Benchmark Ethics: Compassion and Generosity in Business?

In the last Benchmark Ethics installment I raised the question: “Does anybody care about justice and fairness in today’s competitive business climate?” Why do I ask? Because at virtually all places and times in human history, justice and fairness have been at or near the top of everybody’s “short list” of ethical values. Politics, economics, business… all these domains were carefully weighed in the balance of justice and fairness. The relative absence of conscience and self-critical discussion regarding justice and fairness in today’s marketplace and workplace should cause us concern.

In this column, however, I am really going off the deep end by trying to link the terms “compassion, generosity, and business” in one sentence! Compassion and generosity may be praiseworthy in other domains of life but, many would argue, these “soft” virtues have no place in a competitive, successful business.

However, compassion and generosity (perhaps stated in terms of “love” or “charity”) play a role every bit as central as justice and fairness in most of the world’s moralities. This is especially explicit in the “Abrahamic” religious moralities of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Despite some embarrassing contradictions in practice, from time to time, all three religions hold that love, compassion, mercy, grace, and generosity should govern every human activity, including business.

“Compassion” literally means “sharing the pain” or “feeling the suffering of others.” Compassion is having mercy on those who do not deserve it (like the employee who made a serious mistake or whose productivity is declining, like the competitor whose tactics were dishonorable).

“Generosity” is the capacity to give more than what people deserve, to go beyond what a formal agreement requires. Sometimes, of course, we deceive ourselves. What we think is a very compassionate, generous move on our part is really no more than basic justice and fairness.

Such exceptions aside, is there a place for compassion and generosity, those high-minded, grand old moral values, in today’s competitive, dog-eat-dog, high tech, global business environment? I suspect that our modern instinct is to answer “no.” But, let me put three questions on the table as a challenge to re-think the issues.

First, a practical question: Is it really in the best interests of business to make a strict habit of turning away from the hurting or the hungry, leaving vanquished competitors to die on their own, or exacting the last cent from foolish consumers (individual, corporate, or national)? Doesn’t it help the “game” when competitors extend a hand to help an opponent get back up after knocking him down? To put it another way: Are contemporary IT gurus like Kevin Kelley right in urging that the way to succeed in the new economy is to generously “feed the network” and embrace the whole — rather than fence off and protect one’s own turf and interests?

Second, a historical question: Do successful modern entrepreneurs have anything to learn from Carnegie, Rockefeller, Stanford and their kind, who preached and practiced a vast generosity based on “the responsibility of wealth”? Will this be a better world for our children and grandchildren if we renounce this tradition of generosity?

Third, a personal question: At the end of my career, is it likely that I will feel better about (1) the people and businesses and countries I generously and compassionately helped during my career — or (2) the successful numbers I wracked up in a career of ruthless and bold “looking out for number one”?

I am certainly not arguing against aggressive, intensely competitive, bold action, or strict accountability for meeting performance standards. I am not at all suggesting that business should (or ever could) “go soft.” What I am suggesting is that justice must sometimes be tempered by compassion, and that contractual compliance should sometimes be exceeded by generosity. Save a place in the pantheon of corporate values for compassion and generosity.

When the Malden Mills factory in Massachusetts burned down in a disastrous fire, CEO Aaron Feuerstein decided to keep all 3000 of his employees on the payroll while it was being rebuilt — though he could easily have taken the big insurance payoff, closed shop, and retired to the Bahamas (see Time, Jan 8, 1996; NYTimes, Jul 4, 1996; Dec 26, 1996). This was compassion. This was generosity.

This was an exception, of course. But, that’s my point: there are occasions, times, and places, when generosity and compassion should trump our realism and even our competitive instinct. If these virtues never show up in our business choices and actions, the world will become a sorrier place than ever — and we will be no better than “moral minimalists” when we could have achieved the ethical benchmarks.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.