What is the end – the goal – of business anyway? Is it to merely maximize a profit or to do good, or some balance between the two? And what exactly does it mean for a business to “do good”? And if I happen to be a person of deep religious faith, do I have to check my faith at the boardroom door? What influence should my faith have on the exchanges I engage in day to day, and what are the practical implications of ethics on how I conduct myself in business relationships? Andrew Abela is the 2009 recipient of Acton’s Novak Award. He has just co-authored a very important book on the subject of the intersection of ethics and morality with business: A Catechism for Business: Tough Ethical Questions & Insights From Catholic Teaching (The Catholic University of America Press). He speaks with Acton’s Paul Edwards on this edition of Radio Free Acton.
At last week’s Acton on Tap, I discussed the economic teachings of the Heidelberg Catechism, beginning with the divine origin of material blessings as expressed in Lord’s Day 50, which explores the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The catechism emphasizes God as “the only source of everything good,” echoing the classical Christian understanding of God as the fons omnium bonorum, a Latin phrase meaning the font or source of all good things. This formula appears in many places, notably in the work of John Calvin.
The conclusion from such an understanding is, as the catechism puts it, that we are “to give up our trust in creatures and trust in you [God] alone.” So even though the bread we normally consume each day is brought to us by the work of others, including farmers, millers, and bakers, we are to look beyond these secondary means to the origin of all good things, giving thanks to him.
In his guide to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Rev. Cornelis Vonk provides us with a powerful image connecting the divine origins and the human means by which our material blessings normally are provided. Vonk writes,
Someone might nonetheless ask, “How can we ask the Lord for bread when it is already prepared and ready on our table?”
We see the same thing when a child takes an apple from a bowl on the table, after first asking, “Mother, may I take an apple?” The child does this even though those apples were purchased for him. But Mother is the owner. In the same way, before we enjoy a finely furnished meal, we acknowledge our heavenly Father as the owner by saying, “Please.”
The Lord’s Prayer is a way of gratefully acknowledging that God has provided for our material needs, most often through the work of our neighbors, and asking in faithfulness that such provision continue.
Over at Think Christian today, I lend some broader perspective concerning the link between money and happiness occasioned by a piece on The Atlantic on some research that challenged some of the accepted scholarly wisdom on the subject.
The Bible is our best resource for getting the connection between material and spiritual goods right. I conclude in the TC piece, “As Jesus put it, ‘life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.'” Or to put it another way, we live on bread but not bread alone.
And so money is a good, but not a terminal good. It isn’t an end in itself, but rather is a means to pursuing other good ends. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches us, for example, that we work “faithfully” so that we might “share with those in need.”
Another piece just out today argues that money, when used rightly, can be a means to make us happy. But significantly, the findings of Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton show that such uses of money often correspond to ways not motivated directly by our own pursuit of happiness. Thus, among the “five key principles” they find that helps “turn cash into contentment” is one that resonates directly with the wisdom of the catechism noted above: “Invest in Others.” This means recognizing that “spending money on other people makes us happier than spending it on ourselves.”
Check out the work of Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton in their new book, Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.
Update: Acton now has a PDF of this article available. You can download a color or black and white copy of it here:
There seems to be a great deal of confusion about “social justice” and what that term actually means. In order to provide some clarity, and precision, to better understand the concept, Acton Director of Research Samuel Gregg, wrote an essay for Library of Law and Liberty , published today.
He begins by looking at justice generally:
Natural law ethics has identified justice as one of the cardinal virtues ever since Aristotle commenced his treatment of justice with the general notion of “legal justice” (the terms “legal” and “general” being more-or-less interchangeable). By this, he meant comprehensive virtue with regard to relationships with other persons. Justice-as-a-virtue was henceforth understood in this tradition as having a uniquely social dimension in the sense that one of its key elements is other-directedness.
As a virtue, general justice properly understood involves one’s general willingness to promote the common good of the communities to which one belongs. Here the common good should be understood as the conditions that promote the all-round integral flourishing of individuals and communities. Another element of justice which presents itself very early in the tradition is that of duty in the sense of what we owe to others. This is closely associated with a third element: equality. This should not be understood in the sense of everyone somehow being entitled to precisely the same, regardless of factors such as need or merit. Instead it means fairness as expressed in the Golden Rule. Injustice can after all involve doing things to people that entail no violation of any prior undertaking. Robbing someone, for instance, involves no breaking of any freely-entered-into agreement with the person from whom I steal. But does anyone doubt that an injustice has been done?
These three elements—other-directedness, duty (or what might be called rights today), and the Golden Rule—are closely linked and substantially overlap with each other. But attention to all three elements underscores that the same common good which is the end of general justice requires more than simply a broad inclination on the part of individuals and groups to promote the flourishing of others and themselves. On one level, as Aquinas specifies, it is a special concern of the rulers since they have a certain responsibility to promote the common good. But Aquinas also notes that it is a concern of every citizen: that is, those who participate in some way with the ruling of the community.
The latter question is found in the Heidelberg Catechism, and the brief but poignant answer has stuck with me since I first encountered it. First, the catechism clarifies that our death does not have redemptive power: “Our death does not pay the debt of our sins.” That’s what distinguishes Christ’s death from our own.
But next, the catechism describes two interrelated things our death does do. First, our death “puts an end to our sinning.” What a comforting thought! As Luther put it strikingly, “As long as we are here [in this world] we have to sin.” Our death is the end of our lifelong struggle against sin, and the culmination of the purpose of our entire life. As Calvin writes, “during our whole lives we may aim at a constant rest from our own works, in order that the Lord may work in us by his Spirit.” Our death is where this “constant rest” is finally achieved.
And following from the end to our life of sin, our death marks “our entrance into eternal life.” Thus we enter through our deaths into the eternal Sabbath, where we finally rest from our evil works, enjoy the “constant rest” (Calvin) from sin, and the fullness of life in the Spirit.
So on this Ash Wednesday, when we contemplate the origin and destiny of our earthly life in dust, let us take comfort in the realization that the death of those who are in Christ is merely the end of the beginning of the story. In the midst of our mourning during the Lenten season inaugurated with Ash Wednesday, let us not “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13 NIV).
In a conversation this morning on the way into the office I complained of what I called the “tyranny of pragmatism” that characterizes the approach of many students towards their education. In this I meant a kind of emphasis on what works, and in fact what works right now over what might work later or better.
Then I was reminded of this little catechism that appears in the notes of Luigi Taparelli’s treatise “Critical Analysis of the First Concepts of Social Economy,” which appears in translation in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality.
Taparelli writes of “an odd catechism attributed to the Anglo-Americans but that we believe most appropriate for that ignoble part of any society that takes utilitarianism for its guide.”
It proceeds thus:
What is life? A time to earn money.
What is money? The goal of life.
What is man? A machine for earning money.
What is woman? A machine for spending money, and so forth
What is the purpose of an education today if not primarily to teach us what works to make money right now?