Thursday, 22 July 2010

Is virtuous self-interest possible?

I'm in Melbourne, at the Religion in the Public Square colloquium. Just finished our first day. Dr. Scott Rae from Biola University is the keynote speaker. He's speaking on business ethics.

One thing that provoked my interest today is: is virtuous self-interest possible?

Virtuous self-interest permits Christian business ethics. The purpose of business is profit - that is, self-interest. The point of going into business is to make more return (money!) than expenses. If you don't have a profit motive, you're not in business; you're a charity.

The justification for virtuous self-interest goes like this: Self-interest is not the same as greed. Greed is the insatiable desire for more. Self-interest is the desire to improve yourself.

You can be greedily self-interested - you can want to improve yourself, in an uncontrolled, unlimited way. If you are greedily self-interested, you will use and abuse people to get what you want, with no care for them.

Or, you can be virtuously self-interested: your desire to improve yourself is controlled, guided and limited by principles like honesty, truthfulness, fairness, respect, and so on. If you care virtuously self-interested, you won't use and abuse people to get what you want. On the contrary, you'll look after them. You'll make sure you give them a fair return (a "fair price") for whatever they've given you; you'll keep your promises to them, even if you don't have to; and so on.

You can see how virtuous self-interest permits Christian business ethics. If virtuous self-interest exists, then a Christian should demonstrate Christian character in their business, while also making profit.

My question is: is this possible? Does it make sense? Or is it just playing with words, so as to baptise greed under the phrase "virtuous self-interest"?

Thoughts, please.


Anonymous said...

Kamal I am nervous ... not so much about self-interest (the Bible testifies to valid self-interests), but to your use of virtue. Virtues are fine as statements of aim, but not so much as self-descriptions, because the beneficiory of the particular virtues you listed are others. As a result, I think what you are calling 'virtuous self interst' could more simply be called 'sharing'. Business as a participation in an system of organised sharing -- now there's a thought. Have a look at O'Donovan's comments on the economy in 'ways of Judgment'. - ajc

Chris said...

I wonder if you can put it like this ...

There's self-interest (SI) as a primary or a secondary value.

If SI is primary, anything goes. If it's secondary, then SI will be constrained (by love, ethical values, whatever other commitments you have).

IOW, virtuous SI would equal 'a person of virtue practising business'. Greedy SI would equal 'a self interested person practising SI in the sphere of money'.

Possible, or no?

Chris Little