Last October 23, before a capacity-audience at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, the Acton Institute and Italian publishing house Fede e Cultura launched Robert G. Kennedy’s Il bene che fanno gli affari (original title “The Good that Business Does”).
The pontifical university’s research center, Markets, Culture and Ethics, acted as co-sponsor with its vice academic director Dr. Juan Andres Mercado moderating the evening’s dialogue between the author and his two discussants – Salvatore Rebecchini, a commissioner from the Italian Antitrust Authority, and Giovanni Scanagatta, general secretary of Italy’s Union of Christian Entrepreneurs and Managers.
Following a brief introduction about the author and the book’s inspiration, Robert Kennedy admitted there are a number of reasons to doubt business as serving the common good since the 2008 financial meltdown on Wall Street. He said this was especially true, as in any human activity, when selfishness, sin and vice twist our vision of what are business’s truly good ends and means.
This often happens when we confuse what we mean by serving “wants” versus “needs”. “All needs are wants, but not all wants are really needs,” he said.
As such, businesses are accused of “creating wants we don’t actually need,” alluding to intensified marketing campaigns during Christmas as the “want-creating season” that stimulate human desire to acquire products and services than are necessary or that sometimes do not even address “genuine human needs.”
“Genuine human needs are not only those things without which we die, such as oxygen and water, but also things that elevate human existence, like truth, beauty…and friendship,” he said.
He said some people want products and services that are not in themselves destructive, but which, like many expensive children’s toys, contribute little to genuine human flourishing. However, there are certain human products and services, as in the pornography industry, that appeal to wants but which are inherently detrimental to human lives and should not be a proper object of business.
Professor Kennedy, who spent a decade in sales and non-profit management, applies his real business world expertise to his courses in moral philosophy, theology, and business ethics at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, where he also chairs the Department of Catholic Studies. He is the author of a number of essays and books on professionalism, ethical investment and was a contributor to the 2012 Vatican document published by the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace Vocation of the Business Leader: A Reflection
Kennedy said his book’s thesis was guided by a timeless principle of Catholic Social Teaching, namely, that all persons are born in the image of God, and therefore are called to be creative, rational and volitional agents of goodness in all their activities, even those of a commercial nature.
He, however, said that the genesis of the book was to challenge the “perception of many who wonder how business can be justified” and therefore wanted to answer “this question of legitimacy.”
One opinion we hear about business, he said, is as “old as Plato and Aristotle, [namely] that it is sort of necessary evil.”
“Plato…was content to have business people in the Republic, but they had to be foreigners,…non-citizens. [In ancient Greece] free men and women were not engaged in productive activity, but in political discussion and philosophy. Aristotle had sharp criticisms for those who would seek wealth as a form of life…For [him], seeking wealth was irrational because there was no natural limit to it.”
He said many people see a need to have business in society for some useful reasons, like the pastors who denounce money-making and commerce in sermons, yet “ask [wealthy parishioners] for donations for the organ” after worship services.
Kennedy said business’s contribution to human well-being, which justifies its activities, falls into three broad categories.
Above all it “organizes work for people, respects their human dignity [with] work that is productive and…allows for self-expression; [secondly], it provides goods and services…that address genuine human needs. But the third thing it does, and we’ve only come to realize the importance of this in the modern world, is that business creates wealth.”
He said the good of wealth creation is often overlooked: “It was commonly believed in the ancient world and throughout the Middle Ages – and I think this has distorted the Church’s view of business—that business can only ‘distribute’ [and not ‘create’] wealth.”
“It is as if the merchant is transferring wealth from one group of people to himself”, Kennedy said. Yet today’s economic experts agree business is capable of creating “new wealth which leads to the prosperity of the whole community.” The global market, he said, has literally lifted “billions out of extreme poverty,” referring to China, India and some African nations as good examples of increased prosperity due to increased business.
When speaking of Pope Francis’s criticism of capitalism and globalization during a Vatican Radio interview, he said that “I think we need to realize – and I am not original in saying this – that Pope Francis brings with him a certain set of experiences.
“His experience is business in Latin America, [specifically] in Argentina. This is rather different from the business climate, say, in the Anglo-American sphere or the climate in Western Europe.” He said it seems to him and others that the Pope’s experience of business is that of “a semi-functional, if not dysfunctional, market economy.”
Kennedy said that even people who defend business in the West would admit to many of the things the Holy Father says about business and some its consequences, like the “maldistribution of wealth” [which] are signs of dysfunction,…not signs of a properly functioning market economy.”
“In a really functional market economy”, he said, “we’re creating good jobs, we’re creating products and services that really address human needs, and we’re creating wealth.
“And I think that’s what Francis wants,” Kennedy said. “He really wants businesses to do what they should do, to make the contribution to the common good that they’re capable of making, and he rightly points out that in many cases they don’t do that.”
Michael Severance is Operations Manager at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Rome.