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Business and the Book of Nature

Dr. Samuel Condic, Associate Professor; Endowed Chair of Business Ethics at University of St. Thomas-Houston

“What is God trying to tell us through the word of business?” 

Among the most powerful and enduring metaphors of the Middle Ages was that of the “Book of Nature.” Undoubtedly rooted in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, where we read that God may be known “through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20), the imagery of the metaphor invites us to think of Creation as a book and everything in it as a word written by God. When we read the “Book of Nature,” we come not only to know the world around us but also something about God and our relation to Him.

We can apply this metaphor to business and ask:

“What is God trying to tell us through the word of business?” 

Three things come to mind.

The Economic Animal

First, in all of creation man is the only economic animal. That is, we are the only beings who engage in rational exchange with each other. Other animals have so-called symbiotic relationships, but these are instinctive, not rational. Only we humans consciously seek out others with whom to transact. In “Politics,” Aristotle notes that this sort of arrangement is both natural and necessary, since through it we not only acquire the bare necessities of life but are also thereby able to flourish (cf. “Politics,” Bk. 1, Ch. 2). We can and must conduct business with each other if we hope to live well.

Business and Friendship

Second, the necessity and benefit of a transactional exchange is the foundation for the most basic and universal form of friendship. All friendship, Aristotle explains, involves a mutual wishing of benefit and good will (cf. NE Bk 8, Chs. 2-3), and it is clear that the most productive business relationships involve this. Purely utilitarian or transactional exchanges do happen, but greater benefit is always found when each party actively seeks to make the relationship beneficial to the other. While this sort of friendship is clearly self-serving, it is a real friendship; i.e., it involves a genuine desire in each party to see the other do well, albeit so he may do well to us.

Third, when we put these two things together, we can see how ethics is embedded within the very doing of business. Justice is the primary virtue that naturally governs our social relationships, and justice–achieving a certain equality in our relationships with others—is the basis of mutually-beneficial exchange. When we understand the “word” of business correctly, we see that ethics is not something imposed from the outside that limits our pursuit of personal gain but rather as something necessary for it. A concern for ourselves thus leads us to a consideration of others and compels us to form positive—not adversarial or indifferent—relationships with them. The “word” of business helps us appreciate that we are not only individuals but also naturally a member of a larger community.

Alternative Books

The value of this approach is best seen in light of the alternatives. A Kantian deontological approach emphasizes the intrinsic value of the human person, but it ultimately disconnects moral action from individual well-being. A good person is one who does his duty (the categorical imperative), and whether you or anyone else actually benefits from the action is irrelevant.

Utilitarian consequentialism retains the link between ethics and human flourishing but at the expense of human dignity. Actions are good on this view, to the extent that they result in a positive outcome for the majority of individuals. While it succeeds in retaining the link between morality and individual well-being, in the end consequentialism cannot help but reduce individuals to instruments of the greater good. If the ultimate standard is the greatest net positive benefit for all, then individuals and groups may be used—or abused—to achieve it.

Marxism/socialism takes the idea of the greater good to an extreme, declaring that only the collective (or more precisely, abstract humanity) has value. Individuals once again become instruments in the service of something else; namely, the perfect society.

Postmodernism: Ethics as Power

The final alternative is the postmodern approach, which rejects all of the above (including especially Aristotle), declaring that human beings are entirely self-defining. Morality—if we can still call it that—becomes purely a matter of human choice. Literally, whatever code of conduct we select becomes the standard for judging human actions, and neither nature, duty, benefit, or abstract ideals are relevant. Only choice and the power to implement what is chosen matters. On the postmodern view, morality becomes exactly what Thrasymachus declared it to be in Plato’s “Republic” more than 2,500 years ago: the advantage of the stronger (338c).

The Cameron School of Business aspires to incorporate the Aristotelian/Medieval model into all that it does, across all its courses and programs. By turning to the “Book of Nature,” CSB endeavors to offer an ethical approach that is simultaneously practical and meaningful, rooted in reality and open to all persons of goodwill.   

About the Author — Dr. Samuel Condic

Dr. Samuel CondicCondic is an associate professor in the Philosophy Department and holder of the Cullen Trust for Higher Education Chair in Business Ethics. His background includes a Ph.D in philosophy and more than 10 years of work experience in and around the oil and gas industry. He is the co-author of the award-winning book, “Human Embryos, Human Beings: A Scientific & Philosophical Approach,” a work that examines human life at its earliest stages. His current research interests include stakeholder theory and its relation to wokeism and Environmental, Social and Corporate Governments (ESG).

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