There’s some interesting stuff in this article in Forbes. His points are not new; the economy is broken because the incentive structure is broken, corporations should focus on customers not shareholders (and doing so will benefit shareholders as well), here are some tips for fixing it. One thing jumped out at me, not something he said but the way he said it:
“There is only one valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer.” (some guy, quoted as the epigram to the article)
I want to agree with this, but not for the usual reason that corporations are not people (which they’re not, but they are (fictional) persons). There’s a better explanation. Corporations are (fictional) persons; and person-based ethics apply to them as well, including the Christian “love your neighbor as yourself” (which is not at all the same as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”–that’s a much less radical notion). Of course that concept underlies the whole argument here; Christian ethics are now our default, even when we’re not explicitly thinking ethically.
The article, however, uses other language to justify its moral claim (since after all it’s not just a claim about what would work best, it’s a claim about what’s right). It talks about “authenticity,” a word to which I have developed a strong aversion (Note: This may just be because I’ve recently been reading Martin Heidegger, for whom it’s actually “Eigentlichkeit,” which would be better translated “propriety” or “appropriateness.”; I find the conflation of appropriate with authentic fascinating and rather important, perhaps subject matter for a later post):
We must restore authenticity to the lives of our executives. The expectations market generates inauthenticity in executives, filling their world with encouragements to suspend moral judgment. They receive incentive compensation to which the rational response is to game the system. And since they spend most of their time trading value around rather than building it, they lose perspective on how to contribute to society through their work. Customers become marks to be exploited, employees become disposable cogs, and relationships become only a means to the end of winning a zero-sum game.
Maybe not everyone agrees, but when I read this, the equation of being-myself with being-for-others strikes me as just bizarre. If the point is to encourage people to live being-for-others, why wrap it in the rhetoric of “authenticity”? Not that “authenticity,” i.e. being-myself, is something to avoid; it’s irrelevant. For me to live being-myself correctly I have to live being-better-than-myself. If I live being-just-myself, I’m definitely going to seek what benefits me (i.e. the shareholders–the corporation is its shareholders), not what benefits others (i.e. the customers).
It’s like everyone wants to be Christian, but no one still believes in original sin.