Business and the Moral Life

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One of the great benefits of having a daughter in college is getting to see her assigned readings—and then indulging myself in those that capture my interest. It’s like a dividend payment for all those tuition checks we wrote. In the last three years of my daughter’s studies, I’ve been turned on to the works of Toni Morrison, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Thomas Pynchon, and Ralph Ellison, and I’ve sampled dozens of readings, mostly sociological, from thinkers like DuBois, Foucault, and Bourdieu. Last semester, she was assigned to write a book review of When Jesus Came to Harvard by Harvard theologian Harvey Cox. Having grown up the son of a Presbyterian minister, I was naturally drawn to this book, so I bought a copy and dug in. It wasn’t at all what I expected.

It turns out that, in the early 1980s, the faculty of Harvard College asked Cox, who taught graduate students in the divinity school, to develop a course on morality. These faculty had grown increasingly concerned that their students were receiving, as Cox describes it, “an excellent, but amoral—not immoral—education.” Initially hesitant to undertake such a fraught enterprise, Cox eventually agreed, designing a course called “Jesus and the Moral Life.” The class turned out to be wildly popular; and Cox spent the next 20 years leading discussions on how to make moral decisions in the complicated context of our lives today. It is these fascinating discussions he shares in his book—not at all the fusty theological treatise I anticipated.

Storytelling and Moral Reasoning

Jesus, Cox reminds us, was a rabbi and a storyteller: “He spent his brief lifetime telling stories and enacting them.” His aim in doing so was to push people “to think beyond their own immediate interests, to picture themselves in a variety of situations in which choice and action were required—in short, to use their imaginations.” Stories like those Jesus told—and those told about him—are, Cox explains, “essential to us for organizing our experience.” Later he adds, “We need to tell our stories to make our own experiences real, not just to others but also to ourselves.”

Reading Cox reminded me of my motivation for blogging, particularly about the moral choices I faced as a business owner. While every human makes a thousand decisions each day, not all of us wield the power to affect someone’s life as profoundly as an employer does. The decisions we make in that capacity can cause real financial and emotional damage. Good leaders, I believe, wield their power cautiously, even, at times, reluctantly. And because failing is fundamental to learning leadership skills, the best leaders make lots of decisions they come to question or, in some cases, regret. While I make no claim to being a particularly good or bad leader, I do think a lot about my past decisions. Most often, I ask myself, did I do the right thing?


As if to reacquaint me with that very question, a few of my ex-employees recently took to Facebook to object to a couple of my blog posts. One of them accused me of “mocking” a respected colleague in a post. Another decided that, upon further reflection, I had been motivated by money all along. A minor prairie fire of anger ensued, including two people I’ve never met but who felt sufficiently acquainted with the facts to weigh in. Naturally, I was saddened by these assessments. It didn’t help that, in a single thread, I was called a jack wagon, asshole, and assorted other epithets. I had to look up jack wagon on Urban Dictionary. Eventually one level-headed fellow I know and like weighed in and calmed the group down, offering a different perspective—specifically that I wasn’t such a bad guy after all. 

The gig of being a business owner comes with the regrettable guarantee you’ll anger some people—whether you make the right decision or not. For example, when you lay off staff to protect the firm’s financial future, the right decision for the company can feel like the worst possible decision for the individual affected. But was the decision immoral? Or even questionable? Likewise, a well-intended decision for one employee can irritate dozens of others who feel short-changed or disrespected. Ironically, a morally questionable decision can make some people really happy because it benefits them. Then there is the role of self-interest. Can you ever be certain you’re acting for the benefit of the group and not for yourself? And on it goes. Such is the nature of making moral choices. You won’t get it right every time—nor will people necessarily appreciate your attempt to work it out decades later—but you can at least rescue some insight from the charred remains of your ill-fated decision.

Sturm und Drang

As much as it smarts to have ex-staffers ream me out on Facebook—and as much as I object to the mob mentality so often exhibited on social media—I’m reminded that those of us who tell stories to make sense of our experiences invite dissent, even ridicule. It goes with the territory of being a writer or blogger. As Harvey Cox illustrates in the spirited, sometimes contentious debates that took place in his lecture hall, it is from the plurality of viewpoints—and all the sturm und drang that sometimes goes with it—that moral reasoning often emerges.

I’ll always prefer that disagreements be civil and that discussions take place in person rather than the unaccountable space of social media. Even so, the remarks that bubble up on Facebook or Twitter can be a reminder that, however confident you are in your moral position, someone out there virulently disagrees with you. That kind of realization will never be pleasant. But one can choose to receive that dissent as an invitation to reflect on the broader implications of one’s moral choices—particularly among your most strident antagonists. Being pilloried on social media is no picnic, but it’s better than not revisiting one’s choices at all.