Ask More of Business

Asking More Commentary: Perspectives from Mendoza College of Business

Commentary Post - Carolyn Y. Woo

Faith and Business: Seeking the Common Good

July 26, 2010

Following is an excerpt from an interview with Mendoza College Dean Carolyn Y. Woo published in the Summer 2010 edition of Catholic Charities USA magazine. 

Charities USA: What are the benefits to society when we seek the common good? What are the costs when we do not? 

CW: Let me address the costs first. Across the world, we find that the sources of violent conflicts are extreme poverty, systemic inequality, and corruption. Great disparity in wealth threatens peace and democracy. When there is high unemployment in politically charged environments, violence can erupt.

For example, when I was in Kenya two years ago, unemployment was over 40 percent. Unemployed young people became very susceptible to recruitment for various types of terror activities. After 9/11, we are much more sensitive to the importance of economic opportunities and stability in societies. In Ethiopia, I had reason for pause as I recognized how foreign-owned large flower production facilities drained the water tables of the country and utilized pesticides that created high rates of cancer among the workers. I wonder what the pushback will be when the local community recognizes that their health and long term sustainability have largely been ignored.

But I would say the more important part for us is that we understand the question, “Who is our brother?” Not just our neighbor, but our brother. Each of us has to decide where we draw the line. Who are “we”? And who are “they”? The tighter we draw the "we," the result will be self-isolation and stunted growth in the capacity for “the other” and ultimately for God.

The journey of faith and the journey of life calls us to expand the understanding of “we”—of who our neighbors are, but also in some ways, of the human family, which has the same needs: the desire to see our children being fed, our children being healthy, our children having some degree of shelter and safety, our children having jobs. I think when we see other people as having the same desires we have, because they are human, we form a bond that opens our eyes, ears, hearts, and arms.

Charities USA: Through direct service to individuals, people contribute to the common good. Through advocacy, people contribute to the common good. We see both in Catholic Charities. Clearly, however, there are other ways that people can contribute to the common good. For example, as a business school, how are you educating your students to seek the common good? 

CW: First of all, we have to remember that business is not a necessary evil. Business is a “Necessary Good.” When business does the right thing, society benefits. Business creates jobs, and jobs give people dignity, a venue for expressing themselves and their talents and opportunities to hone skills. Meaningful employment is necessary for independence and security, the ingredients for self-esteem and dignity. And in this country, healthcare and retirement benefits come through employment. In addition, business provides solutions that can improve the quality of life. It enables human ingenuity, creativity, and innovation to become tangible outcomes which are part of the co-creation to which God invites us. Business allows for exchange and the flow of resources from one party to another without which we would not be a real community.

We note, however, that business does not always behave that way, that it can do great harm as well as good. Pope Benedict reminds us in Caritas in Veritate that the market “cannot rely only on itself, because it is not able to produce by itself something that lies outside its competence. It must draw its moral energies from other subjects that are capable of generating them.” 

Once we understand the good and bad that business can do, then we understand the role of business education. Business education is to engage our students to approach business as a vocation. And for it to be a true vocation, it has to create value for society.

Business education, to us, goes beyond developing managerial skills or analytical capabilities, but includes the inspiration and engagement of our students to bring about good for society through business and markets. We believe that for business to be a positive force, it needs to focus on three elements: first, the integrity of the individual; second, the ability to create an ethical organizational environment; and third, the achieving of profits in a way that protects and enhances society.