Steve Jobs and God

Steve Jobs is, hands down, one of the most important business and cultural leaders of all time, but…


I am reading Walter Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs, and I read the following:

Even though they were not fervent about their faith, Jobs’ parents wanted him to have a religious upbringing, so they took him to the Lutheran church most Sundays. That came to an end when he was thirteen. In July 1968 Life magazine published a shocking cover showing a pair of starving children in Biafra. Jobs took it to Sunday school and confronted the church’s pastor. “If I raise my finger, will God know which one I’m going to raise even before I do it?” The pastor answered, “Yes, God knows everything.”

Jobs then pulled out the Life cover ans asked, “Well, does God know about this and what’s going to happen to those children?”

“Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.”

Jobs announced that he didn’t want to have anything to do with worshipping such a God, and he never went back to church. (pp. 14-15)


I know that struggle with God’s sovereignty.

Images of starving and suffering children from around the world have become so ubiquitous that we tend to merely give a collective shrug.  From a Christian perspective one might want to jump in and say, “Steve, it’s Christ you are looking for!” But we should be careful that we do not proclaim Christ and lack the response of Jobs. He rightly was grieved by what he saw on the cover of Life. Francis Schaeffer once wrote that he was saddened by how the passionate youth of the sixties had, by the mid-seventies, largely abandoned their socio-political critique and gave into the pursuit of personal peace and prosperity. He was saddened not because they had abandoned their solutions, which they had but which Schaeffer also saw as inadequate, but because they had abandoned their critique. In others words, the troubles of the world no longer bothered them as it once did. They gave in to affluence. We should be as bothered as was Jobs.

On the other hand, is it not interesting that Apple Computer has given us so many insanely great products, and even changed the world in ways that we love, because its founder and driving life-force, was a man who passionately sought answers to life by first consciously refusing to accept the God who made him? Is it not ironic that we benefit from that?


Jobs was driven to perfection, in part, because he was seeking ultimate meaning which remained out of reach once God no longer existed, or was irrelevant. There is no doubt that Jobs was a genius; a truly brilliant man whose passions changed the world. But the more I read of his life the more I find him not a good person—not that I’m a saint. One could say he was troubled, or tormented, or that he just wanted excellence. But the fact is, his commitment to himself and what he wanted constantly overshadowed his ability to love others. I don’t think this was just a shortcoming, like not having enough information. And I don’t think it can be blamed on his being given up for adoption, as many want to say. (I can only speak about reported things he did and said; I cannot speak about his heart.) I think his troubles were spiritual.

In short, Jobs’ vision of the world, at least through much of his career, did not include a wise understanding of, or commitment to, love. Which is interesting considering he was so committed to spiritual enlightenment. It is also somewhat predictable that the person who dismisses God because of a story about children suffering on the other side of the world will be blind to his own profound lack of interest in loving his own neighbor, co-worker, waiter, friend. Perhaps Jobs changed later in his life, but I haven’t got to the end of the book yet. I hope he changed, for his own sake as well as others. And perhaps he has not yet reached the “end of the book” either.

And don’t you wish that Lutheran pastor had been more prepared to answer Jobs’ questions? A lesson for us all.

The Mystical Body of the Corporation

This is a fascinating lecture. If you are not familiar with the history of how and why the modern corporation was created, or of their roots in Medieval society and law, you should take the time to watch this. One thought I take away is whether the modern corporation was born out of the broader Enlightenment project of doing away with normative morality, personal responsibility, and the nobility of man, in short, doing away with God and the world He created. Or, to put it more bluntly, is it a sin to create a modern corporation?

The lecturer is Dr. Eugene Brian McCarraher. His curriculum vita.

Global Supply Chains and the Commandment to Love One’s Neighbor as Oneself

[I am reposting this from my other blog.]

The title of this post is also the title of my thesis which I wrote for my Masters of Business Administration program three years ago. To get some idea of what sparked my thinking and led to my thesis topic you can watch the video clip below about workers in developing countries as they support the demands of the developed world. You have already heard about sweat shops in third world countries. Here is a little of what they look like:

What are we, those of us in the most powerful nations on earth, going to do about the globalization of capital and corporate power? The world may be becoming increasingly, economically “flat”, as Tom Friedman says, but is it becoming morally flat as well?

