the imagination of a number of thinkers who managed to suffuse it into the new world of America. The intense period of rights to pursue happiness, bear arms and a number of other entitlements, unchecked by social conventions, has produced some unintended consequences, including the modern corporation, terrifying mass shootings, massive wealth disparity and a very sick planet, all of which have got more than a few people more than a little perplexed about rampant individualism. The Tragedy of the Commons is not just an old wives’ tale about sheep on English village greens. It is a metaphor of our time. All this selfish entitlement needs a social restraint if our children are to survive their birthright.
Cynicism is most assuredly an easier posture than hope. As my former colleague Mike used to remind me: “There you go, Chris, letting hope triumph over experience once more.” He was right to point out the stark choice before me. I just think his vision is too narrow. I find hope to be a better window on an unknowable future.
Business is our institution and, as consumers and employees, we can make of it what we will. And, if enough of us ask businesses to solve real social issues and offer meaningful work, then they will learn to deliver it [TWEET THAT]. That’s all I’m suggesting. Some day, asking might make all the difference.
For other posts in the Telosity series, click here.