Is Business the Last Stand Against Moral Chaos?

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By Professor Leon van Vuuren

On 13 March 2022, Ed Stoddard – a team member of the Daily Maverick – commented on a recent World Bank report that listed South Africa as the most unequal country in the world. The gist of the World Bank’s finding about this country is that “Based on Gini coefficients of consumption (or income) per capita, South Africa, the largest country in the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), is the most unequal country in the world, ranking first among 164 countries in the World Bank’s global poverty database.”

The 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International (TI) published in January 2022 lists South Africa in 70th place among 180 countries. This statistic lists us as precariously close to being ranked with countries where corruption is endemic and pervasive. Endemic corruption could mean that eventually only the corrupt will do business, and that this business will be done with others who are also corrupt. The World Bank and TI reports should, therefore, be causes of major concern. We are – in essence – morally fragile as a country, and in dire need of reform.

From where could our moral help come should we seek to build a morally-sustainable society?
Should we turn to government to obtain moral direction, we get a lot of hot air and insignificant ethical role-modelling. Blind loyalty and astute politics override justice and fairness as primary societal values.

With an unemployment rate of at least 34% the risk of reaching a state of irreversible moral decay is nigh. Add to that the plight of the substantial number of single parent and even no-parent households. Simply put, the country is in a psyche of survival ethics. Bread today; ethics tomorrow.

Similarly, the education system cannot be relied on as being facilitative to moral development and growth. Energy spent on teaching the absolute basics and teachers’ competence that is often in doubt, leaves little room, willingness, and skills with which to stimulate moral reasoning.

Where does that leave business (“business” being an umbrella term for public and private sector organisations and state-owned entities)? Do business organisations have a role – and possibly even an obligation – to positively influence the ethics of society? And what about non-profit organisations, such as professional associations, that should be the obvious ambassadors of the ethics cause? Of course, there are also organisations for which fighting the good fight is the reason for their existence. Entities such as OUTA, Corruption Watch, and GGA (Good Governance Africa) take a firm stand that has resulted in many success stories. Organisations such as these are, however, few and far between.

Can business play a role in halting moral decay? Can business be the last stand? The Edelman Trust Barometer of 2021 shows that – compared to government, the media, and NGOs – business organisations are the only institutions that are both trusted (a positive score) and perceived as competent (somewhat above average) by the public. We can take much from this. The Barometer shows that there is a relatively solid base from which business can operate.

Business organisations seldom ponder on their potential ethical influence on society. Many members of organisations engage with various stakeholders on a daily basis. Primary stakeholders such as employees, customers, suppliers, communities, regulatory entities, shareholders, and environmental protection agencies affect organisations; and are similarly affected by organisations. These relationships all have an ethical dimension of sorts that could lead to trust.

To engender trustful relationships, business leaders should firstly examine the way that they look at the world. One of the very reasons for inequality and poverty is that leadership look after themselves and their shareholders first. This often causes harm to others and to society. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

There is a tendency to perceive ‘business’ as referring to the private sector only. Keep in mind that 27 000 employees in the public sector earn more that one million Rand annually. This sector must therefore be logically assumed to be a major contributor to real inequality, as well as the inequality perceived by the jobless and poor. The public sector is not exempt from influencing the morality of society. After all, they exist to serve the country and its citizens.

As a most basic reform initiative, business organisations should look inwards and clean up their own acts. If they do not to this, they will be perceived as looking down upon others from the lofty heights of their moral high grounds instead of fulfilling their responsibility of contributing to the building of a country with a stronger moral compass than currently evidenced.

A simple first step is to question how to best utilise the power business organisations could potentially wield. Is this power viewed by others as arrogant and selfish? If there is even a hint of this perception, organisations should consider the respect that they could earn through humility. To earn respect in this way, they should be cognisant of what they spend their money on. There is no humility (and thus, no respect) if billions are spent on gleaming headquarter buildings soon after a spate of retrenchments.

Practically, the point of departure should be to build on existing successes by designing and implementing concerted and structured collective action efforts with civil society, professions, and corruption watchdogs to promote ethical behaviour. Business, due to sheer size, power, and omnipresence should take the lead in this regard.

Many organisations are highly successful at cultivating a health and safety culture and thus minimising work-related deaths and injuries. Why can the same logic not apply to building strong ethical cultures? Organisations with strong ethical cultures can be hugely influential in contributing to societal ethics. For example, should the power vested in organisations have an ethical foundation, they have a right to insist on ethical behaviour by their suppliers, among others.

Ethical cultures are marked by the moral courage to assertively do business only with likeminded stakeholders. Organisations with such mindsets promote ethical behaviour and deal with those that transgress swiftly, decisively, transparently, and consistently. Achieving such cultures are easier that one may think – the majority of people and organisations are inherently good. There is often little convincing required.

The late Thembekile Kimi Makwetu (who served as Auditor-General of South Africa and championed ethical organisational culture not only in the public sector, but across all organisations in South Africa) uttered these words of encouragement: “For me to live ethically, is to recognise as a business that you are part of an integrated whole. There is no other option but to live ethically because it gives you an opportunity to sustain the achievements of what the business wants to do. A business is not there purely to make money for those who own it today, but it is also one of the institutions and instruments in a society that is mobilised and organised to create a life for citizens to come.”

It is clear that moral revival will not happen in a single month, year, or decade. It is not too late to start, though. Business organisations should realise that they may collectively be the last stand against unethical behaviour and further moral decay by aspiring to contribute to an ethical and thus sustainable society.



Prof. Leon van Vuuren is an Executive Director: Business and
Professional Ethics at The Ethics Institute. He holds a Doctorate of
Industrial Psychology from the University of Johannesburg.