The High Calling of Business
This article was originally published here.
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by Jason Myhre
Against all the striving of sustainable, responsible, and impact investors today, there still exists a strong, prevailing headwind: the popular belief that the purpose of business is to create wealth. To make profit. To maximize shareholder value.
This purpose of business was advanced, most famously, by Milton Friedman:
There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud. (emphasis mine)
According to this quote, the overarching purpose, the highest priority, of business in the world is to maximize the wealth of shareholders.
No doubt there are many, especially among the SRI investing community, for whom this statement of business purpose rings hollow. Yet, what we say business is for matters a great deal more than most realize.
Purpose matters for two very important reasons.
First, purpose defines our assessments of good and bad. Alasdair MacIntyre, a moral philosopher, illustrates this using the example of a watch:
To call a watch good is to say that it is the kind of watch which someone would choose who wanted a watch to keep time accurately[…] The presupposition of this use of ‘good’ is that every type of item which it is appropriate to call good or bad […] has, as a matter of fact, some given specific purpose or function. (emphasis mine) 
What is the purpose of a watch? To keep time accurately. Thus, a watch is ‘good’ if it keeps time well; a watch is ‘bad’ if it loses track of time.
While this may seem merely academic, our judgments of good and bad are shaped by our understandings of a thing’s purpose. Purpose is the key concept in natural law philosophy, which has been the dominant line of Western ethical thought for 23 centuries. We intuitively know good and bad from what we understand something’s purpose to be.
Consider this for business. If we say that the purpose of business is profit, then a ‘good’ business is one that makes profit; a ‘bad’ business is one that does not. And if any business that makes a profit is a ‘good’ business, then it doesn’t matter what they do — let a thousand flowers bloom. Many businesses, under the banner of profit, have felt perfectly fine, for example, creating products or services that prey on human weakness. We can object, and say business ought not to do this, or that business ought to do that, but in the case of purpose, the ‘is’ defines the ‘ought.’ Without an alternative purpose for business, we have no basis to critique business’s more deleterious examples, or to orient business otherwise.
Second, purpose defines what works and what doesn’t. In the above quotation from MacIntyre, we see that purpose implies a specific design or function. As an expression of design, purpose tells us how something functions best.
The theory of managing for shareholder value maximization says that a business will prosper best when it makes all decisions for the financial benefit of its shareholders. Other parties to business, such as employees, are subordinated.
On this point, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) investors contend that there are non-financial drivers of material financial performance. Yet, in doing so, we unwittingly concede that the true purpose of business is, in fact, profit. And that the Department of Labor calls all SRI investment strategies ‘economically-targeted investments’ shows this.
To quote Henry David Thoreau, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
Purpose is the Root
If we consent to the belief that the purpose of business is to make money, all of our efforts towards encouraging a more virtuous practice of business remain on the fringes. Unless we fundamentally re-define the purpose of business, we are left to either:
Try to change ‘the rules of the game’ (Friedman’s phrase) through regulation and political action OR
Try to send economic, market-demand signals for businesses to behave more to our liking by collectivizing our investment efforts in SRI.
If we want a more beautiful and good practice of business in the world, we need to address the truthfulness of the claim that ‘the purpose of business is profit.’ It is here that Christianity offers an answer.
For Christians, the belief that business is just about money is not just distasteful, but patently false. Christians believe work itself, and all human working, including in business, has a God-given specific design.
The story of work begins in creation.
In it, God himself is portrayed as a worker. He creates the cosmos, and everything in it. Everything he makes he appraises good; of the whole of his creation, very good.
God creates us “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). While the full meaning of humanity’s God-likeness is thick, in this first chapter of the bible it certainly describes our capacity, like God, for creative and meaningful work — and of our ability, like God, to create things that are qualitatively good.
God gives us work. “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to (purpose clause) cultivate it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15, emphasis mine). Theologians describe this verse as the ‘creative mandate’ or the ‘cultural mandate’ — work is a divine directive. We were made to work. Work is thus fundamental to human identity, and constitutive of human flourishing.
God tells us how to use work. James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, writes:
In the Hebrew derivations (of Genesis 2:15), the key verbs are abad and shamar. The former can be translated as work, nurture, sustain, husband; the latter means to safeguard, preserve, care for, and protect. These are active verbs that convey God’s intention that human beings both develop and cherish the world in ways that meet human needs and bring glory and honor to him.
God entrusts us with the task of world-making. In the story of creation, God created the garden rich with latent potential, yet withheld task of completing it for the people he would make. God intends humanity, through work, to be his partner in developing the world. Humanity was to enlarge the locus of the beauty and provision of the garden, in all our culture making, throughout the world and for the benefit of all.
Because of the story of work, Christians believe that the purpose of business is to serve the global common good.
In a statement formed by the Christian story of work, author and philosopher, Charles Handy writes:
…To turn shareholders needs into a purpose is to be guilty of a logical confusion — to mistake a necessary condition for a sufficient one. We need to eat to live; food is a necessary condition of life. But if we lived mainly to eat — making food a sole or sufficient purpose of life — we would become gross. The purpose of a business, in other words, is not to make a profit, full stop. It is to make a profit so that the business can do something more or better.(emphasis mine.)
Faith convictions are often cast as personal and private, yet often it is the case that what we believe in our hearts matters for others and the world, as well.