Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Why You Shouldn’t Let the Company Provide Your Moral Compass

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 14

Let me be clear: I think corporations are fantastic at creating goods and services – they enlist cooperation on a level not possible with any other system.  However, even Adam Smith, who coined the term “The Invisible Hand Of the Market” understood that free markets were good for maximizing economic value, and not moral value. A corporation is created to make money, i.e. increase revenue and minimize costs.  Just as a real person will strive to survive and thrive in the fiercely competitive natural world, the artificial person seeks to survive and thrive in the highly competitive economy.  But there is one key difference: a person’s struggle for survival is tempered by our capacity for moral reasoning, while a company is incapable of any moral agency.

Let me give you an example that seems obvious today: child labor.  I don’t know when the first moral issues about child labor were raised, but in the United States, the first state to make child labor illegal was Massachusetts in 1832.  At the Federal level, child labor was not illegal until 1938.  So what happened in between?  According to The Child Public Education Labor Project  “Growing opposition to child labor in the North caused many factories to move to the South.  By 1900, states varied considerably in whether they had child labor standards and in their content and degree of enforcement.”

Lets unpack this: there were a heterogeneous set of laws, and presumably child labor was less expensive or more productive than adult labor.  So a factory in a state where child labor was illegal was at a disadvantage when compared to a state without regulations.  Based on the numbers, the business case was strong to move the factory.  The only thing to keep it behind would be a moral argument.  But in my experience, it is hard for a morality-based argument to beat a numbers-based business case, especially if inaction could threaten the future viability of the business.

Now, I grant that some companies have cultures that do try to adhere to standards other than the numbers.  (I reject the notion that there are “good” companies on the same grounds that I reject the concept of “evil” companies.) But whatever company you are in, I would not trust them to set my moral compass.  They simply cannot detect moral issues.  Asking a company to do the right thing is like asking a blind person to pick out the blue shirt.  They can pick a shirt based on size or texture, or maybe even a label that says “blue” in brail.  But they do not have the sensory apparatus to know the difference between blue and red.

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  1. I would add nonprofit work here, as well. I’ve encountered situations where a nonprofit wanted to define the values of the individuals who worked there. That’s may be fine from a secular perspective, but from a religiously observant perspective, it isn’t OK at all. My values as a Jewish man come pre-defined in Torah. The values of my coworkers who are observant of other religions come similarly pre-defined (and are generally quite consonant with my own.)

    Even the most well-meaning of nonprofit organizational values-setting initiatives is not guaranteed to match those values, and will by definition be setting values and value-based goals based around situational needs. When corporate values come into conflict with religious values, employees caught in the middle are asked to make a choice between God and man, essentially.

    That’s not to say I agree that a pharmacist should be allowed to deny dispensing birth control on religious grounds–work that comes with the territory of your job you knew about when you went into your job. However, I don’t appreciate being told by an employer how to interact with other human beings, perform charity, and think about my role in the world. Such campaigns assume employees have no moral compass, already.

    As Jew, I often find myself offended by such campaigns. I also do my best to tune them out or ignore them. In conflicts between corporate values and Torah, there’s no question for me whatsoever about the values I want to–and am commanded to–put first.

  2. Greg Marcus says

    Hi MIchael
    Thank you for sharing your wonderful comments. I agree wholeheartedly. I think there is something inherently icky about most “values-setting initiatives,” be they at non-profit or profit organizations. An organizations values are defined by how people act, and not by what is written.

    And while changing organizational values can be done, it is not a matter of an offsite or handbook. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg gives a great example of how Paul O’Neil changed the values at Alcoa to safety first. It took a sustained effort over time, and I don’t think it was even billed as a values change.


  1. […] letter is a business case, as opposed to a moral imperative. As you know, I don’t believe a company is capable of moral agency for either good or ill. Therefore, I think it is far more effective to describe a moral imperative […]