It seems to me that we Christians have a natural suspicion of profit – maybe it’s because of its association with self-interest. Disciples are called to follow the Master on the path of self-gift and sacrifice for others. We cannot serve both God and mammon. Christ tells us that there are things “in the beginning” that we are meant to study and notice.
One of those things is that God himself, as Creator, is a worker, a creative being. In the story of creation we find a pattern to God’s work: he considers what to do – then he creates—and then he evaluates his own work, each time calling it “Good.”
His creation reflects something of him – his creativity, his vision, his imagination, and his generosity. God’s very Being thus overflows, in a manner of speaking, into all Creation. He is always fruitful, to use the language of scripture.
At the pinnacle of Creation, God makes man, and he endows man with special gifts he does not grant the other animals: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.’” (Genesis 1:26)
These gifts include conscience, reason and free will, each of which is a participation in the image of God.
These are the qualities that make us free in a way the animals are not.
Human freedom is often misunderstood. When we say that the human person has free will, we do not mean that we are free to do whatever we choose, whatever we feel like… but rather that we are not bound by our instincts.
An animal must do whatever his animal instincts drive him to do; whereas I, as a human being, am free from my animal nature. I can use my will to choose against my instincts when reason and conscience tell me a different choice will serve some chosen good better.
Although we rarely speak of them in these terms, human work and human creativity are likewise a participation in the image of God.
Human work, therefore, in the vision of the Creator, is not a punishment, but a call to perfection and an opportunity to participate in the creativity of God himself.
As the Catechism (#307) teaches, “God…enables men to be intelligent and free…in order to complete the work of creation, to perfect its harmony for their own good and that of their neighbors.”
This is what makes work special. When we work well, we don’t simply make more… we actually become more. Since work is a participation in God – he’s our model for work and creativity –when work, we imitate God.
What happens when you imitate someone? You become more like him.
How does this basic human anthropology apply to business? Inspired by Saint pope John Paul II, I want to propose some basic premises and suggest some practical applications later on:
- Work (and business is a form of work) is a participation in God’s creative power. Through it, we are called to “create something out of nothing,” to create valuable goods and services, based on an idea sparked in our minds, and carried out through imagination, foresight, collaboration with others, creativity and labor.
- Work is one of the key ways through which we can fully realize our humanity because it is where we exercise and develop personal and social skills and virtues of all kinds. As such, work is a path to holiness.
- The human person is the central and supreme concern of business at any level. To paraphrase Our Lord, business exists for man, not man for business.
- God intends our work to be fruitful; to produce abundance like his creation is abundant. Another word for this abundance is profit in its fullest meaning. Good profit is more than money, it includes many dimensions of human flourishing.
- Working well involves the exercise of our free will, intellect and conscience, making decisions and taking responsibility for their consequences.
As a practical application of these ideas, I want to propose that a business or a company has three objectives:
- A company ought to create goods that are truly good and provide services that truly serve. In order to be good, business must be other directed and the fruit of human work and creativity rather than corner cutting. Creativity, innovation, optimization, beautification… these human talents can become a business only when they create a real value for others. For a business to be good, you must see and intend to satisfy the needs of others. Just as the Lord created not primarily for Himself but for us, Creation is ordered toward the other. This involves a decision on our part. What is truly good and what does truly serve? Not everything that can be created should be, not every means of generating profit is fruitful and creative; and not every need is a legitimate need.Here we face two temptations which every business venture will eventually confront: the lure of satisfying illegitimate needs (for example illegal drugs or pornography), no matter the harm done to the customer or future generations. We can also be tempted to avoid creating all together: rent seeking, exploitation, pollution, and extreme speculation are all just some of the familiar ways of evading creating anything of legitimate value for others.
- A company ought to support human flourishing by pursuing human excellence. Since work is an important path to human flourishing, creating meaningful jobs and filling them with the right personnel is a crucial aspect of a company’s objective. Without these jobs, individuals cannot fully reach their human potential, cannot realize themselves.When we’re “in the zone” and loose track of time while being immersed in a creative activity, we experience a particular closeness to God. We should all be so blessed to experience this state in our careers. It is a sign that we are doing what we are meant to do.I have found that awareness of such signs as “timelessness” and satisfaction with a job well done is a critical factor in helping someone find their true vocation and pursue their personal excellence.
- A company ought to reward its participants physically, emotionally and financially through good profit. Let’s not shy away from defending profit itself when properly understood. The choices we make in business – in our personal and collective acts of creation – have spiritual, psychological and physical consequences. All these choices depend not only on monetary rewards or losses, but also on the difference between environments that energize and encourage versus those that suck the life out of our employees. Pride in our product, personal encouragement, growth in skills, aptitudes and virtues, and contribution to the common good are examples of intangible rewards that can be generated by business over an above wages and profits. But let’s not deny that the ability to produce these higher intangible goods is determined at some level by the financial success of the enterprise. God never created anything bad. Neither should we. Good Profit is a foundational requirement of business. A business is rewarding its employees and owners psychologically and physically, when it generates enough profit to sustain a reasonable system of financial rewards (competitive prices, high and rising wages and attractive shareholder return).This is important both for attracting and motivating good employees who can be the competitive advantage of the business as well as for maintaining and incentivizing its investors. When we chase after bad profit, we create a burden for society – because we destroy rather than create. Therefore the question is not “should I make a profit?” The questions to ponder should rather be “how should I make a profit? or “what should I do with the profit?” or “how much profit is enough?” To help us with these answers, we can think of the people involved and affected by our businesses. There are four partners in any company’s endeavors: the investor or owner, the workforce, the customer and the society. The balance we’re asked to seek is to optimize the equation around the table: can we pay above average return on investment, pay high and rising wages and offer competitive prices on a product to be proud of created in a manner that tends toward employee flourishing? Can we do business in a way that enriches both the current and future society we live in? Can we contribute to the common good?
Good profit does not come about from a specific action or process. It’s a mental model based on a specific human anthropology – who we are, why are we here and what are we meant to do. In that sense, the “good” in good profit is both a remembrance and imitation of God’s creation of the universe and a foretaste of the world to come – a contribution to the Kingdom of God.
The Church teaches that we find God in the Good, the True and the Beautiful. May the creation of beauty, the pursuit of Truth and the doing of Good be our guide in all our business dealings.