Thought for the Day - Clifford Longley - 23 JULY 2012

Good morning

It was Bob Diamond, recently of Barclays, who defined business culture as "how people behave when no-one is watching." Speaking in a lecture sponsored by the Today programme last year, he declared that business corporations like Barclays had to learn how to be better citizens.

Leaving on one side the irony of all this, what is
remarkable is not that he said it, but that so many other people are saying it too. Open any edition of the Harvard Business Review or look in the comment pages of the Financial Times, and there it is. "What is wrong with the culture of business and how do we put it right?" they are all asking each other.

The Labour MP Jon Cruddas quoted with approval a theologian last year who'd said that our basic choice was between a neo-liberal and a neo-Aristotelian view of the good society. "Neo-liberal" means relying on the free-market and the pursuit of self-interest as the driving force, not just in business but in life. We are familiar enough with that. But what about Aristotle; where does he come in?

The memory of this ancient Greek philosopher is invoked whenever people talk about virtue and good citizenship, for it is to him primarily that we owe our notions of how we should behave when no-one is watching. We should, he said, behave virtuously, and he classified virtue under four headings, the so-called cardinal virtues.

They are, in whatever order you like, justice, prudence, temperance and courage. These, said Aristotle, were the personal qualities that ancient Athenians needed, in order to be good citizens of democratic Athens - to make it work.

The many people who are saying that the internal culture of business badly needs reform of its values to make it work, are really talking about the Aristotelian virtues, or something like them. How you behave when nobody's watching depends on qualities of character, acquired by good example and by practice.

One place where these ideas are being systematically thought through, is in what is called Catholic Social Teaching. Business people are slowly becoming more aware of it, including people who do not normally look towards Rome for anything. It provides, so to speak, the theoretical basis for a ready-made architecture of virtue. And it says a business culture based on virtue would strive towards serving the common good rather than just self-interest. And would even work better.

As well as Aristotle, it owes a lot to the philosopher Thomas Aquinas, who Christianised the four cardinal virtues by adding three more: faith, hope and charity. Can the bottom line of successful modern business be humanised by taking all these virtues into its culture, rather than just profit and the maximising of shareholder value? An increasing number of people seem to think it has no alternative.

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