Business Ethics

At first sight, it may seem strange to turn to a sixth century monastic rule for guidance on business ethics, but RB 31, What Kind of Person the Cellarer Should Be (together with RB 57, On the Artisans of the Community), has a lot to say about our current concerns.

The cellarer is effectively the business manager of the monastery, responsible for everything from finance to food. Benedict begins by giving us a pen-portrait of the qualities the cellarer should have. Some of them, turned into corporation-speak, are still used today to identify senior management, but there are others which touch on the cellarer’s moral identity. How many financial institutions would dare to ask themselves whether the person they are considering for a senior position is ‘wise, mature in character (not necessarily age), abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, not a trouble-maker, not offensive or lazy or wasteful’? (RB131.1-2) To do so would be to acknowledge that the values by which we live our private lives are reflected in the public sphere. Benedict is principally concerned here with honesty and integrity and a watchfulness over oneself which is the mark of maturity. Such qualities have taken a battering of late, but they are at the heart of the trust on which so much economic activity still depends.

Benedict sees the cellarer’s responsibilities as all-embracing. In effect, he asks the question, what is wealth for? The answer he gives highlights the danger of losing sight of the purpose of God’s gifts. The cellarer is to ‘take meticulous care of the sick, the young, guests and the poor’, in other words, the most vulnerable members of society, yet at the same time to treat the monastery’s goods and property ‘as if sacred altar vessels.’ (RB31. 9-10) Again and again, the cellarer is reminded that his authority over these is given by the abbot and he must neither neglect anything nor go further than his instructions allow. He is essentially the servant of the community, but not in the menial sense we often ascribe to that word: his service is that of a father to the community (RB 31.2), one who provides, enables, fosters growth. So often we think about business success in terms of ‘what’s best for me’ rather than ‘what good I can do’.

It is clear that Benedict expects the work of the monks to generate something over and above what they need for mere existence, something that can be shared with others. Even this sharing, however, is not exempt from the need to be consistent with what the monks profess to believe. The cellarer is warned against the temptations to which his power makes him susceptible. Instead of arrogance, there must be humility; when there is nothing else to give, a good word must be spoken; he mustn’t use his office to demonstrate his own importance by acting haughtily or making others wait to receive their due.(RB 31 13 to 16) These are not only the temptations of the monastic cellarer and minor bureaucrat, they are the temptations of every person who is given a great deal of freedom in the exercise of his or her responsibilities.

The recent Note on Financial Reform from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the protest at St Paul’s, the Report of the St Paul’s Institute and, above all, the daily turbulence within the Eurozone have served to remind us that the economic structures with which we are familiar are all rather fragile; that ignoring the moral dimension of wealth creation and distribution is to undermine the basis of a civilized society which cares for the weak as well as the strong; that selfishness and greed make for general misery; and, most important of all, that it doesn’t have to be like that. We can be, like Benedict’s cellarer, good stewards, worthy of the promise contained in 1 Timothy 3.13. The question is, do we want to be?

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Thinking Aloud About Trust

I didn’t know Osama bin Laden had been killed until I returned to Britain on Wednesday last week. Immediately, it seemed, the world was abuzz with claim and counterclaim about what actually happened. Whose account should we trust? Whose account COULD we trust? At the same time, the endless rumble about ‘the financial services industry’ (banks to you and me) continues to raise questions about trust; so too does the debate about the limits of freedom of the press. The Catholic Church is still feeling the effects of the lack of trust that inevitably follows from what we have learned about the abuse of children and adolescents. Everywhere we look, it seems, public trust is very low. Is it any wonder that bad faith and lack of trust often mark our private lives too?

For me, the problem with that question is that it presupposes that public morality shapes and determines our private codes of morality and honour. It is true that some people take their ideas of right and wrong from what is legal or not (though I have to say that does not seem to apply to speed limits). That is why time and energy is devoted to promoting/opposing/repealing legislation which touches on human rights, or what are perceived to be such. Fundamentally, however, it is our private ‘world view’ which shapes our attitude to the public sphere. If there is a lack of trust, and even more, a lack of trustworthiness, in our private lives, it is absurd to expect better in the public sphere. If we bend the truth, why shouldn’t others? Isn’t that why we sometimes doubt what we are told, rather than because we think others are trying to hoodwink us?

I was sickened by what bin Laden did in life, but I have also been sickened by the gloating that has followed his death. The desire to circulate photographs of his dead body to ‘prove’ that he is dead is nothing of the sort. It is a manifestation of something I’d call glee, a measure of the lack of trust in our public institutions and, by implication, an admission of the lack of trustworthiness in our own lives. Overstated? Possibly. Trust is a beautiful quality, well worth cultivating. When it is lost or destroyed, something very precious passes from the earth.

 

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