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Arts and Sciences

Faith and Corporate Capitalism

Distinguishing the Strong from the Misguided

W. Michael Hoffman and Robert McNulty argue in “Transforming Faith in Corporate Capitalism through Business Ethics” that corporate capitalism has been debased by what they call “misguided faith” and until it is redeemed by a “strong” or “good faith,” it will continue to be riddled by impropriety and scandal. Hoffman is the founding executive director of the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University (the oldest such center in the United States), and McNulty is the Center’s director of programs. 

Hoffman and McNulty begin by articulating a view of faith, not as adherence to a particular religious doctrine, but as “one’s understanding of what the fundamental nature of reality is and how one ought to act.” Next, the authors discuss corporate capitalism as the primary means of organizing work and economic activity in the world today. They assert that while corporate capitalism is highly effective, it is also value neutral, by its nature neither good nor bad. It is the “misguided faith” by those who abuse corporate capitalism that has caused so many ethical failures, failures that threaten its long-term viability.

It is the nature of this “misguided” faith that is the root of the problem, Hoffman and McNulty argue. Faiths may be judged on how well they contribute to the “long-term flourishing of the culture with which they are associated.” The authors answer the question “what is the faith associated with corporate capitalism?” in this way: “…the prevailing faith of corporate capitalist culture is contained in two essential tenets: profit maximization for the corporation and personal enrichment for the individual. When profit maximization and personal enrichment are taken as a primary article of faith, then all other moral concerns will be subordinated and this inevitably and necessarily leads to corruption and injustice.  Examples from recent debacles such as Enron, WorldCom and Tyco paint a sorry picture of what happens when profit maximization and personal enrichment are accepted as ultimate concerns.” 

Hoffman and McNulty do not state that profit and personal enrichment are bad; in fact, they recognize that they are essential. But it is the elevation of these two goals above all others that in this case defines a “misguided faith” because it leads to a weakened and unsustainable form of corporate capitalism. Their conclusion is that corporate capitalism must reform itself: “rather than rejecting corporate capitalism, we seek to unleash it from the ideological hold that has robbed it of its dignity.”  

The way to effect this transformation is by embracing business ethics in the form of three basic principles which keep work “consistent with moral goodness:”  

  • The Dignity Principle, which holds that work should not diminish the dignity of the individual engaged in work or those affected by it
  • The Service Principle, which recognizes that work should be done in service to the greater good
  • The Accountability Principle, which states that business needs to be conducted in a way that respects both the autonomy and rights of the individual and the authority and values of the institution, and in so doing, preserve the integrity of both.

While business ethics may sometimes be criticized for being idealistic, Hoffman and McNulty argue vigorously and persuasively that only when corporate capitalism is based on the “strong faith” of business ethics will its long-term viability be assured.

Recent debacles paint a sorry picture of what happens when profit maximization and personal enrichment are the ultimate concerns.