The Lamb of Wall Street
Could business use a catechism?
A few weeks ago the Dutch Banking Association made a major announcement about their intention to reform the banking sector. Starting in 2015, all 90,000 members of the Dutch banking industry will be required to take an oath of conduct. Already top executives at each bank are required to take the oath, but now they will be joined by everyone working in the sector in swearing, among other things, to put clients' interests first, take care of stakeholders, and "endeavor to maintain and promote confidence in the financial sector."
As one of the authors of The MBA Oath, I read this news with great interest. In response to the financial crisis of 2008, my classmates and I at Harvard Business School created a graduation pledge we hoped would serve as a Hippocratic Oath for MBAs because there isn't a unified code of ethics in business as there exists in law, medicine, or other professions. Gray areas abound. My classmates and I wanted to draw some bright lines around how we expected to conduct ourselves as professionals and what standards we figured all MBAs ought to be held to. It resulted in a seven-part pledge that has been taken by thousands of MBAs from hundreds of business schools around the world.
Though many of us who created the oath were people of faith, we were of different faiths and we intentionally wanted to create a pledge that almost any MBA could take, regardless of their religious beliefs. The Dutch bankers are bolder (or more humble?) in their approach. Though the country is largely secular, their oath for the financial industry ends with four words of faith: "so help me God."
With raised eyebrows The New York Times and other media reported on the Dutch bankers' appeal to a higher power. After all, these days the conventional wisdom is that one's faith should be checked at the door of one's office. It would be awkward, impolite, or even theologically misguided to mix God and mammon. However, talk to a Millennial today and you will hear a greater openness to this mix than you will hear from older generations. Young people, both those with faith and those without, express a greater urge to find meaning both in what they consume and what they produce as economic actors. They want their work to count, to have significance. So many don't just tolerate the idea of mixing faith and work. Many find it attractive.
But these developments are nascent and not yet widespread. It seems that only the Reformed and the Catholic traditions are seriously thinking about what it means to integrate faith with every type of work. The territory is wide and the maps are few. Meeting fellow travelers on the journey is a welcome surprise. So I was immediately intrigued when I learned of Andrew V. Abela and Joseph E. Capizzi's new book, A Catechism for Business, which promised to summarize all the key Catholic teaching on business ethics.
Who needs a catechism anyway?
The word catechesis is derived from the Greek word katecheo, which translates to "instruction" or "teaching by word of mouth." It first appears in the New Testament in Luke 1:4, when Luke says he is writing so that Theophilus may be confident in what he has been taught. Catechetical instruction as we know it today dates back at least to Augustine and Cyril of Jerusalem in the third century.The idea was straightforward: those who would be baptized into the church should first undergo education in the basics of the faith before being accepted into full communion. Thus I suppose a catechism for business might also be the "basic training" for people of faith before fully entering the world of commerce.
This isn't a bad idea for a couple reasons.
First, a business catechism could do what all catechisms do: synthesize the essentials of the faith as, in this case, they relate to business. For a young Christian entering the world of business, it would be useful to have one tool that addresses the most important and vexing ethical questions from a Christian perspective. My classmates and I created The MBA Oath because we felt like there wasn't a single ethical standard to hold to. But our scope was limited and produced only a half-dozen principles for managers. A catechism could cover a more diverse and specific array of topics.
Second, a catechism for business could make the deep thinking and reflection of the church accessible to the layperson. Abela and Capizzi suggest in their introduction that the book's biggest contribution is bringing together all of the church's major teachings on the topics of business and economic life. For the layperson who likely has neither the time, expertise, nor the inclination to wade through the social encyclicals and other teachings of the church, a catechism offers something of a "greatest hits" approach to business ethics.
So I like the idea of a catechism for business, but many ideas that sound appealing in theory fail in practice. And this attempt is not without its shortcomings, but overall it is an outstanding step in the right direction.
What makes for a good catechism?
An evaluation of a catechism probably ought to begin where a catechism begins: with the questions. Are they relevant? Are they realistic? If you don't ask the right questions you'll never find the right answers. In this regard A Catechism for Business fares well. Abela and Capizzi have built their book on honest, often uncomfortable queries. No softballs. Every pitch is hard. Consider these examples:
- Is it morally acceptable to minimize the amount of taxes our firm must pay through offshore tax havens or other loopholes in the tax code?
- Is it moral to pay employees more than they could get elsewhere for the same work, for the sake of paying a living wage, if in doing so we would reduce the amount of profits that the firm would earn otherwise?
- Is bluffing in negotiation morally acceptable, either to defend our position or to get a better deal?
There are no obvious answers here. These questions were carefully chosen and worded by the professors in concert with businessmen and women to represent real street-level concerns. Simply skimming the table of contents is an ethically provocative exercise.
A project like a catechism invites the risk of oversimplifying complicated problems in order to provide black-and-white answers. Abela and Capizzi resist this temptation throughout. "We would be disappointed," they write, "if the model we develop here suggests that living the Catholic life in the business world reduces to the wooden application of some key phrases." No such book would prove helpful and the authors are wise to tread far from the edge of this cliff. Instead, they suggest, that the "answers" in the catechism are not "destinations" but "points of departure" for individual reflection and prayer. In fact, the most important thing is the reflection an individual must do to integrate church teaching, wisdom, and experience in order to think and act ethically in their particular situation. To this end, the authors include references to the original sources for each quote so that those interested can explore the context for themselves. I imagine myself using this book as a reference tool in just this way.
