3/1/2008 8:12

Good deeds, Good motives

A recent article on the best places to work in Madison, like every recent article on the best places to work, emphasized that businesses are resonsive to the human needs of their employees not because the companies are altruistic but because it is good for the company's profits. In the context of business corporations, clean and safe workplaces, education, food services, recreation, and a sense of personal relationship are never provided because they are good in themselves but because they contribute to another, lesser good: increased economic value for corporate shareholders.

A for-profit stock company is a "person" under the law, but it is a very limited kind of person. A corporation can enter into contracts, incur debts, and represent the financial best interests of its owners. The corporate directors have a fiduciary duty to increase value for the shareholders. [Wisconsin law does have an explicit provision which allows corporate directors to consider the effects their decisions will have on employees, suppliers, and customers. Section 180.0827 Wis. Stat. Even this defines the others only in terms of their relationship with the corporation.]

If treating your employees well increases shareholder value (or treating your customers or suppliers well), then it should be done.

The ideal of treating employees well is not entirely new; one can find articles about careful and caring employers at least as far back as 1833, although the standard used to measure benignity has changed over the centuries. [Penny Magazine, No. 104, November 16, 1833.] Overcoming parental objections in order to employ child labor would not today beconsidered an example of enlightend employment policies; rather it is explicitly unlawful. What has continued is the understanding that providing clean and safe workplaces, education, food services, recreation, and a sense of personal relationship provides a real and measurable benefit to the business.

Increasing value is not intrinsically evil; helping others to have greater wealth is not bad in itself. But as the only motivation, it is limited and impoverished and does not participate in the fullness of human life. Nevertheless, a better worklife for corporate employees may be a result of this impoverished motivation.

So in actual reality good deeds can arise from poor motives.

In last Thursday evening's Killeen lecture, Scott Bader-Saye used the example of Star Wars: Episode III to illustrate that bad deeds can arise from good motives. In this movie, Dr. Bader-Saye explained, we learn that the chief character turns to the Dark Side for the purpose of preserving the life of his wife. This is a good, or at least fairly noble, motive, yet the result was a life of many evil deeds.

Bader-Saye also shared a remark by Vice President Cheney on Meet the Press (September 16, 2001). As reported by the White_House the Vice President said: "We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we're going to be successful." Cheney's comment was in reality as well as in appearence a close parallel to the imagination of Star Wars. Giving Cheney credit for the fairly noble motive of preserving the life of the nation, he advocates stepping aside from moral judgement and abandoning the public conversation which is the essence of democracy.

Since then, the United States launched 2 wars, one of them predicated on fabrication, and has caused the deaths of and order of magnitude more people than were killed in the original attacks. The actual reality is that evil deeds can arise from good but impoverished motives.

We tend to expect a strong and direct link between the direction of our motives and the quality of the results. Reality does not bear out this expectation. Poor, weak motivations are unable to sustain the course of events and therefore may lead to good or bad ends.