The natural law and business
AS one who is not as active in the business scene as before, it is easy to take on the role of a pundit, postulating theories on why things are going right or going to pieces. One of the problems that seems to plague even big business, especially the multinational firms that are everyday bywords, is the neverending series of revelations about capsizing bottom lines that have decimated corporate capital and wreaked havoc on the capital and financial markets. A friend and I were casually chatting about the recent debacle that had hit a particularly revered US financial giant. As a former top executive of the local unit and a CEO of another multinational, he ventured that top executives seem driven by the need to show positive results in their respective balance sheets and income statements, oftentimes to the point of manipulating figures or undertaking very risky investments just to jack up short-term profits. Unfortunately, in this age of greed, such practices often become the norm rather than the exception. First, it was the underwriting of or investment in very risky derivatives that had nothing to do with many companies' business models. Now, the collapse of the subprime market has once again unmasked corporate greed and inanity, showing the extend to which financial giants will go to book high-yielding instruments without considering the underlying risks that each of these bring to the security of the company. Unfortunately, the basic driver in most of these cases is the desire of CEOs and their ilk to write lucrative profit sharing checks for themselves even if the companies they head will go to the doghouse in the medium or long term. There seems to be no sense of right or wrong anymore to guide top businessmen like these. They pay lip service to transparency while pledging allegiance to corporate governance even as they plan their next moves to enrich themselves at the expense of their corporate wards. Knowing good from evil A wise man from the West once asked a relatively unschooled native what he knew about good and evil. The native said, "When I do something bad, I have a wheel with sharp edges grinding away inside me. It hurts and tells me I did something wrong." The wise man persisted and posed another question, "What happens when you continue to do wrong things?" The native pondered and then said, "Well, if I continue to do bad things, the wheel keeps grinding but its edges get blunted and no longer hurt me inside!" This simple word-picture tells us what is basically wrong with the world today: We have become accustomed to a culture that reveres material things above the spiritual; that rewards results without questioning the lack of ethics that made such results possible; that fails to consider that there is a need to answer to a basic set of rules or virtues grounded on the greater good. Natural law There are many philosophers who argue that there is such a thing as natural law, which is nothing more than the law built into the nature of each created thing. Thus, the nature (law) of a rock is such that it will sink when thrown into a body of water. Neither will it sprout wings and fly. Natural Law is the story of how things work. It is relatively easy to understand when we deal with physical objects or anything in observable nature. Things get a bit more complicated when we venture into the realm of intelligent man and the moral sphere. It is said that each man's soul gets to see its Creator for the briefest of moments at the point of its creation, before it is joined to the body it is to animate during the lifetime of man on earth. During that very minute instant in time, the notion of a God to be adored is intrinsically joined into the soul's consciousness. Thus, all over the world, one finds an instinctive longing for the worship of God, albeit in various forms and permutations. Corollary to this is the infusion of a fundamental knowledge of good and evil that permeates almost all cultures; except for those that have probably been so corrupted and drawn along the downward path marked by an acceptance of evil as a governing norm. As a result, one can say that Morality in general, is governed by a law built into the nature of man, and knowable by reason. In other words, man can and should know through the use of his reason what is in accord with his nature, and, therefore, good. Every law, however, has to have a lawgiver. And this is where it really gets tricky, because it does not make sense having a natural law without a Supreme Being (God) who is its author. A foremost legal positivist thinker of the past century, Hans Kelsen, has this to say, "…there is no natural-law doctrine of any importance which has not an essentially religious character." Taken in another context that businessmen can probably understand, natural law is nothing more than a set of manufacturer's instructions built into our natures so that we can know by reason how to act. Over the millennia, the universal lawgiver has manifested his instructions to his creation in various forms, among them the Law of the Jewish people, including the 10 commandments; the further extension of the Law by Jesus in the Gospels and in specific instructions like the Beatitudes; the Holy Quran of our Islamic brothers, the many books or wisdom of the Chinese, the Way and teaching of Lord Buddha, the wise books of many past and present Hindu writers, ad infinitum. Common streams, common threads In all of these streams of faith, one finds many common threads that suggest the existence of a basic knowledge of what is good and what constitutes evil. Gandhi, for example, reasons that "Man's destined purpose is to conquer old habits, to overcome the evil in him, and to restore good to its rightful place." The Lord Buddha, on the other hand, points out that "Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue." Sayyeda Fatima al-Yashrutiyya, comments on the variety of the faiths: "The different religions are like a tree. There is one root and many branches. On each branch, there is a light, and the lights are of differing colors. But they all draw their light from the one root." The Quran (Sura 4:124) also has this succinct admonition: "If any do deeds of righteousness -- be they male or female -- and have faith, they will enter paradise." One of the more famous Chinese proverbs, attributed to Lao Tzu, has this wonderful progression: "If there be righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there be beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. When there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world." Ultimately, and inevitably, one is then led to think about the life one has led and the fate waiting for him or her in the great beyond. This little tale from the Talmud sums up what all the other faiths mean to say: A certain man had three friends, two of whom he loved clearly, but the other he lightly esteemed. One day the king commanded his presence in the court. He was greatly alarmed and desired to procure an advocate. He went to the two friends whom he loved: one flatly refused to accompany him; the other offered to go with him up to the king's gate, but no further. In his extremity, he called upon his third friend, the one he least esteemed, who not only went with him willingly, but also ably defended him before the king and got him acquitted. In like manner, every man has three friends when Death summons him to appear before his Creator. His first friend, whom he loves the most -- namely, his money -- cannot go with him a single step. The second, friends and relations, can only accompany him to the grave. The third friend, his good works and deeds, go with him before the King and obtain his acquittal. Unshackling the bad, embracing the good If we were, in addition, to throw in the whole gamut of Western wisdom, and especially delve into some of the original thoughts from the great Greek philosophers that ultimately found their way into natural law as defined by the great St. Aquinas, we would have a veritable road map for individual and corporate behavior that should immediately preclude doing things that would work to the detriment of the corporation, its various publics, and to society itself. But to be able to do this, one would have to unshackle himself from the usual personal and corporate idols characterized by greed and a token lip service to social responsibility and service. One of the problems inherent in a business school that is modeled along purely secular lines is the tendency to waffle when it comes to describing what constitutes good corporate and individual behavior. Thus, one’s avatar becomes to be like those who made it, those who managed to claw their way up the corporate and concrete jungles to the pinnacles of financial and personal success. But we fail to look closely at the social cost of the trail littered with bodies, wrecked economies or corporations, destroyed environments, etc., that were seen as nothing but necessary collateral damage in the achievement of said success. Surely, there must be a better, more humane, more innately satisfying -- even if less profitable -- way to do business in this dog-eat-dog world of ours?
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