DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Corporations are people too, you know…

Written by: on February 14, 2019

Back in the dark ages when I studied ethics for three years, I discovered to my consternation that the world of economics had a somewhat lopsided and precarious relationship to moral theory. Until the later part of the 19th century moral deliberations occupied a conspicuous place in economic studies. A principal notion in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism[1] is that ethical concepts such as honesty and economy are fundamental in explaining the creation of wealth. In a similar way Adam Smith highlighted the prominence of self-interested behaviour in explaining the prosperity of nations, but he also noted that such behaviour is only a slice of an intricate social worldview grounded in collective customs, moral principles and values. Smith went on to argue that moral standards are indeed the foundation of the wealth of nations.

“Although people’s ‘own interest is connected to the prosperity of society […] justice […] is the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice. If it is removed […] the immense fabric of human society […] must in a moment crumble into atoms.”[2]

Despite this, there was a seismic shift in the early 20th century as ethics was no longer considered a legitimate object of study in rational economics. Rather, over the last century, a rapidly spreading and prevailing belief came into being; that analytical models in economics and finance, alongside their human agents, act in a morally neutral fashion. Consequently, ethics or morality is no longer part of the underlying explanation or critique of the efficiency and viability of capitalist markets. Back in 1922 Jacob Viner set the platform for economic thinking.

‘Economics […] has no direct concern with the analysis of the processes whereby men acquire a consciousness of moral obligation, and it is in this limited field that ethics finds the bulk of its subject matter’.[3]

To say I was surprised would be an understatement. Yet, in talking with modern economists, this indeed appears to be, and remain, the case.

In reading Weber’s essay, his underlying thesis seems to be that wealth creation is a way of thinking (a worldview) and not a mechanism to be applied. Though I don’t have a direct reference, in my own words Capitalism is best described as, ‘A social and economic system where both the means of production and any associated trade are privately owned’. By emphasising the private, there is an assumption of moral containment within a cultural context, whereby individuals within that context determine moral outcomes. This makes some sense given that Weber makes a strong connection between pervasive Calvinistic theology and the development of the Capitalist emphasis on personal responsibility. Weber describes ‘the spirit’ of capitalism as, “above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself.”[4] As such, it is an ethic, not a mechanism. The point of capitalist venture was to increase the wellbeing of society, at least in principle, not for the sake of consumption (leisure and comfort),[5] but for production of individual wealth (frugality).[6]

What’s interesting, is the way Weber and the sociologists of the 19th century acknowledged the Puritan and Calvinistic concept of individual responsibility and ownership as powerful motivators for the future of economic and social wellbeing.[7] European and the United Kingdom societies were still straining under a class system that was to some extent a reinvention of the feudal system after its massive failure during the Peasants Revolt of 1381.[8] Yet, as Capitalism sprang to life, so did Socialism in its various forms. Over the following century, these two opposing forces developed in very different ways. Yet one thing is very clear,  no matter which side of the fence you view the world from, it’s all too easy to avoid the mess in your own back yard. Over the last 40 years, with neo-liberal economic development, and the amoral thinking of economic theory, we have all missed something abhorrent within our corporate world that even Weber couldn’t foresee: the view that corporations have personality. Contracts are now often between corporations and employees or investors. Corporations own things, and corporations have agency. Yet corporations are not required to have moral obligations. They may possess agreed values, but the application of those values may not be detrimental to the corporation itself.[9]

Though Weber traces the history of Capitalist thinking to a Protestant ethic, he notes that it is more complex than that.[10] And that complexity continues. What we read in Weber is a historical perspective on Capitalism and it’s development in the same way that Bebbington and Polanyi caused us to consider Christianity’s broader influence. Hermeneutically though, that old influence is almost non-existent. The amoral economic juggernaut has bolted and Christians are left having to consider our engagement with a consumer engaged, profit-driven world. Afterall, we are a polity within a polity – we are Kingdom people.

Weber’s hope that, “A man does not ‘by nature’ wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose”[11] is less and less a certitude. It seems to me the Christian response must be to reconsider what success looks like for the ordinary person? What does it mean to be human? How do we live in the world together? How do we live with creation as caretakers? And how do we as Christians challenge the powers around us? Calvin’s view may have been a useful tool once upon a time, but we need new voices speaking a gospel message for a very different era. I’m just not sure what it is.

[1] Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. New York: Routledge, 2001.

[2] Smith, Adam, Theory of Moral Sentiments, New York, Prometheus Books 2000. 125

[3] Viner, Jacob, 1922. ‘The Relation between Economics and Ethics’, American Economic Review; reprinted in: The Long View and the Short. Studies in Economic Theory and Policy, Glencoe, Free Press 1958. 8

[4] Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 17

[5] Ibid., 59

[6] Ibid., 30

[7] Ibid., 153ff

[8] Well worth reading about. The Feudal system kept the social status quo in place because of a complete absence of personal motivation towards change. It was socially devastating and ultimately fatal.

[9] Michael Boylan, Business Ethics, Basic Ethics in Action. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 40-42

[10] Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 4

[11] Ibid., 24

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

4 responses to “Corporations are people too, you know…”

  1. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I wonder if our starting point needs to be back in “individual responsibility and ownership”, where instead of economics contributing to social well being, we acknowledge stewardship of natural resources as the primary contributor to social well being. If we can then grow in our collaborative efforts, perhaps we can rediscover social connections that provide meaning through connectivity rather than material ownership. If such a shift were to take place, than we might find a collective ethic is able to displace the ammoral corporation. If we could strategically attack the drive for more at the root, that is to truly drive out fear and emptyness, we might be able to make a shift. Do we need to reclaim hope and joy? Is there anywhere this is already articulated as primary tenants of our faith?

  2. Mario Hood says:

    I think you’re right Digby and make a great observation on the personality of a corporation aka corporate culture. What’s interesting is that some corporation have an outward personality (brand) and an inward personality (internal culture). Sometimes these are one and the same but sometimes not. One has to look no further than the latest economic crisis to see that these corporations presented themselves one way to the world but were operating in another. A great saying in the Western church is that we can’t legislate morality and while I agree that we can’t legally hold someone accountable in certain areas, what might it look like to have moral guidelines for corporations? One company Chic-Fil-A comes to mind as a great example of what that could look like, as it is closed on Sunday’s and the culture inside and outside is top notch as it is based on Christian Values. Unfortunately, in America I think we are far too gone down the profit path is enact these but the church can teach it and hopefully make an impact.

  3. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Digby, You are such a bright person, I think I shall start future posts by reading your’s first and then skim the text. Your post is full of pithy statements but I loved your concluding questions the most. “What does it mean to be human? How do we live in the world together? How do we live with creation as caretakers? And how do we as Christians challenge the powers around us?” That is for us in this cohort, what have we collectively learned, what are we learning now, and how will we apply what we will learn? Digby, I leave that to you to formulate.

  4. mm Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Nice blog, Digby. I completely agree with your statement that no matter which side of the fence you view the world from, it’s all too easy to avoid the mess in your own back yard. That’s a problem in so many societies: they are often ready to point fingers at others – even though they are sitting on their own cesspool of problems. Sometimes it’s easier to put blinders on…

    I also thought your viewpoint that corporations have personality was very interesting. We think of people with personalities, but not corporations. Yet, what are corporations – other than entities made up of various minded people. Thanks for sharing your enlightening post!

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