Tom Arrington

Bogart on Business

Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina

On May 20, 2011, The Curator published an essay by Josh Cacopardo (“Subversive HR”), in which Cacopardo asked and answered this question: How should Christian businesses differ from secular businesses? I am troubled by Cacopardo’s answer, and I would like to offer a sketch of what I think is a better answer. My answer begins — as do many good answers — with Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart played the role of successful businessman Linus Larrabee in the 1954 film Sabrina. Early in the film, his playboy brother David questions why Linus is still in business:

David: “You’ve got all the money in the world.”

Linus: “Making money isn’t the main point of business. Money is a by-product.”

David: “What’s the main objective?

I believe a good answer to David’s question here will also provide us with a better answer to Cacopardo’s question. That is, knowing something about the purpose of business will help us see how Christian businesses should differ from secular businesses.

But first, what’s wrong with Cacopardo’s answer? He says that Christian business should differ from secular businesses, and so should be “subversive” in a capitalist business culture. Specifically, Christian businesses shouldn’t seek to hire the best candidates for their jobs. Instead, they should use their positions to develop people who wouldn’t ordinarily be hired for such positions. Secondly, unlike secular businesses, Christian businesses shouldn’t be motivated by profits.

But why should Christian businesses follow these guidelines? Cacopardo thinks that the goal of Christian businesses ought to be different from that of secular businesses. He believes that the purpose of a secular business is profit, but that the purpose of a Christian business is manifold: development of employees, advancing God’s kingdom, and, to a diminished degree, profit. Because the purposes of the businesses differ, so should the behavior. Cacopardo says:

In a capitalist industry, being subversive in this matter would mean losing money, which is counterintuitive to the capitalist philosophy in the first place, but in a church, the goal is to serve the people, not the bank or the corporation. By giving those with less experience an opportunity to develop, the church or ministry serves not only the population it seeks to reach in the first place, but also the employees who help to provide that service, however imperfectly.

He puts this point in terms of the church, but he was arguing that this sort of difference of goal should be representative of Christian business in general. He goes on to add that . . .

Christians — whether at a Christian organization or a secular one — shouldn’t limit themselves to the “cream of the crop” in candidates the way typical HR practitioners would suggest . . . such behavior [is] exactly the same as secular behavior . . .

So, Cacopardo thinks that the objective — the purpose — of Christian business differs from that of secular business, and therefore the nature and practice of the two businesses should differ. And this is where I think he is wrong. He is wrong about the purpose, and as a result, he is wrong about the practice. (Cacopardo also discusses churches and non-profit organizations, but my focus will be traditional, for-profit business.)

In order to explain where Cacopardo went wrong — and why I believe that he did — we need to better establish the purpose of business, but where do we go to figure out something like this? In this case, a good place to go is back to the beginning — the origins — of business. Here we can ask the same question of business that Christ did of John’s baptism: is it from God, or from men?

Cacopardo’s answer is that business is from men, from humanity. This is implicit in his argument. Secular business is in need of subversion by Christian business, he says. Part of the idea of subversion is that what is prior is subverted by what is posterior. What comes first is subverted by what comes second. Cacopardo’s story is that humanity created the enterprise of business, with its mammon-driven goal, and that Christians ought to subvert business by applying God-given principles to it.

This gets the story backwards. In the beginning, God created earth and put humankind in it to rule and cultivate it. God created in humanity the desires and capacities to pursue those ends — the desires and capacities to discover, build, and care for the earth and for each other.

Well and good, you might be thinking, but what does this have to do with business? In reply, let’s return to Bogart as Linus Larrabee. David has just asked him about business: “What’s the main objective? Linus responds:

A new product has been found, something of use to the world.  A new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines go in and you’re in business. It’s coincidental that people who’ve never seen a dime now have a dollar and barefooted kids wear shoes and have their faces washed. What’s wrong with an urge that gives people libraries, hospitals, baseball diamonds and movies on a Saturday night?

Linus thinks that business plays a pivotal role in discovery, development, and the flourishing of humankind. He sarcastically remarks on the “coincidence” of business growth and increase of standard of living. Genuine examples of this include, among others, the United States and Canada over the past 120 years or so, the Czech Republic in the past 20 years, and more recently, China and India. Linus thinks the point of business is to make things better.

My point is this: in the pursuit of ruling and cultivating the earth, business enterprise is crucial. Similar reasoning applies to art, engineering, horticulture, law, and all other essential components of culture. So I conclude that God, not man, created business, and oriented humanity towards it.

What, then, is the purpose of business? Linus would have us believe that it is to make things better. He gets something importantly right, but I cannot accept this without a caveat. For whatever else a business may pursue, it seems clear that a salient purpose is also to turn a profit. Certainly, employee development and environmental stewardship are important aspects of business, and cultural development and increased standard of living are ideal consequences .

But while an organization can pursue any of these ends and still fail to be a business, all it takes for any organization to qualify as a business is pursuit of profit. Pursuit of profit is business’s distinguishing feature, and it need not be single-minded; much of our history attests that single-minded pursuit of profit can lead to the degradation of employees (and others), environmental and cultural destruction, and human misery. However, in order for any business to develop its employees, steward the environment, foster cultural development, and raise the standard of living, it must exist. To exist, a business must turn a profit. So I would hazard that the purpose of business is twofold: to turn a profit and to make things better.

A remarkable consequence of this argument is that just as there is no such thing as “secular horticulture” and “Christian horticulture,” neither is there such thing as “secular business” and “Christian business.” There is only one kind of business: an enterprise that is supposed to turn a profit and make things better. Of course, the world and its inhabitants are fallen, and that makes it difficult for businesses to measure up to this ideal. But failure comes in degrees, and some will fail less badly than others. And some may both turn a profit and make the world a better place.

At last we are in a position to see more clearly what went wrong with Cacopardo’s argument. He says Christian businesses shouldn’t seek to hire the best candidates for their positions. But failure to hire the best candidates results in a less skilled work force, which leads both to reduced profits, and to diminished effectiveness in achieving goals. Reduced profits cause businesses to fail, or put them at great risk to do so. And what does it profit a business not to profit? Nothing. A business can neither survive nor work to make things better without profit. Additionally, making things better isn’t easy, and a business cannot do this with an unskilled staff. A Christian business should both hire the best, and pursue profit.

Which finally brings us back to our original question: How should Christian businesses differ from secular businesses? I believe the answer is: they shouldn’t. After all, Christian businesses are engaged in fundamentally the same enterprise as secular businesses. Both should pursue profit while developing employees, stewarding the environment, fostering culture, and raising the standard of living for those involved. Sure, many secular business fail to display these virtues — fail to make things better. But so do many Christian businesses. Whether or not the leaders and employees of some business are in Christ, or are a part of the Church, makes no difference to whether they should try to make things better. That businesses should try to make the world better isn’t any more evident to a Christian than to anyone else; hence the fact that many secular businesses do strive to make things better. Christian businesses should strive to make things better as well. But then, all businesses should, for that was God’s intent from the beginning.