That said, A Catechism for Business has three gaps in its content I hope to see filled in future editions. First, the book is missing a layer of context. Much of the content relies on the reader already having a working knowledge of Catholic social concepts like solidarity and subsidiarity. These concepts are central to Catholic social thought, but never explicitly defined in the book. While many have engaged with these ideas at some level, the concepts likely exist only superficially in the minds of a great many readers. It would be useful if the authors explained these principles just as they do for other topics in the book.
Second, the book is largely silent on two of the most important topics for Christians in business: finance and calling. A Catechism for Business has a dearth of specific questions related to finance. Given the enormous ripple effects that trading, investment banking, and the capital markets have on our society, it is surprising that only 9 of the 146 topics in this catechism had to do with finance (and more than half of those dealt with more abstract questions about the ethics of making a profit). I would like to see a second edition of this book address questions like:
- What does the church think of high-frequency trading?
- If financial trading is a zero-sum game where we bet on prices and I win / you lose or you win / I lose, is financial trading socially valuable?
- What obligations do lenders have to their borrowers and to society at large?
Another topic inexplicably absent from this text is on the notion of vocation and calling. Many Catholic writers like Michael Novak have written persuasively and inspiringly on the topic of business as a calling. They advance persuasive arguments from church teaching that business is a noble vocation wherein men and women can worship God and create good on Earth. The popular narrative today is that capitalism, especially finance, is broken and may be beyond repair. And although the church has a meaningful contribution to make regarding the possibility of the redemption of finance through the work of faithful leaders called into business, it is unfortunate that this catechism doesn't dip a toe in those waters.
Perhaps the biggest piece missing in this catechism is not a topical area.The book offers no guidance on how to actually live out these principles. The book's introduction asserts, "[T]he incidence of scandal arising from ethical violations in the business world has been increasing over the past several years [and] the purpose of this book is to help change this state of affairs by presenting the teachings of the Catholic Church as they relate to specific questions of business ethics." I won't argue with the statement of the problem (although I don't know if there is more scandal now than in the past, there's certainly enough now that it's not worth quibbling over). However, I question the adequacy of their solution. This book is all about the what: What should you do? What shouldn't you do? Pulling that teaching together is an achievement, but I dare say it isn't enough. Just knowing what is right is never enough. The difficulty is in the doing.
People don't cheat or lie or steal in business because they don't know it's wrong. They do it because, at the moment of temptation, money or power or their career advancement feel more real and potentially satisfying than the guilt, the risk of being caught, and or their higher-order desire to be "the kind of person who would never do that." The Apostle Paul admitted as much in his famous confession, "For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing." We can empathize with him because we've all been there. We often know what we should do but we don't do it again and again and again. That's the trouble with being human: We dream of the heavens but we play in the muck.
For Christians, most of the time it's not that we don't know what's right. And it's not that we don't want to serve God and our neighbors. The problem is that deep down in our heart of our hearts we want something more. We want money or esteem or "success," none of which are bad for us until we want them more than anything else. And that is what so often happens. On an intellectual level we honestly desire to do good and live the way suggested in A Catechism for Business while simultaneously we often want to do just the opposite.
Knowing what's morally permissible won't make you moral any more than knowing which foods are healthy will make you eat a healthy diet. I know kale is good for me but I don't like the taste. So when I'm in the lunch line I don't order it and I won't order it until I rewire the short-sighted motivations of my heart that lead me to consistently choose the cheeseburger and fries. I will only change when I begin to desire good health more than the immediate gratification brought on by salt and grease. The same pattern is at work in the souls of those of us in the world of business. For most of us, it is extraordinarily easy to focus on a job promotion or our year-end bonus as a "goal" we think will make us ultimately happy. We risk making choices that advance our careers at the expense of misdirecting our higher values.
So how do we change? Is the catechism useless? Not at all. We'll never rise to our potential without dealing with the hard issues that might trip us up or without drawing on the ancient wisdom about "the good way." There is a beauty in good thinking that is attractive. Engaging with good thinking begins the process of reframing our desires. But we need more. First, we need to commit ahead-of-time to acting in line with our principles. This is the idea of The MBA Oath. Increasingly, research shows that such pre-commitments can effectively influence people to act in line with their values when they find themselves in situations where they must choose.
Second, and most importantly, we need to strengthen our desire to do right. In other words, we need to love the idea of living lives that please God more than we love our own self-advancement. But how do we do that?
In some ways it is a great mystery, but I think it begins with going back to the basics. It begins with remembering that we are so sinful Jesus had to die for us, but at the same time remembering that he loves us so much he was glad to die for us. If we take those basic truths of the gospel "not as a destination but as a departure point" for reflection and prayer, we may soon find growing in ourselves a new appreciation, a new thankfulness, and a renewed desire to love and serve God through loving and serving others in our work.
In Romans 12, Paul counseled that we must be transformed by the renewing of our mind. And while this edition of the catechism may not yet have all the elements needed, it is a rich and valuable contribution to the project of renewing our thinking about business. I recommend it to any thoughtful Christian in business, Catholic or not. It will prompt many to think more deeply and advance their efforts to lead more godly, charitable, and ethical careers. At least that is my prayer, as the Dutch bankers would say, "so help us God."Subscribe