Companies are designed to make money—that is their purpose for existence. They typically make money by offering a good or service that others find valuable, creating a win-win transaction. They solve a problem or fill a need, and we give them our money in exchange.
Despite the benefits of a free market, not every business solves a problem well, and just like people, they can create more problems than they solve.
Businesses become corrupt when they deliberately, or through negligence, cause grievous harm to others and the planet. However, no person, and no corporation, should be judged solely by their worst behavior on their worst day. Accidents and mistakes happen, and businesses that make mistakes need to make reparations and ask for forgiveness. The legal system and courts can ensure corporations repent adequately (when the system works).
A more serious situation arises when the problems a business creates exceed the value of the problems they solve. For example, cigarettes help relieve stress and provide pleasure to smokers. There is nothing inherently wrong in that, but the problems they create, such as addiction, cancer, and death, far exceed the benefits they provide.
Cigarettes helped kill my grandfather and ruined my father's health. I’ve never met an executive from Philip Morris, but if I did, it would take all of my monastic training to override my Marine Corps training and not inflict grievous bodily harm.
The US Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are legally people and have the right to certain protections granted to citizens, like free speech. I disagree with their logic, but if true, it is time we started treating them spiritually like people. You can’t have one without the other. Rights are always attached to responsibilities.
If corporations are people, then they can perpetuate evil. We put people in jail if their crimes are heinous enough, and some companies need to be shut down. One of the reasons our society struggles to build healthy companies is that we don’t have a common moral or ethical framework for businesses.
Our sacred wisdom traditions offer frameworks for how people should behave but contain few guidelines for how collective organizations like businesses should behave. Corporations and companies didn’t exist in their current form during the time of Moses, Buddha, or Jesus, so this is spiritual territory that religious texts couldn’t cover.
Sadly, many in the corporate world resist ethical standards and only focus on maximizing profits for shareholders. They are oblivious to how they treat the environment, their impact on our communities, and their employees' fair treatment.
The argument that corporations are legally people is based on the notion that they represent the collective action of an organized group of people. Those people have the right to work together for a common cause and can’t be denied their constitutional rights, even as a collective. Fine with me. But then every employee and investor in a company that does something wrong shares a proportional piece of their collective mistakes. Which means some folks have a lot of atoning to do.
There are no shortcuts or loopholes in the spiritual journey, and we are responsible for all our actions. When investors, employees, and business owners engage in collective immorality, they own a fractional piece of the problem. This is one reason why pure index funds and many mutual funds can be considered complicit—they don’t screen out the bad apples.
Our planet is being destroyed by our collective lack of moral responsibility for the behavior of the companies we work for, purchase from, and invest in. In capitalism, money talks, and we have an obligation to hold capitalism accountable and keep its dark side from destroying us all.
Luckily there are actions we can take. The B Corp Movement is an effort to standardize codes of ethical conduct for companies and hold them accountable. Look out for the certified B Corp logo on products like Patagonia, Danone, Ben & Jerry’s, etc. And as investors, we can choose socially responsible, sustainable funds in which to place our savings.
Every purchase and investment is a vote for the world you want to live in. Please vote your values.
Doug Lynam is a partner at LongView Asset Management in Santa Fe and a former Benedictine monk. He is the author of From Monk to Money Manager: A Former Monk’s Financial Guide to Becoming A Little Bit Wealthy — And Why That’s Okay. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org