World Religions: Ethical Resources for the Modern Business Corporation

By Greg Emery

The modern multinational business corporation is perhaps the strongest social institution of our time. The largest of these are arguably more influential and far-reaching than many national governments or world religions. As one commentator has insightfully noted, "The steeples of the churches are dwarfed by the towers of industry." [Max L. Stackhouse, On Moral Business, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1995)] This influence is likely to increase as the world population continues to grow and as new technologies are developed. Society will likely become even more reliant upon the modern business corporation in the 21st century.

Corporations will have to understand the "big picture" in order to maintain a powerful presence in the next century. They will have to develop a view of the large-scale changes that are emerging while asking whether present business arrangements and economic systemsi can sustain individuals, family life, societies and cultures, governments -- and even corporations themselves. In asking these "big-picture" questions, the modern business corporation places -- or finds -- the burdens (and rewards) of responsible stewardship of the earth's people and resources squarely upon its own shoulders.

As corporations and their managers increasingly accept, willingly or not, the mantle of stewardship, they will be called on not only to manage their business successfully, but also to give intellectual, moral -- and perhaps even spiritual or existential -- guidance to human civilization. This challenge and honor will require leadership with an uncommon sense of professional responsibility.

Business has generally looked to the social sciences, e.g., psychology and economics, for accounts of certain aspects of business systems. But, as philosophers have long pointed out: You can't get an "ought" from an "is." That is, while the disciplines of psychology and economics have developed to the point where they can, with remarkable accuracy, tell business how things do work, psychology and economics can not explain how things ought to work. Consequently, today's business leaders are largely without a nuanced conceptual scheme or vocabulary that can be used for analyzing, discussing and deciding normative cultural issues, i.e., how things ought to work.

To develop stewardship, corporations will have to search out deep and broad norms that can be used, in part, to guide decision-making. Business will have to seek guidelines to responsibly manage the emerging forms of business and economic and cultural life by attempting to identify the most profound ethical resources there are: resources from the past and present, resources from around the world. I suggest that one area to which corporations and business leaders should look is that of the ethical systems found within or implied by the world's great religions and philosophies.

It is certainly true that similar ethical injunctions can be found in myriad religions, cultures and/or philosophies, just as similar nutrients can be found in differing cuisines. For example, many of the same ethical decrees found in the Ten Commandments of the Hebrew Scriptures ("You shall not bear false witness," "You shall not steal," "Thou shall not kill," etc.) have correlates in Buddhism's Nobel Eightfold Path ("Right Speech," "Right Action," "Right Livelihood").

Nevertheless, as distinct cuisines taste differently (though containing similar nutrients), the Hebrew Scriptures' and Buddhism's ethical injunctions have their own unique nuances (though, perhaps, the "ethical nutrients" are not significantly different). Thus, studying the varieties of ethics suggested by the world's great religions and philosophies will aid the modern business corporation in developing a nuanced conceptual scheme or vocabulary that can be used for analyzing, discussing how things ought to work. Such scrutinization may assist the modern business corporation in becoming responsible and effective stewards of the earth's people and resources.

In addition to acquiring some tools that may be useful for becoming responsible and effective stewards, corporations will gain additional benefits from looking to the world's great religions and philosophies: corporations will secure a greater awareness of the cultures and cultural values of those foreign countries with which they do, or hope to do, business. It is often mentioned that business today operates in a global environment and that to remain competitive in this environment, these businesses need to understand the global milieu within which they operate. In order to understand this milieu, the modern business corporation needs to understand both the economic and the non-economic factors that influence that environment and economy.

One non-economic factor that warrants notice is that of cultural values. All businesspersons -- marketers and engineers, managers and union members, accountants and secretaries -- must be aware of such cultural values for the values people treasure and endorse, consciously or unconsciously, provide guidance -- a life-orientation -- for their actions. More importantly for business, these values underlie peoples' motivational structures which, in turn, informs their behaviors, including their economic behaviors. Therefore, in order to understand the global environment within with they operate, corporations must consider and attempt to understand both the religious traditions (sacred and civil) and the philosophies of those countries with which they do business, because these systems are the founts of cultural values which in turn guide human behavior, including economic behavior.

In sum, there are two reasons why the modern business corporation should be interested in the great religions and philosophies of the world. First, studying various world religions can aid the modern business corporation in its attempt to develop responsible, appropriate and effective stewardship of the earth's people. Second, studying world religions will aid the modern business corporation in its attempt to become more aware of and sensitive to the wide variety of cultural values that motivate people and influence their behavior, including their economic behavior.

There is much at stake here, given the current and likely future position of the modern business corporation and civilization's growing dependence upon it. And there are potential benefits to be reaped by all, civilization in general and business in particular, if the modern business corporation accepts the mantle of responsible stewardship -- and becomes proficient at it. C. Don Presario, speaking of the importance of just one religion to corporate stewardship, tells us, "In Buddhist theory, moral corruption or moral growth tends to flow from higher levels of the social hierarchy to the lower levels. It is imperative that we entrust the guidance of the destinies of the world to individuals who have cultivated the [ethical sense] that Buddhism prescribes in its Nobel Path." [P. Don Premasiri, "The Relevance of the Nobel Eightfold Path to Contemporary Society," in Buddhist Ethics and Modern Society, edited by Charles Wei-hsun Fu and Sandra A. Wawrytko (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991)]

Today's modern business corporation is at the top of the social hierarchy. Given the dependence of civilization on these corporations, what their managers do -- good or bad -- will "flow" to the rest of the world. Corporate leaders can, as they become the stewards of the world, avail themselves to the great ethical traditions found within the world's religions and philosophies.

i It should be noted that modern business not only participates in the world's economies, but also greatly influences them.

Greg Emery is a visiting associate professor of Business at the University of Ohio>