It may sound strange to ask what we are “going to do” about globalization. Isn’t it a good thing? Isn’t it about the expansion of wealth and freedom? Isn’t it about the Internet and better communication? What we don’t typically hear about is the hidden costs of globalization, or about what that word conjures up in the minds of those in the developing world. For much of the world globalization includes the realities in the video above. For the rest of us that reality is often hidden.

I am, by nature, a rather conservative type. I don’t get easily bent out of shape over issues. I don’t seek revolution at the drop of a hat. I also grew up a Christian and was, until a few years ago, a registered Republican. I am still a Christian, and because of taking my faith seriously I could no longer be a Republican. Now I am an independent. But it’s not really about politics. It’s about a perspective on the world, on how I want to live. It’s about what kind of person I want to be and where I want to end up. And it’s also about the kind of world I want for my children and their children.

When it came time for me to choose a topic for my MBA thesis I felt the need to tackle something to do with ethics. I felt I needed to address, for myself, the underlying moral issues inherent in business and economics before I went out from my schooling into more business adventures. So I picked the topic of the treatment of women workers in global supply chains and the ethical implications for businesses that rely on the benefits from those supply chains (like lower costs and faster delivery, etc.). My thesis became, for me, a kind of introduction to the larger topic of ethics and, more specifically, how should someone who claims to be a Christian act in the world.

The following is from Chapter One of my thesis:

Consider this scenario: when a shopkeeper opens her doors in the morning and hangs out the welcome sign it is time to get to work. The pressures of the day quickly crowd in as she must meet the demands of her customers and her business’ bottom line. She must manage her time and her employees, deal with suppliers, and try to make plans for the future while also trying to fully understand the past. Questions of ethics are considered, if considered at all, largely in the immediate context of the day-to-day routine. Our shopkeeper will have to decide where she stands on being truthful and honest with those whom she works; she will make ethical decisions around how she manages her accounting and pays her vendors; she may even face moral questions about what products she sells and whether they are good for her community.

Now let’s assume this shopkeeper is also a Christian, one who makes claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and one who participates in the life of Christian culture. The ethical issues for the shopkeeper will not be any different from any other shopkeeper. However, she now carries the burden of having to follow some explicit commands with regard to the world, most notably to love her neighbor as herself. And who is her neighbor? Is her neighbor only the immediate customer or vendor with whom she does business? Or, given that she lives in an increasingly globalized world, does her neighbor include those with whom she now has connections, even though they may be on the other side of the planet and at the distant end of her supply chains?

If our shop keeper then decides that she does want to build her business around the idea of loving her neighbor as herself, and then apply that philosophy to her dealings with her supply chains, she must decided how to do that. What options are available to her? Does she choose servant-leadership as a leadership style? That is, will she seek to be a servant first and, as Greenleaf (1991) says, “to make sure that other people’s highest priority meeds are being served” (p. 7)? Does she choose to buy only from suppliers that treat their employees well? Does she seek to instill corporate social responsibility into her business practices?

These kinds of questions might be of little importance if it were not for two realities. The first is that the world is more connected than ever before. The second is that many workers in global supply chains, particularly those in developing countries, often have few of the rights or freedoms those in Western and Northern societies take for granted and may even assume to be inalienable. This is not to say that the benefits of free-market capitalism have not brought greater wealth to many developing countries, nor that many of the world’s poor have not seen at least some economic improvement to their way of life. However, as the gap between the world’s poor and the world’s rich gets bigger, and as facts continue to come out regarding the all too often harsh treatment of laborers, including women and children, within global supply chains, one cannot help but ask whether a laissez fair, free-market philosophy is the best approach for creating a fair and just system that benefits all stakeholders appropriately.

