Friday, June 13, 2014

Business Ethics and the Spiritual Life

You gotta be crazy, you gotta have a real need.
You gotta sleep on your toes, and when you're on the street,
You gotta be able to pick out the easy meat with your eyes closed.
And then moving in silently, down wind and out of sight,
You gotta strike when the moment is right without thinking.
And after a while, you can work on points for style.
Like the club tie, and the firm handshake,
A certain look in the eye and an easy smile.
You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to,
So that when they turn their backs on you,
You'll get the chance to put the knife in

- Pink Floyd, "Dogs," Animals (Harvest/EMI, 1977)

A couple years ago, an article in Bloomberg Businessweek titled "How the Mormons Make Money" quoted from historian D. Michael Quinn on the way Mormonism approaches finances and business: 

The Mormon Church is very different than any other church. … Traditional Christianity and Judaism make a clear distinction between what is spiritual and what is temporal, while Mormon theology specifically denies that there is such a distinction...In the Mormon [leadership’s] worldview, it’s as spiritual to give alms to the poor, as the old phrase goes in the Biblical sense, as it is to make a million dollars. 

Quinn is working on a history of the LDS Church's business and financial activities (supposedly the third in his Mormon Hierarchy trilogy) and already has published some impressive work on the subject. Nonetheless, this overlap of the spiritual and temporal is found both in Judaism and medieval Christianity. But this lack of a "clear distinction" between the spiritual and temporal in Mormonism was also recognized (in a rather critical way) by author and historian Bernard DeVoto in a 1925 article:

Following the principles laid down in God's book they have developed prosperity from a poverty as great as their intellectual squalor, and this in face of persecution, exile, and even confiscation. God, in effect, has made good. There is wealth in plenty in Utah, and a material culture as modern as any in the nation. All this they have achieved by reading God's book and acting on it, by following God as few other artists have ever been followed. The Doctrine and Covenants has interpenetrated every part of their lives, business methods with their worship and metaphysics with their trade.

That is why any Saint today will stop in the act of selling you a gallon of gasoline or cutting your hair to discuss the fact that God has "body, parts, and passions," and is by actual sexual conjugation the father of mankind. That is why your bell-boy is likely to stay a moment after receiving his tip to warn you of the wrath to come or to set you right about the Sermon on the Mount. Your banker will mingle the lost tribes with his caution against overdrafts.[1]

This "close involvement in economic affairs" was "one of the most negative aspects of contemporary Mormonism" according to DeVoto (and often Hugh Nibley for that matter).[2] He later admitted in a personal letter that this piece and others were "ignorant, brash, prejudiced, malicious, and...irresponsible."[3] 

While some decry the mixing of the spiritual and temporal, an article in the most recent issue of Graziadio Business Review (from Pepperdine University) argues that this is exactly what businesses and universities need and are separated only to their detriment:

This growing separation of the work world from the faith world has led to...the need for meaning. As people search for spirituality, it is in part a search to find meaning in their lives. There is an overriding need to know that their life matters now and that perhaps their contributions will have some lasting impact after death...In this search for spirituality, whatever form it might take, we very often see, even in Christians, and maybe particularly in Christians, a separation of “professional life” from “spiritual life.” A very visible and well-documented display of this happened with Ken Lay, the now infamous CEO and chairman of Enron. The son of a Baptist preacher, Lay clearly articulated his Christian faith and yet was involved in one of the most egregious corporate scandals of its time. Ultimately, Lay was convicted of six counts of conspiracy and fraud and four counts of fraud and false statements in a scandal that led to one of the biggest bankruptcies in U.S. history, cost thousands of employees their jobs and life savings, and cost investors billions of dollars.[4] 

This separation of the "professional (temporal) life" from "spiritual life" can actually plague both the way businesses operate and the way they are viewed by the public. The spiritual (along with the ethics it creates) should be a natural part of business. This includes the way we treat and view others (the Golden Rule):

A growing body of research has demonstrated that organizations which build high performance management systems are much more successful than comparable companies. The evidence from this extensive research suggests that leaders who carefully align personnel systems that select, train, empower, and reward employees with a commitment to both the employees’ welfare and the success of the organization are more profitable, more creative, and more innovative than their counterparts. At the heart of this leadership approach is the treating of employees as valued partners who can contribute to important management decisions, translate organization programs and policies into action, deliver excellent service to customers, and create added value and wealth for their companiesThis “high trust” approach to organization governance contrasts markedly with traditional top-down management thinking that typifies many modern organizations—and that often leads to underutilizing the talents of today’s employees.[5]

Furthermore, a "growing body of evidence from business research seems to clearly suggest that virtuous leadership and honoring moral duties build commitment and increase long-term wealth. As business leaders and business schools take advantage of the research knowledge available to them, they have the opportunity to raise their standard of performance and create added value for the stakeholders that they serve."[6]

For all the harsh criticisms of business and corporations receive, I'm somewhat surprised that (1) business leaders ignore the growing evidence for the profitability of good ethics and (2) critics continue to paint the professional and the spiritual as two separate worlds (and struggle to keep them there). 


1. Bernard DeVoto, "God -- Litterateur," The Guardian: A Literary Monthly Published in Philadelphia 1:5 (March 1925). Thanks to Allen for pointing this out to me. 

2. Leland A. Fetzer, "Bernard DeVoto and Mormon Tradition," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 6:3-4 (1971): 28.

3. Ibid.: 30. 

4. Linda A. Livingstone, "Integrating a Spiritual Life into the Work Life: The Significance of Faith-Based Values in Academia," Graziadio Business Review 17:1 (2014).  

5. Cam Caldwell, "Forging Ethics-Based Business Partners: The Integration of Business, Employees, and Education," Graziadio Business Review 17:1 (2014). It may be worth noting that the research cited is from David Ulrich, one of the most influential human resource experts in the world and a fellow Latter-day Saint. 

6. Ibid. 

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