Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise.- Carl Sagan. Cosmos
The Unbroken Chain.
There Are No Rules
Humankind has made an arduous and incredibly improbable journey to where it stands today. Business is a set of tools to statistically analyze factors and assemble resources to create innovation, and represents the most potent model ever devised by the universe as we know it in the meta-evolution of evolution. From the humblest beginnings of pure energy exploding across the void of nothingness, the physical laws of the universe laid the foundation for chemistry, which provided the building blocks of biological evolution, which led to mankind. We created business. With such a distinguished pedigree, it may seem wise to develop a universal set of ethical rules to govern business, but this would be untenable given the infinite range of human context. Evolution means the successful adaptation to dynamic contexts—about choosing the best solution out of many in a constantly changing environment. There is nobody to guide the ethical business leader, they must guide themselves by investing their entire beings into coming to a conclusion about what they believe the right thing to do is. An ethical business decision is not one which necessarily provides a successful outcome for the species, because such an outcome could occur a millennium after conception.
After all, during the time of the dinosaurs, even the most intelligent of evolutionary theorists would have been unable to fathom how genetically successful mammals would become. Instead, an ethical business decision is one made with the desire to advance the entirety of the human species—a decision made with the realization that each business leader is merely a link on an unbroken chain that stretches as far into the past as time itself, but only as far into the future as the human species does.
Those who refuse to change behavior which causes trauma for humanity are kin to the dodo birds of Mauritius, except that humans have prefrontal choice to change, whereas the dodo only had the random chance of mutation. Such human dodos—warmongers, climate change deniers, cutthroat capitalists—are not only unethical, they are a danger to society. They “are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think its forever,” choosing to take a step on behalf of the rest of humanity towards the cliff of evolutionary extinction. Maintaining self righteousness is more important than cultivating positive genetic mutation for societal DNA for such people.
Any business activity that hinders the ability of the human species to continue itself, directly or indirectly, is unethical. Borrowing from management guru Umair Haque, this includes all businesses that are:
Pedestrian (in its vanishing smallness of ambition), Predictable (in its furious obsession with the trivial), Predatory (in it's hyperaggressive selfishness), Pompous (in its unvarnished self-importance), and Pointless (in its lack of usefulness to people and society).
According to Haque, this is the case with almost all mainstream businesses today, and that “the institutions of business as we know them might just have outlived their faded triumphs.” Harnessing these 5 P's makes it easier to try and piece through subtle ethical issues when multiple sides have an argument for the ethical validity of a decision.
The Trifecta of Ethical Business Leadership
A classic example is that put forth by the Roman philosopher Cicero, who describes both sides of a debate about whether an honest grain merchant is expected to reveal to dealers in a famine-struck Rhodes that there are more grain ships arriving a few days later when this information may jeopardize his ability to get standard prices. Cicero leaves the question without conclusion, and he is right to do so given that this debate is more a matter of opinion than ethics. Provided a business is not actively trying to undermine the future of humanity in search of present day profits, then it is an ethical business, and it still has the potential to end up benefitting humanity. Both options—to tell the Rhodians or not—could be ethical decisions so long as the merchant:
- Realizes that his existence is unimportant, because he is merely a link on the chain of innovation for his descendants
- Realizes that his existence is crucial, because at the moment he represents the cutting edge of universal innovation
- Uses these paradoxical truths as the foundation from which the merchant will invest his entire being, a complicated machine crafted over eons, towards making the decision
Leaders of Tomorrow
If future business leaders are to make decisions based on this trifecta—two truths and a fully vested being—then business schools must develop a laser focus towards cultivating this thought process in their students. The Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), developed by a coalition of global academic leaders, are six principles to holistically prepare MBAs for the crucial role of business leader. The first principle reads: “We will develop the capabilities of students to be future generators of sustainable value for businesses and society at large and to work for an inclusive and sustainable global economy,” and effectively summarizes both the spirit of the PRME and the trifecta. “Sustainable value” instead of simple profits recognizes our role as links in the chain, while “society at large” highlights how critical the business leader is to the development of the entire planet.
The Cosmos, Trifecta and You.
The business leaders of today are the vanguards of innovation in the known universe.
They have the power and reach to affect millions, to bring positive social impact to scale, and to invest in cutting edge technology. Business has come a long way since the days of Adam Smith, and it is important to recognize that. Banking, transportation, utilities, mass production, higher standards of living—these are a handful of stars in the galaxy of triumphs business has achieved to date. But business must now build upon the successes of the past, must stand on the shoulders of giants to assume its role as the curator of societal DNA. Since the big bang we have been interconnected to everything; we are made of the same stuff as, and so are relatives of, the pandas in the National Zoo, and the cardboard sleeve one puts around a hot cup of coffee. We have a responsibility to compassionately curate the reality of which we are a part.
This is not about spirituality—although many eastern philosophies have held the same view for millenniums—this is about science, and humanity. This is about being humbled by our infinitesimal imprint on time and space, and empowered by the profound amount of time and information it takes to evolve a human being from scratch. This is about realizing how special you are, and how much power you have especially when augmented with the tools of business. Do what you think is right.
NOTE: This article is pt. 3/3 of an article written to explaining my theory, as an undergraduate at NYU Stern, of what ethical business is. It is heavily influenced by eastern philosophy and Carl Sagan's scientific perspective. Parts 1 & 2 can be found below:
- pt. 1: The Importance of Business in the Cosmos, and the Trifecta to Wield its Power
- pt. 2: The Jump From Biology to Business