War and Business

In War, Is Business Just Business?

Here are the basic questions management needs to be asking and answering.

Is war just? Can war be justified? Does justification make war right?

These are not academic questions. You need only to glance at an e-tablet screen, or a computer monitor, or HDTV, or listen for a moment to a radio to know that in 2014 war is a 24/7 reality. In Ukraine. In Syria. In Iraq. Between Israel and Hamas. In such African states as Nigeria, Congo, and Somalia.

War kills. War maims. War can sometimes shorten conflicts and lead to peace. Wars can fail totally.

War, in every instance, affects the ways companies in the United States and across the rest of the world conduct business.

I do not propose to provide you with a protocol to distinguish between good wars and bad wars, or with a checklist by which to judge any war, however it’s justified.

Rather, I ask you—urge you—as leaders in industry—to begin with my three initial questions about war. To think seriously about these questions and about larger issues of business ethics. And then to make informed moral operating judgments.

You won’t be the first person to confront questions about the moral conduct of business. By one estimate, that may have happened as many as 3,700 years ago. Nor will you be the last person to inquire into moral principles of business conduct. Many of your colleagues are doing that this very day, as political, economic, and religious events over which they have no direct control in places that are culturally foreign challenge their companies’ policies and practices.

...do corporate executives have a responsibility to take moral sides in the conflicts in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, and in Africa?

 

If I believed that business and ethics were mutually exclusive words, I could end this essay right now, and you could go on to some other activity. But I don’t believe that they are mutually exclusive, and I hope you will continue to read.

To what extent, then, are business and ethics mutually inclusive terms—or should be mutually inclusive terms? Is it enough that financial statements conform to widely recognized and accepted accounting standards? Is it enough that a company’s business practices are within the law in the United States and elsewhere? Even if a company’s management believes some of the laws, domestic and foreign, are misguided, just plain wrong, or counter to its notion of fair competition?

For executives in public corporations and privately-held companies, these are basic questions—in their own ways as basic as “Why are we in business?” But beyond fiduciary and legal requirements, do corporations, companies, and business partnerships have social responsibilities? That question, too, is—or should be—a basic question. Does a company have a responsibility to be a moral force, a moral leader, a moral teacher? To whom? For whom? In what context?

At the present moment do corporate executives have a responsibility to take moral sides in the conflicts in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, and in Africa? Should their companies participate commercially in good wars and not in those that are bad? Or in any war?

Please take more than a moment to consider these questions.


This is another of a series of occasional essay by John S. McClenahen, an award-winning writer and photographer who retired from IndustryWeek as a senior editor in 2006.

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