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In business and politics, the ‘common good’ should be our trump card

South Africa’s top brass offer us little to desire or indeed to aspire to, considering the mounds of evidence of corruption and criminality revealed on a daily basis. Mike Batley suggests they look to the Christian ethical principle of the “common good”, and take new direction from old wisdom.

In a recent article reflecting on the current torrent of information about the extent and depth of corruption in South Africa, Professor Deon Rossouw of The Ethics Institute introduces the concept of the moral purpose of business. He views this as the foundation on which ethical leaders and individuals of integrity build organisations of integrity capable of withstanding the temptations of corruption.

The idea that business has a moral purpose is central to Christian social ethics. Given the overwhelming levels of corruption in government, the private sector and the non-profit sector it is worth revisiting this heritage to see what it may offer, to assist us at this time.

A key concept here is the way in which we view organisations or enterprises, which include all business entities, governmental and academic structures and non-profit or civil society organisations.

In the conventional capitalist view, the purpose of business is to create wealth for its owners. Senior managers and owners tend to see staff members, fundamentally, as “machines” and “units of production”. In such an environment financial profit trumps, as the pressure to survive and generate economic wealth is enormous.

In government, academic and non-profit contexts, effectiveness and efficiency at all cost would replace financial profit as the main driver. The pressure to meet goals and demonstrate an impact would be equally important here .

However, in both these contexts staff members are frequently overworked, leading to feelings of alienation and any number of physical and mental signs of the strain induced by such an environment.

In contrast, Christian social ethics views the workplace as a community pursuing a shared purpose. For this purpose to be moral it should contribute specifically to the wellbeing of its stakeholders and community.

Moral organisations would therefore place emphasis on delivering excellent services and goods rather than on the profits that can be made. A culture of shared responsibility would be encouraged to allow for the full expression of staff members’ gifts and abilities. This would affirm the inherent dignity of their work and its meaning for them. In short, the workplace experiences an internal health. Another sign of health would be the extent to which an ethical culture is nurtured. 

Significantly, this is one of four outcomes for which a governing body is responsible in terms of the King IV code on Corporate Governance, considered the “gold standard” among codes of corporate governance.

A healthy ethical culture would encourage the enterprise as a whole to interact ethically with its external stakeholders. It would also assist its staff members to act ethically, e.g. building a policy and social environment that does not tolerate stealing from the company.

Another important facet of the moral purpose of business in Christian social ethics has to do with human development and the common good.

In this view, the term ‘development’ cannot be limited to exclusively economic or physical development but must include the full range of people’s social, cultural, political and spiritual growth. The purpose of this is to employ them in the service of the common good — that is, contributing to the creation of the social conditions that allow women and men to reach their full potential and to realise their human dignity.

In an environment like South Africa, where the common good has never been well served, the opposite is true. The country’s conditions of poverty, unemployment and unequal development, typically accompanied by greed, consumerism and waste, impact massively on people’s development.

The King IV Code adds nuance, with its definition of sustainable development as meeting the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This is a primary ethical and economic imperative. The organisation is viewed as an integral part of society, on which it is mutually dependent, and whose interests it thus ought to serve.

At present, in South Africa it seems clear that part of the moral purpose of organisations should be a whole-hearted, active commitment to building a more inclusive economy and an equal society.

The challenge to enterprises, to grow the economy inclusively and nurture an ethical culture while still maintaining financial viability, is enormous. How can the members of this community — shareholders, senior managers and other staff members — undertake this task?

Pope John XXIII’s social encyclical, Mater et Magistra can assist us in undertaking the process of discernment in the light of the above and other principles of social teaching.

First, one reviews the concrete situation; secondly, one forms a judgment on it in the light of these same principles; thirdly, one decides what in the circumstances can and should be done to implement these principles. These are the three stages that are usually expressed in the three terms: look, judge, act.

Mater et Magistra, 1961, par. 236

In seeking to discern, it goes virtually without saying that this should be done from the foundation of a healthy spiritual life.

Let’s take each term applying it practically to our situation in South Africa.

Look

Enterprises need to understand the context: to interpret the signs of the times. Some of the obvious trends that affect us all in South Africa include tough socio-economic conditions and increasing pressure to change the huge inequalities of wealth; inadequate and frequently inefficient public services; frustration and anger on the part of the poor; and a need for, especially young, people to understand their own vocation, the unique contribution they can make to this context and to be accompanied and supported on their journey in the workplace.

Judge

Members of enterprises would consider how they can meet human needs with goods and services that are truly good and truly beneficial, not overlooking the needs of the poor and the vulnerable. They need to consider the principle of organising work within enterprises in a manner that is respectful of human dignity; the principle of subsidiarity, which fosters a spirit of initiative and increases the competence of the employees who are considered “co-entrepreneurs”; and the principle of the sustainable creation of wealth and its just distribution among the various stakeholders.

Act

Finally, members of enterprises have to make careful, intentional choices and take practical action to to best steward their existing resources — if they are to achieve these ends and be “salt and light” in our complex world.

Faith communities, by drawing on and actively teaching members of the faithful Christian social ethics, can play a crucial role in equipping their members to do this.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.