A Christian business person must ask these kinds of questions, not merely because economic systems come with their own set of moral presuppositions about human nature and human needs, but also because in the day-to-day world of business, as it is in life, one’s actions flow from one’s beliefs. If a Christian is to take seriously the commandment to love her neighbor as herself, then it only makes sense that that command, that challenge, would raise such questions. Maybe one of the great historical ironies is the interconnectedness of free market capitalist thinking and Christian theology; ironic because one system is based on self-centeredness for its success and the other is based on other-centeredness. Our shopkeeper will have to decide if this interconnectedness is both useful and valid.

I go on to describe how global supply chains work, including the fundamental pressures they impose, such as cheaper labor and fast delivery. I then describe how those pressures necessarily create negative conditions for many workers. I then describe the common conditions of working women in those supply chains. (I chose women workers because of the data available and because they represent more than half of the global workforce while often being in the weakest position with regards to labor rights and fair treatment.) Finally I examine how some have sought solutions, for example the concepts of corporate social responsibility (CSR), fair trade, and servant leadership.

I also examine how Christianity has shifted away from social concerns by becoming a personal/private faith thing rather than an “all of life” thing. This shift has led many Christians for forsake the requirements of their faith, that is, to be “salt of the earth” as it where. Too many Christians, I argue, see their faith as a purely private matter, except for a small handful of political issues.

I do not see globalization as a specifically “Christian issue.” There are many perspectives and answers available. But I find narrowing the scope down a bit helps to crystallize the issue for me. I do not see in the Bible anything specifically about free trade (though I might be missing it), but I do see a lot about feeding the hungry and helping the poor. Recently a professor of mine related a story where he was teaching about globalization and one of his students, a man from Africa, said that when he hears the word “globalization” he knows it to mean Western imperialism. There is something that rings true for me about that student’s perspective, and that bothers me.

Much of my thinking has shifted over the past several years as I have tried to take seriously the teachings of Jesus. The irony is that the teachings of Jesus contradict much of modern, popular Christianity in both its focus and its call to action. I have become convinced that mainstream, right-wing (and many left-wing) Christians just may have become the new Pharisees – the pious religious types who Jesus railed against and who eventually killed him. They do church really well, they do religion really well, and they keep everything in “perspective” and “balanced,” but their hearts have become hard – and I know what I’m talking about because I am one of them. Because of this I chose to focus on the implications of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as a foundational challenge. I figured that commandment cuts through a lot of garbage.

This video interview with Tony Campolo offers some idea of what I am talking about:

I won’t say that I am in Campolo’s camp entirely, and I don’t cite him in my thesis. However, I will say that his teaching challenges me deeply.

I am also challenged by numerous other thinkers, most of whom are not Christians, and some are even anti-Christian (though their understanding of biblical Christianity is often rather thin). But I believe truth can be found just about everywhere. The following video clips further pad out the topic.

Christian “progressive” Jim Wallis talks about living out one’s faith:

Left-left-wing academic and leading progressive thinker Michael Parenti on globalization and what it really means:
Parenti is no fan of Christianity by any means, or any religion really, but he is a very sharp thinker and erudite historian.

Brilliant and exacerbating Noam Chomsky on globalization:
I find myself more and more fascinated with Chomsky’s work. Years ago I read a book of his on linguistics for my MA thesis (not my MBA). Since then I have most only heard him speak. His observations on power politics are illuminating. Chomsky and Parenti do not see eye-to-eye on several issues.

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine speaks on the topic of global brands, the topic of her famous book No Logo:

Famous activist, historian, and progressive thinker Howard Zinn on American Empire (a topic related to globalization):

Not all is doom and gloom. Consider the Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis clips above and the clip below.

Towards a solution – Fair Trade:

I have to say the process of writing and defending my thesis was longer than I anticipated, but it was a very rewarding process. I am glad I finished school and I am excited about my future career. I will say, however, that I have not, for me personally, solved the issues raised in my thesis. I still struggle to fulfill the commandment to love my neighbor, and I’m sure I always will.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1991). The servant as leader. Westfield, IN: The Robert K. Greenleaf Center.

