Chapter 2: The Moral Advantage

Chapter 2: The Moral Advantage


I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money, and every other good, public as well as private.


When I titled this book The Moral Advantage, I was aware that the phrase could sound both naive and crass, not an appealing combination. On the naive-sounding side, am I really claiming that morality in business is a way of advancing one’s own interests, of actually creating an advantage for oneself? If I am making such a claim in earnest, this idea surely seems a bit clueless in a world where CEOs make off with vast fortunes by inflating their pay, hanging employees out to dry, and deceiving the public: clearly you don’t need to be moral to make a lot of money. On the crass-sounding side, am I promoting the idea that morality should be viewed merely as a means to advance our own interests?

My answer to the first question is yes, I am claiming that morality is the best pathway to business success, the surest means of promoting both one’s own career interests and the interests of those with whom one does business. But I am referring to a kind of success that is broader and more satisfying than monetary gain alone— although financial success is certainly included in the vision that I have in mind.

My answer to the second question is no, I am not claiming that morality’s main purpose is to promote one’s narrow self-interests. Moral conduct is an end in itself, not reducible to any reward that it might or might not bring. In business, if there is a choice between doing the right thing and making a profit, the moral choice must be to do the right thing. And such choices do arise in business, as in any other area of life. Yet even in such cases, the moral choice has a way of yielding benefits in the end. Some of these benefits are personal: the sense of satisfaction that one gets from pride in good work, the sense of integrity that one gets from a commitment to high standards and noble purposes. Such personal benefits are rewarding in themselves, and they also contribute to long-term career success by bolstering one’s inspiration and motivation. People who believe in their work feel good about it, and when they feel this way, they are likely to acquire greater energy, talent, imagination, and staying power.

In this chapter, I show the many distinct ways that morality can contribute to business success. Some of these ways are familiar (following ethical codes, for example), whereas others (such as unleashing the powers of moral imagination) have seldom been described, at least in a systematic manner. My aim here is to develop a framework of business morality that will give readers a new understanding of how morality actually works in building a rewarding career.

The Cynical View of Morality in Business

As a prelude to presenting the framework, I must acknowledge that many people these days are likely to be skeptical of my claims about the relationship between morality and success. Cynicism about what it takes to get ahead in business has become prevalent both within and outside the business world, so much so that I have taken as one of the secondary goals of this book the hopes of combating this cynicism: after all, a pervasive belief in the inevitability of moral degeneracy can become self-fulfilling.

Here’s the cynical line that I hope to challenge: “Sure, every now and then a corrupt businessperson gets in trouble by being caught with his or her hands in the till, and in that sense it’s true that blatant immorality can destroy success. But the most advantageous course of action is to find a way to get away with it, to do whatever it takes to make the most money without getting caught. As for morality itself— those limits and rules, that nagging voice of conscience, the stifling demands of prudence and reputation—for anyone in business with a sharp eye on the bottom line, it feels more like a ball and chain than some sort of advantage.

Ask any group of sophisticated people who take pride in their hard-nosed hold on reality (journalists would be one such group, lawyers another), and you will find a good sampling of the following opinions:

  1. Moneymaking generally is tainted by avarice, deceit, or exploitation.

  2. A show of ethics may be required from time to time, because it helps to have customers and employees think that they are being treated fairly. But cheating works fine when people aren’t looking.

  3. Ethical conduct is like an unpleasant medicine that society forces down businesspeople’s throats to protect the world from their avarice.

  4. Morality just gets in the way of the cold, hard actions that truly ambitious people must take to reach their goals.

  5. The quest for profits necessarily stands in conflict with efforts to be fair, decent, and charitable.

  6. In business, the only sensible time for salving the conscience and soothing the moral sense is “at the end of the day,” at the close of a successful career, when you can give back some of those ill- gotten gains with some high-profile philanthropy.

Such skepticism about moneymaking goes back a long way, filling the annals of religious and literary writing. The Bible, of course, warned that it may be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye, referring to the corruption of character that can result from the zeal of acquisitiveness. Along these lines, British author G. K. Chesterton once noted that “a businessman is the only man who is forever apologizing for his occupation.” And Balzac, famously, wrote: “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.”[1]

From the less lofty perch of mass culture, the view is much the same. More often than not, popular media characterize business as nothing more than a self-serving exercise in greed, carried out in as corrupt and ruthless a manner as the businessperson can get away with. In television and movies, moneymaking in business is almost always seen as a greedy affair. One study of how television treats business leaders found that “a majority of the CEOs portrayed on prime time have committed felonies.”[2] Another study found that by a ratio of more than two to one, Hollywood portrays business leaders in a negative rather than a positive light. The unflattering portrayals have become even more pointed over time: Wall Street’s irredeemable Gordon Gekko makes the benignly wise and paternal businessman in Goodbye Columbus (who advised the story’s protagonist that “to get by in business you’ve got to be a bit of a thief”) look good in comparison.

Some important observers of business have seen things differently. The widely read “personal excellence” gurus Steven Covey and Tom Peters, for example, have pointed to the practical utility of moral virtues such as compassion, responsibility, fairness, and honesty. They suggest that virtue is part and parcel of the recipe for success, and that moral standards are not merely commendable choices but necessary ingredients for a thriving business career. This is a frequent theme in commencement addresses and other personal testimonials: virtuous behavior will advance a career in the long run by building trust and reputation, whereas ethical shortcomings will eventually derail a career. Business schools send similar messages by mandating courses in ethics for their students. Who’s right—those who believe that morality and business are naturally opposed to one another or those who believe that the two are compatible? Those who believe that “nice guys finish last” or those who advocate “doing well by doing good”? Is the business world a den of thievery or a haven for upstanding citizens?

In this book, I show that a strong sense of moral purpose and ethical conviction not only promotes a business career but also provides a telling advantage in the quest to build a thriving enterprise. A sense of moral purpose is at the center of many business innovations. Morality is far more than a constraining force that keeps people upstanding and out of trouble. It is a fertile source of the imaginative ideas that inform and motivate enterprises, a wellspring of creative inspiration, a pillar of perseverance, far more than a mere restraint on illegitimate behavior. This is a different view of morality than one finds in a typical business ethics course. It is a broader and more inclusive concept, and, most important, it is more positive.

[1]Memorably, Balzac’s biting quip was quoted to me by the head of a large New York publishing company when I first shopped around for an outlet for this book.

[2]M. Medved, Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values, New York: Free Press, 1993, p. 34.