Building the Internal World Outside

Teaching Business SchoolToday in teaching a class on corporate ethics, one student asked a lovely question. ‘But that’s human nature isn’t it? To want to get things as cheaply as possible?’

And that’s exactly it. A corporation is a sum of its parts. A company will reflect the worldview, and the limitations of its leadership and shareholders.

That question got me thinking. Let’s look at intention, I say. Did the corporation go into Guatemala or El Salvador or India to improve the living conditions of the people in these countries? Or did they go in to pay a fraction of salaries, and successfully navigate restrictive environmental regulations in their home country? They went in, essentially, to exploit someone’s poverty.

You know, its funny, to the world it seems like the rich provide employment to the poor, but look at it another way: the rich get rich by robbing the poor. By taking advantage of their desperation, they throw cents, literally, at them, rather than the wages they are entitled to. They work longer and harder than their mega-corporate fiefdom overlords, producing quality products that these corporations can put their names behind.

Individual intentions bear out.

If we believe it is acceptable for us to be exploited, then we can make others live under colonial, exploitative conditions. What we do in business is what we believe personally. What is a democracy? How does it bear out? What sort of world do you want to build, subscribe to? Do you treat others the way you wish to be treated? Do you have a sense of fairness built in?

The products that take 3 cents to make are sold at $138 each. I have nothing against making stupendous profits. The problem I have is, that $0.03 is not a living wage even in these poor, backward countries. The need to drive down costs includes tempting offers like overworking labor, child labor, and poor working conditions. At what point do you draw a line and say, this is unethical, does not promote the greater common good?

It really boils down to your definition of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Do you believe they are separate from you, and their lives, their difficulties have no bearing on you, even though in large part you cause them? Especially for all these companies that go into countries with the intent of exploitation, the rape-and-run economy, extracting resources and leaving behind carcinogenic water supplies? Plachimada comes to mind.

So here’s my personal question to you: do you accept the world as is, or do you take agency and build your personal beliefs with so much strength that it is unacceptable to earn a living in that way for the sake of practicing commerce?

Allow me to reverse roles. Would the Indians have colonized the British if the roles were reversed? For that’s human nature, after all.

The answer, and the world, is yours. To break, or to nurture.

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