Ethics and Love: An Examination of Human Will and the Veil of Ignorance

But Christianity never suffers a man to go in vain, not even a single step, for when you open the door which you shut in order to pray to God, the first person you meet as you go out is your neighbor whom you shall love.
~ Kierkegaard from Works of Love

An everyday Christian (whoever that might be) may inventory various ethical propositions and decide that all have their strengths and that none are entirely favorable. That Christian may then determine, motivated by faith or by tradition, to construct a Christian ethics, one that will trump all other pretenders for the pinnacle of the ethical, and that which will systematically envelop all possible conditions. And let us say our Christian, with full care and consideration, develops such a theory, with the Christ as his center and God the Father as his master. Will not, then, this ennobled person still struggle against the masses of people who would, without hesitation, denounce or, worse yet, merely shrug away his system, just for being from a different world (or bowing to a different god) than theirs? Might not, then, this Christian seek an ethical approach that would unify the goals of faith and tradition with the general desires of humanity (if there be such a thing) even merely only as a strategy?

Certainly, a method of approach is needed, for to spring too quickly is the hunter’s faux pas. One must be a modern ethnographer of sorts, slowly assimilating into the world of the people under scrutiny, while keeping, secretly of course, a safe moral distance. And this Christian will certainly realize the best methods tend to encourage the participation of those for whom conversion is the goal. In other words, people will more likely accept a conclusion they helped to create than one thrust upon them, especially one that determines the courses of their future actions. And if a Christian ethics is likely to have at its core a series of obligations, then a method that also seeks obligations is a strategy worth considering.

Looking for a method of participation toward obligations, our Christian might choose the philosophical thought experiment of John Rawls. In A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls proposed a kind of mental game (but a game of serious implications nonetheless). What if, he suggested, one were to try and mentally create the best possible world, by way of a social contract of sorts, with one significant caveat: one would not and cannot know where one will end up in that world? In other words, think of a world in any fashion one chooses while keeping in mind that one may end up in power or poverty, in India or France, in silk suits or in chains. What kind of world will one envision? The mental experiment is a kind of research in reincarnation where one imagines the next life and then has to accept one’s fate on the other side. Not knowing where one will be in this imaginary world is a kind of conditional ignorance Rawls calls the original position, or the veil of ignorance. The neat trick of this original position is that as one seeks his own advantage, he must seek the advantage of all. The seriousness of Rawls’ experiment is that one is really thinking about this world and creating the foundational ideas that may undergird a platform for change.

A friend of our Christian may ask what is it about this world that needs changing? If one does not say “everything,” then one might as well start choosing particulars. Our Christian may state that a good place to start is with economic injustice, and that seems fair enough.


Shell and the Niger Delta

One child died after being caught in the crude. About 20 of our people are going to hospital each day with skin problems, breathing difficulties and other illnesses.

(Sustained misery: Shell in the Niger Delta, p. 1)

The world needs oil. The world, in this sense, is the industrialized and proto-industrialized world; an ever ravenous beast for petroleum and its myriad of products, from gas to power our oversized SUVs to the non-animal, synthetic fabric products used to make the outdoor clothing of nature enthusiasts. Backroom deals are made over oil, wars are fought over oil, and debates about need, greed, and the future of oil are part and parcel of our world. And occasionally, even in the midst of the already fomented controversies about oil, there are cases that raise additional questions, if only because of their scale and/or implications. Shell Oil production in the Niger Delta region of Africa is just such a case.

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. Oil and natural gas are Nigeria’s largest industries accounting for more than 98% of export earnings and about 83% of government revenue, and around 40% of it GDP. (Petroleum in Nigeria) Most of that oil is located in the Niger Delta region. Nigeria is also the 10th largest oil producing nation and the U.S. remains its largest customer of crude oil, accounting for about 40% of Nigeria’s total oil exports. From the time the British discovered oil in Nigeria in the 1950s the industry has been marred by political and economic difficulties, including corrupt military regimes, collusion between foreign oil companies and Nigeria’s government, abuse of indigenous peoples, and significant, ongoing pollution of the region. Although all the major oil producing companies have their stake in Nigeria, Royal Dutch Shell (locally known as Shell Nigeria) has by far the largest investment and produces about 50% of Nigeria’s total oil extraction.

