May 13, 2009
The Influence of Faith in Corporate Life
Posted by Michael Naughton

This is a historical moment for me—my first blog ever. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate and join the blogging world. I would like to glom on to what Lyman has been pointing to in his posts concerning the influence of faith in corporate life. As has been indicated already, the relationship between faith and corporations is first an empirical claim. People of faith start and work in corporations and their faith influence the form and practice of corporations. We live in a county that allows people to freely associate with each other for purposes not pre-defined by the state, although the state can prescribe limitations to such free associations. What is often not told in the history of entrepreneurship and business is how many companies started with a vision that was informed by the religious faith of their founders and leaders, companies like Cadbury (Quaker), Herman Miller (Calvinist), Service Master (Evangelical), Dayton Hudson (Presbyterian), Cummings Engine (Disciples of Christ), Reell Precision Manufacturing (Lutheran/Covenant), Mondragon and Quimet-Cordon Bleu Foods Inc. (Catholic) and many others. Economic life is embedded and grows out of a particular culture. Corporations do not start out in the theories of economic man, but out particular cultures, communities and families. This cultural seedbed influences how economic and corporate life if understood and practiced and informs what the purpose of a corporation is.

An important influence of how religious faith influences the purpose of a corporation is how profit is understood. Profit for the people who started and lead these companies is a means, an essential means, to something else. It can never be an end, since it would distort the nature of the work being done (for a more philosophical treatment of this relationship see Alasdair MacIntyre’s discussion of internal and external goods in After Virtue (188ff). To tell the founders and leaders of these companies that their purpose in the corporations they run and work in is the maximization of profit would be a form of economic and political totalitarianism. Even when these companies moved into the public realm, their purpose was defined in such a way that shareholder wealth was a means to the end of the product and work community they were creating. In this public realm, corporations are asking new shareholders to sign onto a particular kind of purpose, although once they do go public there are new pressures they are subjecting themselves to.

It is precisely because they saw profit as a means rather than an end that people of faith within corporations developed a series of corporate practices such as a creating goods and services to meet genuine needs, to design good work, to pay just wages, to use layoffs as a last alternative, to tithe corporate profits, etc. Of course people who do not have religious faith create such practices as well, but people of religious faith should be creating such practices if they are faithful to the message of the gospel. That is, religious faith first and foremost should provide a human form to corporate life. Influenced by their culture particularly family and religious life, their faith should guide them in creating conditions in corporate life that foster human development.

Unfortunately, we have a hard time talking about faith in corporate settings. Because there have been significant abuses, corporate counsel, in order to reduce liability, will encourage their corporate clients to eliminate any reference to religious faith in corporate mission statements and other such documents (for an interesting case study that alludes to this see Ken Goodpaster’s case on Reell Precision Manufacturing).[1] This seems to me to be Lyman as well as Sarah Duggin’s point when they note that corporate counsel should feel free to explore with their corporate clients a rich moral purpose and the cultural sources of this purpose. When such counsel is given to entrepreneurs, lawyers can have an influence in creating more humane economic institutions. How this is done in publicly traded companies will in part depend upon the preexisting corporate mission and history.

[1] For a fuller discussion on this company see Business Ethics: Policies and Person 151ff (Kenneth E. Goodpaster, Laura L. Nash & Henri-Claude de Bettignies eds., 4th ed. 2005) (1985).

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