Does a Muslim cease to be a Muslim when they step inside a church? No, they don’t.
Does a liberal cease to be a liberal when they move to a conservative state? Of course not.
Your beliefs define you. They are fundamental to your very being. They aren’t things you leave on the kitchen table before you depart from home in the morning, nor are they things you toss in the bin when you arrive at work. Beliefs are things you take with you everywhere you go — the office, school, the mall, the beach, your neighbor’s house, etc.
Yet in the corporate world, there exists a self-contradicting philosophy of belief that has proven as absurd as it is ubiquitous. It is a philosophy designed to pardon you for the sin of abandoning your own moral beliefs in the pursuit of wealth and profit. And it is a philosophy most succinctly expressed through one particularly popular phrase…
“It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.”
This remarkably silly philosophy has inspired countless generations of otherwise decent men and women to lose themselves in the amoral halls of their respective workplaces. But when you pull the logic behind that phrase apart to examine its constituent parts, you find nothing but empty space.
In other words, there’s nothing there to defend. Nothing there to justify. The notion that virtually any action you take or decision you make — no matter how harmful or destructive it may be to your fellow human beings — can be morally justified as long as it’s carried out under the banner of “business” is so self-evidently indefensible that one can only wonder how it became such a widely accepted philosophy.
Actually, we probably shouldn’t call it a philosophy. Or a belief. Or even an idea. Because it really isn’t any of those things.
It’s just an excuse. That’s really all it is. It’s an excuse that’s been muttered over and over again by corporate leaders, business owners, and wealthy investors who are perfectly aware of the harm their actions — and, in some cases, their inaction — have produced, yet they continuously seek to assuage their guilt and spread the blame around rather than take responsibility for their decisions.
Let’s be clear about one thing; when your business harms or kills another human being, it is almost always personal, no matter whether you’re motivated by malice or motivated by greed. It may not feel personal to you, the businessperson, but it most certainly feels personal to the person(s) being harmed and/or killed.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. And sometimes, there are layers of complexity that must be considered before passing judgment.
Take, for instance, the problem of fossil fuels. We know that burning fossil fuels is driving climate change, and that climate change poses a very real existential threat to communities all around the globe. But alternative energy sources aren’t easy to come by, and the ones that do exist aren’t suitable for every environment. One can only hope that affordable and efficient solutions can be found before we breach the point of no return.
In the meantime, the businesses that produce the fuels we need to power our homes, our cars, and our computers will continue to profit off the harm they’re inflicting on the planet. Is that fair? No. Is it just? Perhaps not. But the moral cost of abandoning fossil fuels entirely might be just as high, if not higher, than the moral cost of continuing to produce them. Shutting down fossil fuel production now would scale back our quality of life by orders of magnitude. You can’t ask people to do that. You can’t insist that they go without the life-saving technologies and amenities on which they’ve come to depend.
What you can do, however, is insist that Amazon take steps to address the unethical treatment of its employees. We might have to keep burning fossil fuels to keep civilization alive, but Amazon most certainly does not have to make its employees urinate in bottles or (allegedly) steal workers’ tips to keep its business profitable.
Likewise, European supermarkets like Tesco don’t have to carry beef supplied by Brazil’s JBS, which has been implicated in the illegal deforestation of the Amazon.
Johnson & Johnson could have stopped selling its asbestos-tainted baby powder decades ago, but it chose instead to continue selling the product to unsuspecting consumers despite legitimate concerns that it might be giving people cancer.
And then there are Nike and Coca-Cola, both of which resisted a ban on the importation of goods produced in China with Uyghur slave labor. But hey, I suppose those slaves shouldn’t take it personally since it is “just business,” after all.
Thankfully, the generation that seems to get the most hate in America is also the generation that seems to be taking this issue most seriously. I’m talking, of course, about Generation Z. It would seem that they care a great deal about corporate ethics, and I couldn’t be happier to hear that.
I confess that I have some pretty big disagreements with Gen Z. I’m cut from a more traditionally liberal cloth than the so-called “woke” activists that have emerged as some of the loudest and most influential voices in that generation. But when it comes to this issue, I’m firmly on their side. Corporations themselves may not have any moral agency, but the people who build, manage, and invest in those corporations most certainly do. And if Gen Z is ready to start consistently holding those people accountable, I’m all in favor of it.