Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Spirituality of Business

“Never talk to me about profit, Jeh, it is a dirty word,” snapped Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, at JRD Tata, India’s premier business Tycoon of the yesteryears, when the latter tried to explain that Indian public sector needed to make profits.

Business and ‘profit-making’ ideology have been the favourite ‘whipping boys’ of our society since time immemorial. While philanthropy was always admired as an epitome of altruistic virtues, business was relegated as a nadir of selfish vices.

In ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ Adam Smith, regarded as the father of Economics, says something to indirectly corroborate this thought of the society: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

A deeper dissection of any person’s actions would reveal that the final purpose of every human action or inaction is to find happiness for himself or herself. Why does a kind hearted person help others? Why does a selfish man help himself? Why does a crook cheat? Why does a lazy person believe in inaction? Why do people fall in love? Why do people run after money? Why do businessmen hanker for profits? Whatever be the intermediate motive in the above actions or inactions, their final aim is happiness. It is in this final purpose of any action that the difference between philanthropy and business starts to dissolve.

The glaring and obvious difference between business and charity is that the overt beneficiaries of business are the owners while the same for charity is the society at large. But what misses our eyes is that for business the covert beneficiary is our society. Since happiness is the common denominator and the final aim of every action of every human being, a philanthropist becomes as much a covert beneficiary of his own act of charity as community becomes for business. And so - when both are working for their own happiness - why should a businessman be denounced and a philanthropist be eulogized? What society as a whole has failed to realize is that business and charity are not antagonistic but complementary to each other. Whether explicit or implicit, both cater to the betterment of our society in totally ‘antagonistic’ ways. Businesses directly impact the “employable” workforce through which the benefits trickle down to their families. But businesses don’t bother about the downtrodden. Charity and non-profit organizations pick them up and make them employable, from where some businesses absorb them. Consequently, both business and charity are the obverse side of the same coin. They’re like two brothers where one is ruthless in execution while the other is mild hearted and caring. But the contribution of one over the other towards the betterment of society cannot and should not be underplayed. Interesting it is to note that ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ (CSR) is gradually blurring this difference between business and charity at the intermediate level as well.

Thomas Edison invented the electric bulb. However, had it not been for the business interest of someone, the society would not have found an efficient way of distributing it to the larger mass. History is abound with scientific inventions that changed the face of mankind. But without the able support of businessmen, inventions would never have become commodities we have so gotten used to. Ironic as it may sound, the beauty of business is its ruthlessness. If markets are left by themselves, only the most efficient and the most effective businesses – barring a few exceptions like monopoly or unscrupulous practices where government regulations become antidotes - would survive; and efficiency introduced in business processes leads to a betterment of human society in the longer run. This is where businesses start touching the spiritual chord of philanthropy: “Service to mankind is service to God.”

Philanthropy and spirituality believe in serving people irrespective of their caste, religion, race or any other form of discrimination. Business precept also commands serving the customer by turning a blind eye to any of these discriminatory factors. The essential idea behind Globalization is that businesses don’t recognize the political boundaries and divisions that countries form. A business will go and spread its roots to countries where it sees an opportunity - political rivalries notwithstanding. For example, when Nato was bombing Serbia in 1999 both sides could eat at McDonald’s during the breaks. A business knows no divides.

McKinsey’s Eric Beinhocker in a brilliant, thought-provoking book, ‘The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity and the Radical Remaking of Economics,’ states that “The economy is a marvel of complexity, yet no one designed it and no one runs it.” ‘For any living creature,’ he adds ‘the evolutional game involves obtaining resources to live long enough to procreate and rear its young. Business is humanity’s successful effort at obtaining those resources.’

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of Needs proposed in his 1943 paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ contends that as humans satisfy basic needs, they seek to satisfy successively higher needs that occupy a set hierarchy depicted here as a pyramid consisting of five levels. The basic concept is that the higher needs in this hierarchy come into focus once all or most of the lower level needs are satisfied. As mankind satisfies higher needs, it’ll find a need for self-actualization which is the essence of spirituality.

So successful have businesses been that much of humanity no longer has to focus on staying alive. Thanks to business, our basic existential needs are satisfied and we’re moving towards higher needs leading up to self-realization. Business is hence an indispensable cog in the wheel of human ascension up the spiritual journey.