The physical impact of oil extraction has taken a significant toll on the people and environment of the Niger Delta. Correspondingly, almost none of the vast wealth produced by the oil extraction has gone to the people in the region. Uncountable oil spills have created such a level of pollution that any hope of reclaiming the land to even an approximation of its original health is largely fantasy. Neither Shell, nor the Nigerian government, has shown much interest in either cleaning up the mess or reducing the causes of the pollution.

The human toll has also been high. Many Nigerian citizens suffer from air, water, and soil pollution. There is little to no doubt that much of the human suffering in the Niger Delta region comes from the insidious curse of oil and related contamination. Bronchial asthma and other respiratory diseases, gastro-enteritis, and cancer have all been recorded at significantly higher levels among those in the region than elsewhere. Neither Shell nor the Nigerian government have shown much interest in alleviating the suffering or addressing the obvious sources of the suffering.

One area of investment of great importance to Shell is helping to fund the Nigerian military. The military, under the auspices of protecting Shell from unlawful harm and dissent, have killed numerous indigenous people, destroyed several villages outright, and brutally stopped peaceful, non-violent protests. Shell has admitted to purchasing weapons for the military and of paying specifically for the military to go into villages which, in each case, has resulted in death.

Much more can be said of the role of Shell and other oil companies in the Niger Delta. The overwhelming question is not whether Shell, in collusion with the Nigerian government, is doing bad things. That is fairly obvious, even in light of the great apparent value of having billions of gallons of oil available to the world’s economic system. The question is why do these things happen? Why do companies, and apparently the people that run them, seem to care more for innumerable profits and the power necessary to guarantee those profits than for what we all, in our better moments, claim to be of a higher good, that is, human life in its fullest and most meaningful sense? Does the answer lie with economic systems or with human nature? Or both?

Working Women in a Global Economy

Exploiting the circumstance of vulnerable people – whether intentionally or not – is at the heart of many employment strategies in global supply chains.

(Trading away our rights: Women working in global supply chains, 2004, p. 4)

For a citizen of an post-industrialized consumer society, where goods are offered in vast quantities and competitive prices, the global supply chain is critical to economic maintenance. With margins to be managed all along the way, goods must be produced quickly, efficiently, and at virtually no cost. Laborers must (as so-called free markets dictate) be found who will work without complaint for low wages. In other words, exploitation of human life-energy, in its more negative connotation, is becoming increasingly de rigueur for modern global economies supplying consumer based societies.

Certainly there is nothing new in exploiting human labor for one’s own gain. The pharaohs built their pyramids, the caesars conquered the known world, and U.S. farmers harvested their cotton by the sweat of the subjugated, conscripted, and vanquished. What makes the present day so singular is the combination of scale, perceptions, possibilities, and gender.

Increasingly, women are playing a central role in the global supply chain. In fact, the majority of jobs at the end of the chain, from sewing, to harvesting and packing fruit, to making shoes, are done by women. Given the poverty of the countries where many of these women live one might assume that having the opportunity to participate in the global supply chain ,working for some international company producing goods for affluent societies, would provide a release from the shackles of penury. All too often the very opposite seems to be the truth. The following examples were taken from a recent Oxfam report (Trading away our rights: Women working in global supply chains, 2004):

  • In Chile, 75 per cent of women in the agricultural sector are hired on temporary contracts picking fruit, and put in more than 60 hours a week during the season. But one in three still earns below the minimum wage.
  • Fewer then half of the women employed in Bangladesh’s textile and garment export sector have a contract, and the vast majority get no maternity or health coverage – but 80 per cent fear dismissal if they complain.
  • In China’s Guangdong province, one of the world’s fastest growing industrial areas, young women face 150 hours of overtime each month in the garment factories – but 60 per cent have no written contract and 90 per cent have no access to social insurance.

