There are perhaps more Christians in the field of business than in any other area of endeavor. That this is the case has nothing to do with a special compatibility between Christianity and business, of course; it is simply due to the fact that the broad category of business encompasses so many of the remunerative activities of contemporary life. Business is everywhere. It is only natural that Christians will be active participants.
Yet, as Robert Kennedy notes in this volume, Christian social thought has paid less attention to business than the prevalence of the latter would merit. Christian social thinkers have been especially negligent with respect to articulating the ways in which enterprise contributes to common and private goods: “the good that business does.” Professor Kennedy, with experience in the business world and expertise in theology and management, begins to redress this deficiency in this, the first Christian Social Thought Series number of 2006.
Past topics in this series-justice, labor, immigration, corruption, and tort law-all touch on business. Business benefits from a stable rule of law, and it undermines its own prosperity when it neglects law through participating in corrupt practices. It is similarly hurt by a culture of litigation that stifles entrepreneurship and risk-taking, yet it contributes to such a culture when it produces items that are harmful or operates in legally or morally problematic ways. Business relies on skilled and dependable labor; indeed, a business in many respects is its employees. By treating its employees, its customers, and other businesses justly, business contributes to the common good.
Professor Kennedy deals with these and other moral obligations of business and toward business in this volume. In the process, he helps to elucidate the place of the modern business enterprise within contemporary society. In the best tradition of Christian social thought, his starting points are what we know about morality through reason and revelation and what we know about business through empirical observation. Using this method, he articulates the responsibilities of business in a way that is both realistic and in keeping with the timeless truths of the moral law.
Among Professor Kennedy’s investigations is the current debate about the “social responsibility” of business, which he engages in a unique and insightful fashion. Business’s social obligations, it turns out, are both more and less than what many contemporaries believe.
Businesspeople are not immune to sin, and Professor Kennedy does not pretend that all businesses live up to his model at all times. What he presents is, admittedly, an ideal, but it is an ideal that many businesses approach in their day-to-day activities. In other words, Christian social thought offers a standard to which men and women in business can and should aspire-and the standard is sometimes more fully, sometimes more poorly, upheld by the many and diverse individuals who comprise the innumerable companies that populate the world’s economic landscape. The challenge is not fundamentally different from that confronted by every Christian in living his or her vocation.
This book is about the good that business does. More precisely, it is a reflection, in the light of the Christian social tradition, on the legitimate role that business plays in modern life and its critical contribution to the common good of the communities in which we live.
Though we do not often think of it this way, one of the major political challenges of the modern era has been to manage the integration of business into the structure and life of the civil community. This challenge had its beginnings in premodern Europe as commerce and trade revived in the late Middle Ages. It became more urgent with the European discovery of the New World and spread across the continents on the sails and wings of the Industrial Revolution. Today, when we speak of the “new” challenges of globalization, we are really addressing an old problem that has taken on worldwide dimensions.
While trade is as old as human communities, business (understood as a system of organizing work and trade, which comes to include stable companies and formal markets) is a child of civilization. In its early manifestations in the ancient world, it was largely personal (that is, individual merchants rather than companies) and dealt with goods that were not produced locally. The merchant was a kind of transport agent, who bought in one place and sold in another. Farmers and craftsmen sold their goods and services to their neighbors more or less directly. Great fortunes, by and large, depended upon the ownership of land, not on commercial success. There were customs and laws, to be sure, but nothing so systematic as we know today.
Banks and other trading organizations developed in the late Middle Ages, but it was the first stirrings of truly global trade in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that provoked the development of a genuine system of business. This in turn posed new challenges to the political and religious structures of the day. Business activities generated (or at least accumulated) a great deal of wealth and, in doing so, spanned national and even continental boundaries. Along with wealth came power and influence that could and did rival those possessed by kings and princes but that resisted political control. How can a trading organization be controlled, for example, whose headquarters might be in London, Amsterdam, or Madrid but whose operating decisions are made in Calcutta, Jakarta, or Mexico City?
The continuing expansion of the business system not only challenged individual rulers but also, eventually, political structures. As others have observed, there seems to be an important connection between a systematic market economy and democratic forms of government. In the absence of artificial barriers, a business system does not respect nobility or social status; it does respect cleverness and energy and determination. Where business flourished-perhaps as a condition for business to flourish-governments became less monarchical and more democratic.
Cultural challenges appeared as well. Given the growth of systematic economic activity in Spain and Italy, the Catholic Church was compelled to review its thinking about usury and other business practices. Although they are little remembered today, a cadre of brilliant Spanish theologians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries thought deeply about the new economic realities. Their work laid some of the foundations for the modern discipline of economics.
By the nineteenth century, with the Industrial Revolution well under way in England and Germany, the challenges posed by business to politics and culture were acute. Ancient patterns of life, rooted in the land and traditional crafts, in aristocracy and the Church, were disrupted in a generation. New technologies, new forms of organizing work, and new ways of employing wealth were powerful agents of permanent change.
Many of the changes brought mixed results. On the one hand, manufactured goods (and other things) became available to a large population who before could never have afforded them. On the other hand, a great many in Europe were able to escape the crushing servitude of rural life only to enter a new sort of servitude in industrial towns and cities. The vulnerable in the old order were often also vulnerable in the new order, but what protections existed in rural society often disappeared in the factories and the mines.
Because the new business system was so disruptive and unpredictable, there was a natural desire to manage and control it, whether for the sake of those who were swept into it or for the sake of those who wished to preserve their positions of status and power. Attempts to manage the business system could take the shape of socialism (in one of its forms), various regulatory systems, or perhaps the harnessing of political and cultural energies to hold back the tide in favor of more primitive economic structures.
In the end, of course, none of these attempts has been fully successful, and some have been spectacular and costly failures. These failures have not had the effect of discouraging those who would tame the business system-in many cases it has not even persuaded them to adopt different tactics-and so the challenge remains.
What also remains among the public is a certain distrust of business, particularly of large corporations. We are apprehensive about the power they have to affect the lives of great numbers of people and often concerned that they will not use this power well. This distrust is not relieved by the failure of business leaders (to say nothing of economists and other thinkers about business) to explain how they understand business to be integrated within the social order.
It is just this question-about the integration of business within a healthy social order-to which this book is addressed.
Economics, law, and other social sciences have contributed greatly to our understanding of the business system and its functioning. They have done less well in helping us to understand the role that business plays in society and how business and society ought to interact. The purpose of this volume is to consider how the Christian social tradition, with special emphasis on its manifestation in Catholic social teaching, might shed new light on this old problem.
To pursue this inquiry, we need to be clear about what, in general, economics and law have to tell us about the nature of the business system. We will also need to assemble some of the key elements of Christian social thought in order to construct a sound theory of business and society. With this in mind, it will be helpful to consider briefly how the Christian tradition has approached business, and so this will be our starting point.