Is the right to earn money uninhibited a human right? Business, ethics and the conflation of both.
“The market is the moral life and nothing else is required”
After working on the market for a year now, learning to be a service-provider, to work on demand, identify, create and fulfill client’s needs, I sometimes wonder about the all-too-often uncritical acceptance of business laws and mindset in Western societies. Opening a newspaper, speaking to youth and adults, it feels as if most of us were businesspeople, thinking according to a given business template, and the world was one huge market. All the rest is deemed “alternative”, visited on holidays, if at all.
The infiltration of our minds with economic principles enters all realms of human life: politics, society and even ethics, gradually annihilating the boundaries between them. The pragmatic business-mentality has become a model of thinking for the entire Western society. One example is an idea of success. Professional success has turned into an utmost criterion of a fulfilled human life. Steve Jobs is being admired not just as a successful businessman – a man who mastered the logic of his profession to perfection, which would be understandable – but as an icon of the general public. Another example is the public assessment of Facebook. In a world which is a market, the number of Facebook accounts is what counts, and not what is written on the” walls”. In other words, we tend to evaluate individuals on the basis of numbers they reach (soft power) or they generate (profit and hard power), not their qualities as a person and ideas they cherish. We may speak of “social networking” but behind social sites there are hard economic (rather than social) rules as the recent developments of Facebook-shares on the stockmarket have shown.
“Far from laying the foundation for a moral life, the market is the moral life and nothing else is required”, wrote Timothy Snyder in a book “Thinking the Twentieth Century”, a brilliant dialogue of two intellectuals, Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder, on the state of the past (and current) age and the most interesting intellectual deates of the past century.
Adopting a language of human rights
The transformation towards the age driven where economy replaces and becomes morality goes unnoticed, or at least unhindered, through a skillful use of language and interpretation in the media.
It is not true that we live in a de-ideologized world. We profess ideology of growth and never-ending value multiplication. Of course, there are attempts to move beyond the GDP as the single parameter of a country’s global status, and include other softer and less economic factors in assessing the happiness of people. However, the paradigm in which capitalism equals freedom, and wealth equals happiness is still very much with us and defines our everydac thinking. Where did these equations come from?
Since the times of the Iron Curtain and the development of the new human rights discourse, what we observe is the conflation of economic and moral categories. In practice this meant deep-seated faith in the West that economic liberalism equals freedom, because communism equals slavery: the former is good and the latter is bad. These developments are explained marvelously by Tony Judt who argues that the Reagan-Thatcher belief in liberalism and the view to make any amount of money unhindered is part of an unbroken continuum with the right to free speech.
The recent Financial Crisis has broken that faith, but in practise little has been done and the idealisation of business, in an doutside of it, is still very much with us.
See business for what it is
Work in contemporary business is coupled with such terms as innovative thinking, problem-solving and originality and personal development. This is all good, but this is not morality, or not even a life template, but rather an ideology of an individualistic and often fragmented Western societies. The contemporary focus on personal development is laid on the ground of competitive social structures and has in our times been dissolved from the idea of public good and community. This is not the “self-interest” that Smith spoke about – for him the individual self-interest went hand in hand with social good. For us, there is little connection between the two: when we speak of business we speak of individuals, when (if at all) we speak fo the role of politics and society in it, we take on altogether different subject.
Secondly, the focus on individual development is in the business surroundings still about fulfilling the needs of the client. Only if those are in tune with your “personal” development, a business case can be made. This is not bad, but we need to get this right – business is NOT primarily a realm of personal freedom and development, but a platform for serving the client and earning profit. If we see it as the former and fail to find any other field for real personal freedom and development of our authentic selves (friends, family, hobbies?), we are in fact monetizing our life. We are agreeing to the economic evaluation of human worth – that the more money you have, the worthier and the better person you are.
Getting the categories and the choices right
There is nothing wrong with business mentality. I do adopt it when I am in the office, speaking to a client. This mentality follows an economic aim of creating more wealth. This is, however an economic, not a social, spiritual or political aim. It is important to get these categories right. Not for the sake of further fragmentation of our life, specialization or unnecessary academic labeling, but in order to keep the balance in our lives and preserve critical distance to the mainstream discourse we are in the midst of. It is about setting the boundaries, between professional and private life, between real human rights and current economic discourses, between material concerns and ethical prerogatives.
The role of intellectuals
The role of intellectuals is to makes us aware of these categories and spark a critical reflection. This is why the books like “Thinking the Twentieth Century” are so important. Not just because they speak about ideas of the past. When commenting on the book of, Francis Fukuyama, as many others, focused on their discussion of grand ideas - grand ideas and ideologies which propelled murderous regimes of the past century. But this is only part of the story – what we nowadays observe if the gradual disappearance of ideas and the withdrawal of intellectuals from the public life, both vanishing to the common applause for the “business ideas” replacing religious or civic ethics.