When one walks into a major retailer, a supermarket, or any other conveyor of goods in North America or Europe, one is likely to be confronted by products made by underpaid, overworked laborers from the global exploitation network. Marx was concerned that workers in capitalistic economies would lose contact with the results of their work, that they would become alienated from the very product of their own energy and efforts, and even from labor itself. Ironically, it is not only the laborer who have become alienated from their products, it is the consumer who has become alienated from the reality of their consumables. The shopper perusing the shelves in The Gap, or Target, or Wall-Mart, or Safeway is typically unaware of the toil behind the products displayed before them, or the true cost of those products. And the true cost is increasingly carried by the women (and their families) who toil in harsh conditions, with low pay, no benefits, and little guarantees. Therefore, it is not only the companies who rely on these women, but it is the pleasantly ignorant consumers who are, though unaware they may be, happy to let someone else bear the burden.

Might there be a different way to doing global economies? The question is not about the rightness or wrongness of abusing women’s social positions within the global supply chain for economic gain, for its wrongness is evident. Rather, the question is how is it that so much injustice seems to be a part of a system that so many apparently good, ordinary people readily accept? Where is Adam Smith’s invisible hand guiding all these selfish desires toward the best possible outcomes for everyone? Or maybe the solution is, in fact, not an invisible hand at all, but a will toward love.

Putting Meat on the Table

Worker looses hand. Worker loses legs. Worker killed.

(Blood, sweat, and fear: Workers’ rights in the U.S. meat and poultry plants, 2005, p. 2)

At you local grocer, neatly wrapped in clear plastic and styrofoam, laying in rows under bring lights, are the appealing displays of relatively fresh meat, from poultry to beef, pork to veal. But the packaging belies a deeper truth than what’s for dinner. Certainly, one truth is that meat comes from animals and does not magically appear at the store; somewhere an animal had to die for this display of tasty comestibles to exist. However, another more serious truth lies behind these neat rows of animal protein, that is the human toll of the meatpacking industry.

In the U.S., the meatpacking industry, with its slaughtering and processing plants churning out mass quantities of products for the American table, is home to some of the most dangerous jobs in the world. More significantly is the harsh reality facing the workers in these factories. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report (Blood, sweat, and fear: Workers’ rights in the U.S. meat and poultry plants): “Employers put workers at predictable risk of serious physical injury even though the means to avoid such injury are known and feasible. They frustrate workers’ efforts to obtain compensation for workplace injuries when they occur. They aggressively block workers’ self-organizing efforts and rights of association. They exploit the vulnerabilities of a predominantly immigrant labor force in many of their work site.” (p. 1)

Workers put in long hours, face possible death, amputation, and maiming daily, are not allowed freedom of association, fear reporting injuries for fear of being fired, and suffer ignominious treatment in abject conditions due, not least in part, to the fact that many of the workers are immigrants. According the report, these abuses are not rare, isolated cases (bad enough as that would be), but represent “systematic human rights violations embedded in meat and poultry industry employment.” (p. 1) A great amount of ink has been spilled defending the rights of animals against the meat and poultry industry. Little has been said, unfortunately, about the human toll.

The report also highlights that the U.S. government has committed itself to upholding and protecting rights guaranteed in several critical international documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and political Rights, the International Covenant of Economics, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and members Families. These documents have formally established at least the following workers’ rights: (a) A safe and healthful workplace, (b) compensation for workplace injuries and illnesses, (c) freedom of association and the right to form trade unions and bargain collectively, (d) equality of conditions and the rights for immigrant workers. The U.S. government has failed to promote and enforce these obligations.

Surely the troubles here described are not merely a government issue about enforcing obligations accepted by the international community. A more fundamental question is why do such abuses of seemingly obvious human rights happen, or maybe “happen” is not the right word. At every turn, as in all of life, choice is available for each player in the process. For some, choice has little personal consequences, for others, choice is a matter of life and death. Using and abusing other persons for one’s own ends is a choice, it does not just happen, regardless of how uncritically one approaches those choices. But the question remains, why do such abuses happen? Where is the basic goodness that we are told people have innately within them? If people are basically good, where then is the rebellion against evil choices? Why is there so much room for selfishness, greed, and the acceptance of other people’s suffering? Could it be that we are without an adequate system of ethics, even an adequate system of economics, to guide us? Could it be that the world is fundamentally the victim of a false idea? If so, where then is the answer to be found?


” . . . [E]xtorted promises are void ab initio.”

