Embracing the Common Good
April 19, 2011
As a philosopher, Alejo Jose Sison felt "completely like a fish out of water" the first time he went to work in the "hostile environment" of a business school.
But, Sison told business students during an April 12 presentation at the Martin Institute, he now believes the key to getting businesses to embrace social responsibility depends upon the students themselves.
"After all, many very successful firms were hatched within college dorms," Sison said.
The president of the European Business Ethics Network and a professor at the University of Navarre in Spain, Sison spoke as a guest of Professor Claus Dierksmeier, who is a leader in the movement to integrate ethics with business and economics.
"In our small pond, we got the biggest fish we could get in the world of business ethics," Dierksmeier told students, introducing Sison.
Dierksmeier acknowledged the "huge tension" between the traditional goal of business -- to "ceaselessly and relentlessly maximize profits" - and ethics, which considers what is right for others. While the conflict creates a kind of "intellectual schizophrenia," Dierksmeier believes ethics will play a greater role in business globally in the future.
Because Stonehill is a Catholic college with a mission to educate the whole person, it's important for its business students to understand social responsibility, Dierskmeier said.
Sison spoke how ethics can be applied to business, drawing on the philosophy of Aristotle and the social teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas in a presentation entitled "The Common Good of the Firm in the Aristotelian-Thomistic Tradition."
"The stuff we're selling is really, really important, but we don't know how to sell it. We speak in terms very few people could really follow. It's all so obscure and obtuse. There are problems of rhetoric," said Sison.
The biggest obstacle of all, Sison said, is the theory of "individualism" - the belief that a person can exist independent of everyone else. Sison said he tells those who embrace that theory to lift their shirts and look at their navels - proof that they were once completely dependent on another and would not be here today otherwise.
Sison gave some real-life examples where businesses have embraced "the common good." In his region of Spain, 97 percent of workers in the fourth-largest firm have mental disabilities. The business is successful because it uses "error-proof manufacturing."
"You might say, ‘Let them receive welfare checks,'" said Sison. "But no. As human beings with a dignity equal to ours, they also need the opportunity to develop themselves, by working," and to enjoy social relationships with one another.
Businesses need to make money, but they must also ask themselves, "Are we willing to trade profits for a much worse environment?" asked Sison.
"Perhaps not, especially if you live there," Sison said. "It can be a self-correcting mechanism. We need profits, but not at any costs ... We want profits - but not at the cost of not having time for our families. We need to generate just enough profits for us to enjoy a healthy income and to have time to enjoy our families."
A student asked Sison why he chose such contradictory topics as a focus for his study and writings.
"It happens to be my research topic," Sison explained.
"I think it's the factor that's missing in a lot of business courses nowadays. The state of business nowadays is ‘Better grab a bite because otherwise there may not be enough left for me.'
What I'm saying is, it needn't be so. There is another way. Win-win -- the ‘common good' situation."
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