American society’s schizophrenic attitudes about business could be the subject of a book. (Perhaps multiple volumes.) For example, in the months leading up to the 2012 presidential election, we heard constantly about the need to create jobs and bring down unemployment. And yet, media coverage and Hollywood depictions of business only reinforce the popular fiction that business owners are little more than greedy exploitative bloodsuckers (whose enterprises apparently exist for the sole purpose of being gouged for taxes to be spent by profligate lawmakers with no sense of their own fiscal responsibility).
Regrettably, this is typical. But our culture’s conflict about business has reached a new level of inscrutability with the Obama administration’s mandate for all businesses to pay for contraception and sterilization, in violation of many business owners’ core beliefs.
Throughout our history there has been consistent and powerful public pressure for ethics in business, and this has only heightened over the past decade. Since the Enron and Worldcom bankruptcies, the “dot-bomb” debacles, the 2008 financial meltdown, the subprime mortgage crisis, and the collapse of the housing market, we have heard renewed calls for businesses run on firm ethical principles.
In fact, it has gone well beyond a call for ethics. Writers, educators and pundits are actually using the “m” word, and saying that business needs to be operated on moral foundations.
In December of last year, Business Insider ran a piece entitled, “The future of business is morality.” This is by no means an isolated instance. An online search using the terms “need moral business” produces dozens of articles, examples of which can be read here, here, and here.
Laura Hollis is an Associate Professional Specialist and Concurrent Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches entrepreneurship and business law. She is the author of the forthcoming publication, “Start Up, Screw Up, Scale Up: What Government Can Learn From the Best Entrepreneurs,” © 2014. Her opinions are her own, and do not reflect the position of the university. Follow her on Twitter: @LauraHollis61.