~ John Rawls

Applying Rawls’ thought experiment to these case studies forces one to consider the possibility that one could end up as an indigenous person in the Niger Delta, or a woman in Bangladesh making garments for large retail chains, or an immigrant worker in a U.S. meatpacking plant. The potential reality of such an experiment, if it truly could be advanced into real change, would likely be the unraveling of much of the world’s systems, from economic to political, the social to the religious. Rawls’ argues that the implications of his experiment lead to two fundamental principles or maxims.

  1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, and b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

With these maxims in one hand and the case studies in the other, one might imagine how the world could be different. Shell Oil and the Nigerian government would have to consider the inherent inequalities between the vast wealth produced by oil production and the relative poverty and sufferings of local residents and seek to develop a system where pollution is better controlled and more of the wealth is given to the local population. For the global supply chain, one would seek to provide adequate benefits and minimum pay for women workers. For the U.S. meatpacking industry, allowances for worker associations and adequate representation would need to be allowed and encouraged. Obviously, these changes would only be the tip of a vast iceberg. In fact, so many changes would be necessary to carry forth Rawls’ experiment from theory to action that many of the issues described in the case studies would cease to be issues just because the fundamental inequalities that make the case studies the examples they are would disappear.

The irony is that Rawls’ thought experiment is unnecessary, though not without individual value. This new and improved world has already been imagined and, though imperfectly, been codified. If our economic and political systems were truly based upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant of Economics, Social and Cultural Rights, et al., then would not Rawls’ experiment be made manifest, at least to a significant degree? Which raises the question: Is the issue an issue of imagination, or even of knowledge? Do we need to build another castle in the air? Or is the issue about something much deeper and profound, at the level of our individual wills and desires?


And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

~ Matthew 22:39

The dilemma with systems of ethics is that the human heart always finds a way of disregarding them. More importantly, the human heart, history shows us, is capable of great goodness and indescribable evil, and every shade in between. Both the goodness and the evil of the human will can be exacerbated by systems, even as it seeks to overcome them. For Rawls there are two systems, one is the method of deriving the other. Both are capable of being influenced by the corrosive forces of power seeking, arrogance, and self deception. And neither have an answer for ignorance. Rawls’ original position is also a position of perfection, an ideal seeking after an ideal. Is this, then, a truly feasible solution? No, and yet ideals are what create the greatest forces for change. How then shall our everyday Christian friend find a true solution? Maybe the answer lies not with a question, but with an exhortation, and not an exhortation to be ethical, but to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Questions of rights have ways of getting tangled. Business and political leaders can twist out of many ethical questions, or can redefine them in slightly different terms, or can deny them on some imaginary higher grounds. That is because ethics is an outward proposition. Ethics asks people (mainly other people) to change their behaviors regardless of their inward desires. Love seeks to change the core of people, to make them better, to seek what is ultimately good in spite of failures and poor choices. If the powerful decision makers of Shell Oil, the captains of the global supply chain, and the capitalists of the U.S. meatpacking industry were to truly and honestly adopt Rawls maxims there would be significant change for the better. That is certainly true. But if those same decision makers, captains, and capitalists were to love their neighbors (and maybe that is all Rawls really intended) then something truly transforming would happen, and not merely to the loved, but also to the one who loves.

At this point our fearless everyday Christian may realize that an impasse is looming. The strategy of choosing a method that seeks obligations cannot change the human heart. All it can do is build another system with a set of maxims by which to live. It cannot solve the dilemma of good intentions corrupted by ever present evil. Might then our Christian turn back to God and ask for wisdom. And in this turning back, might our Christian have finally set himself on the path for which he set out, namely to construct a Christian ethics, one that will trump all others? The path might be narrow, but it is well worn: “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

A final note

I wrote this paper in 2006 for a business ethics course as part of my MBA degree. I do not think I would change anything in it, though I feel my thinking has progressed somewhat and, if anything, I would expand the paper significantly. Fundamentally I still believe that a critique of business from a moral/ethical stance must include a recognition of the existential nature of human beings. Answers are not found in systems, though some systems are far better than others, rather answers are found in God’s working on the human heart, and that remains a mystery still.


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Additional sources

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