Doing business can be a very rewarding experience for everyone involved. This is an increasingly important message for businesses as well as employees, especially those with good skills.
According to an ABC report, Stephen Bevan of the UK Work Foundation says about 25 per cent of employees (and growing) in the UK say that the social and environmental impacts of their organisation are important to them, affecting their decisions about who they work for in a volatile labour market. In short, they want to work for an ethical company.
One of the classical ways of constructing an ethical argument is to treat all other people as ends in themselves and not merely as a means to an end. This formulation comes from the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant.
When I deal with another person in business, I clearly want to profit by the deal and that means that I am, at least in part, treating the other person as a means to that end. That is not wrong if I do not attempt to reduce my relationship to that person totally to treating them as a means to my end: I must respect that other person's capacity to know what is of human value and to act accordingly. That is what Kant meant by "ends in themselves". All of what we know about human beings says that this aspect or dimension of being human is extremely important. When we talk about human dignity, this capacity, this sense of being "an end in his or herself" is always a central feature. When people are deprived of this, they are deprived of something fundamentally crucial and the effects of such deprivation are quite stark, starting with depression and other, more severe, psychological disorders. This is why I should not lie – because I rob the other of his or her capacity to make a decision based on proper knowledge. This is the fundamental reason why slavery is wrong and why imprisonment is such a dire punishment and freedom is such a prized value.
Poverty is one of those prisons. The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Muhammad Yunus for running a bank. Mr Yunus's Grameen Bank in Bangladesh has lent $US5.1 billion to 5.3 million people, with his revolutionary microcredits. It all began in 1976 when Mr Yunus made a $US27 loan to a group of poor craftsmen to which he added the idea of serving as guarantor to a larger loan from a traditional bank.
By December 31, 2004, the microcredit revolution had 3200 institutions with 92 million clients, 73 per cent of whom were living in dire poverty at the time of their first loan. Ninety-six per cent of Grameen's borrowers are women, who borrow to buy a milk cow or a sewing machine, chickens or stock for a roadside stall. The bank is now diversifying into low-cost, high-tech village phone systems as well as inexpensive milk products.
The revolutionary basis of Mr Yunus's idea was that the poor would be good people to lend to despite the fact that they had no collateral. He has proved his point millions of times over. According to information supplied via Grameen, their loan recovery rate is 98.85 per cent (repayment rate was 95 per cent in 1998). Loans are made through carefully constructed conditions that deliberately focus on women and communities.
Not only do Grameen clients manage to break the cycle of poverty, they become ends in themselves – they are able to make decisions about their lives as well as becoming active participants in a global business. In 1996 the bank contributed 1.1 per cent to Bangladesh's GDP.
Today, many Australian companies have some sort of involvement in community projects. Today, indigenous Australians still suffer one of the worst levels of health and life-expectancy on the planet. According to a Sydney Morning Herald report the jail rate for indigenous Australians has risen 55 per cent since 1991 despite the $400 million spent on programmes to reduce it after the 1991 Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody.
Perhaps Australian business and society still have not come to terms with the ethical imperative of treating other people as "ends in themselves".
Dr John Sweeney is with the Edmund Rice Business Ethics Initiative. Please see www.erc.org.au/busethics .