World renowned organizational scholar, James March of Stanford University once said that undermining the self-interest doctrine may be the most important project of the 21st century. Self-interest is at the heart of economics, politics and everyday life. People and organizations are encouraged to pursue their own self-interest without paying attention to the wider and longer term consequences of their choices and actions. However, the extreme focus on the self by economic actors leads to the destruction of both material and non-material values.
The last words of the last public lecture given by the great philosopher Hans Jonas were as follows: „It was once religion which told us that we all are sinners because of the original sin. It is now the ecology of the planet which pronounces us all to be sinners because of the excessive exploits of human inventiveness. It was once religion which threatened us with a last judgment at the end of days. It is now our tortured planet which predicts the arrival of such a day without heavenly intervention. The latest revelation (...) is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our power over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation.”
The recent economic and financial crisis shows that business ethics lost its credibility and relevance. It became evident that business ethics teaching did not change the general attitude of managers in mainstream business. Ethics and compliance programs were not able to prevent major banks and big corporations to enter into questionable practices and make dirty businesses all over the world.
Mainstream corporate business lost credibility and trust worldwide. Conventional legitimizing arguments for corporate business do not work anymore. Referring to efficiency or job creation is not enough for stakeholders who are angry with corporations destroying livelihoods, displacing people, and destructive of communities and nature.
The basic assumptions of the corporate management model became questionable. The dominant model of today's corporate business is based on a materialistic conception of man. Human beings are considered as creatures having only materialistic desires and acting out of solely egoistic motivation.
The painting by Paul Klee represents the angel of ethics for me. The title “Senecio” refers to the botanical name for a genus of plants that includes ragwort and other plants with round flower heads. One interpretation is that there is a parallel between the flower being the crowning glory of a plant and the human face being the flower of the human body. As this genuine and transparent face sees us, we can feel a deep spiritual inspriration for honest living and acting in the world of lying and deception.
The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon clearly shows the crisis of the materialistic management paradigm. Materialistic management is based on the belief that the sole motivation of doing business is money-making and success should be measured by the generated profit only.
Psychologists have discovered the serious side-effects of materialistic value orientation. In his book "The High Price of Materialism" Tim Kasser demonstrates that the more people prioritize materialistic goals, the lower their personal well-being and more likely they engage in manipulative, competitive, and ecologically degrading behaviors.
I was active in fighting agains the Bős-Nagymaros Dam project in the 1980s and 1990s. The project aimed at constructing a huge, artificial system consisting of a canal and two dams for electricity production. It was not only highly destructive in environmental and cultural sense but also economically irrational because it required about USD 3 billion for the completion, but this investment would never recovered through the benefit of electricity production.
As a student (and later as a professor) of economics and business I was not ready to accept the centrality of self-interest in motivating business actions and evaluating the performance of companies. I have never shared the belief of mainstream economists and businessmen about the benefitial effects of the "invisible hand" of the market. I always felt that something fundamentally wrong with the self-interest doctrine.
The painting "Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon" by Tivadar Kosztka Csontvary is a celebration of the magficence of nature and the dignity of human spirit. Let us hope in the renewal of humanity in the years to come.
Tivadar Kosztka Csontvary: Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon, 1907
Since the late 1980s mankind has been operating in overshoot. Our ecological footprint has exceeded the world’s biocapacity by about 30 percent. This means that the planet’s resources are being used faster than they can be renewed. The problem is especially acute for the Western countries which use 600 – 300 percent of their fair earth share.
On 19 January 2010, Henk van Luijk passed away at the age of 80. Professor van Luijk was one of the pioneers of business ethics and is considered as the patriarch of business ethics in Europe. He was the inspirational chairman of the European Business Ethics Network (EBEN), an organization that was set up on his initiative, and which he co-founded, in 1986. (See In Memoriam)
"Taormina" by the Hungarian painter Tivadar Csontvary represents the state of the world and the state of the soul. What we have today is a partly destroyed world and a much disturbed soul but fantastic cultural heritage and still magnificent nature. Much to preserve and renew.
In July 1797 Nelson led a doomed assault on the Spanish island of Tenerife in which he was hit in the right arm by a musket ball shortly after stepping ashore. Bleeding heavily, he was taken back and his injured limb was amputated. Within 30 minutes Nelson was again issuing orders to his men. (See the full article.)
Imagine a today's CEO who suffers a similar job-related accident. What would he or she do? Almost certainly, he or she would claim a huge compensation for the injury and give up the job forever Admiral Nelson returned to work in half an hour and did his duty. "That was a man."