“The Greater Good” versus Self-Interest for Profit

by | Feb 18, 2015

The notion that business should sacrifice its self-interest—profit—to some undefinable “collective good” is ludicrous.

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The public relations firm Edelman in its annual survey, Edelman Trust Barometer, has found that Canadians’ trust in business has dropped significantly, from 62% respondents saying that they trusted business in 2014, to 47% this year. This is a significant drop, especially given that 33,000 people were surveyed in 27 countries, and the overall level of trust in business by respondents worldwide was down only 2%, from 59% to 57%. Canadian respondents were not the only ones losing their trust in business; in Australia and Singapore survey respondents also indicated double-digit declines similar to that in Canada. You can read the National Post article on this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer here.

So what do results like this tell us? In my view, not an awful lot, because the survey’s methodology is not clear. We don’t know how the sample was drawn and whether the results are representative (on average, about 1,200 people were surveyed in each country), statistically significant, and what the margin of error was. We also don’t know how trust was defined and measured. The definition of trust on Edelman’s website does not shed much light on this: “Trust is a forward-facing metric of stakeholder expectation.” If the survey’s methods are valid, it merely confirms that the Canadian respondents’ view of business has grown even dimmer since last year, and that the majority of them want more government regulation of industry (because they trust government more than they do business).

The real gem of a finding was this: 53% of the Canadian respondents “believe that businesses ‘failed to contribute to the greater good,’ and instead act in their self-interest for profit,” according to the National Post article. The wording must be Edelman’s, where respondents are asked whether they agree with the statement or not, but still, it resonated with 53% of the respondents. So let’s examine this statement to understand the “non-trusters’” anti-business mentality.

What is “the greater good” and how is business supposed to contribute to it? And how does such contribution conflict with self-interested profit making? The term “greater good” is used to refer to the “good of society.” Since society consists of individuals, its good means the sum of the good of its individual members. And since individuals choose to value different things and place their values in different hierarchies, there is no way of “summing up” their “collective” good—and thus no way for anyone, including business, to contribute to it.

So what is the role of business in society, if the notion of contributing to some vague, undefinable “greater good” can be dismissed? Businesses create and trade material values: food, clothes, houses and apartment buildings, medicine, insurance policies, hair salon services, cell phones, computes, heating oil, fuel for our vehicles, bank loans—an endless range of goods and services on which our lives and well-being depends on. The creation and trade of material values, motivated by profit seeking, is the contribution of business to us for which we should be grateful. Thanks to business and division of labor that they make possible, we don’t have to live on self-sustaining farms, producing everything we consume by ourselves.

The notion that business should sacrifice its self-interest—profit—to some undefinable “collective good” is ludicrous. Such action would hinder the creation and trade of material values—the true role of business—on which our survival and flourishing depends. People like the 53% of the Canadian respondents to the Edelman survey (some 650 souls, assuming 1,200 respondents per country) want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want business to produce the material values that their lives depend on. At the same time, they want it to sacrifice some of the incentive of doing so, for the sake of the undefinable goal of “the greater good.”

There is no conflict between what is good for us (individuals in society) and the self-interested profit seeking by companies. Quite the contrary, they are in complete alignment. To quote William Watson, who in a recent column discusses the Edelman survey: “ … put me down as one of the 47% … who are happy Canadian businesses have been focusing on profit. That focus, in a competitive environment, is what has given me decent haircuts, good dental care, safe, wholesome food, efficient custody of my financial assets, and dozens, probably hundreds of other goods and services that make my life immeasurably better. Forgive me, but I regard that as a major contribution to the greater good.”

Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book. Visit her website at profitableandmoral.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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