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Keeping Stable the Fabric of the World

In 1997 the Media Research Center surveyed prime-time television’s portrayal of the businessman. The results, while not surprising, were sobering. The study found that, on television, businessmen committed far more crimes (29.2 percent) than those in all other occupations, including career criminals (9.7 percent). Overall, businessmen were shown making a contribution to society 25 percent of the time, but they cheated to get ahead almost 30 percent.

As I say, sobering but not surprising. We are (far too) accustomed to popular culture’s prejudice against the entrepreneur, from Geoffrey Chaucer to Steven Spielberg. What did surprise me, though, were the findings of a poll of M.B.A. students conducted by two business professors (and cited in the Wall Street Journal on May 3, 1999); there, 73 percent of business students said they would hire a competitor’s employee to obtain trade secrets, while only 60 percent of convicted criminals would do so. Could the popular culture’s judgment of the businessman be correct?

Not exactly. According to business ethicist Marianne M. Jennings, the trouble is that “my M.B.A. students arrive already trained in fashionable academic socialism…. All this makes it very hard to teach business ethics. Students feel as if they have already sold their souls by entering an M.B.A. program, so they are resigned to, and comfortable with, all manner of ethical mischief.” The problem is not that popular culture’s prejudice is accurate but that the prejudice is afflicting the capitalists themselves. These ambitious M.B.A. students are living down to our expectations.

As our M.B.A. students demonstrate, the consequences of a divorce between the world of business and the world of faith are disastrous. It means not acknowledging any values higher than expediency, profit, and utility in the world of business. It results in a bloody or savage capitalism. Religious leaders often add to the confusion in their refusal to grant any moral sanction to the entrepreneur. Instead of praising the entrepreneur–person of ideas, the economic innovator, the provider of capital–the average priest or minister thinks that people in business carry extra guilt.

I see matters differently. My own experience of working with an array of successful business leaders, combined with extensive reading in the fields of economics and business ethics, as well as a fair amount of meditation and prayer on these matters, has led me to the conclusion that the human thirst for the transcendent, drives people to seek excellence and to seek it especially in their work. This is also the case with the human capacity for knowledge. Various philosophers and theologians contend that the human quest for knowledge itself reveals that human beings were originally designed to have an immediate awareness of the truth. As the deuterocanonical Book of Sirach notes, those in the world of work “keep stable the fabric of the world, and their prayer is in the practice of their trade.”

This pursuit of excellence, like the mind’s original constitution, discloses humanity’s orientation toward the highest and most supreme good, namely, the perfection of God in heaven. It is time that we begin to acknowledge the value of their profession, the wise stewardship of their talents, and the tangible contributions they make to society.