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Redefining Virtue in Business

Looking back to ancient texts can redefine how we do business going forward.

Designed for Good finds its audience among those who take seriously their role to educate students' character, intellect, and sentiments. Brown, who serves as an ethics and economics professor at Asbury University, has given a gift to the many who have the privilege of teaching ethics by offering a unique perspective on the intersection of virtue ethics and the Christian faith. Using Aristotelian language and biblical texts, he aims to rediscover the language of virtue as it applies to business ethics, highlighting the shortcomings of current business ethics and the predominance of utilitarian thought. This work draws us back to a richer conception of good, focused on original design. It moves the traditional ethical thought permeating business schools beyond consequentialist tendencies and into the world of “human being complete.”

Using a professor’s bank of examples, Brown describes how modern ethical decision-making has lost its way through a hyper focus on efficiency, equity, and enforceability. He suggests the impetus behind such flawed analysis is classical economic thought, with its focus on outcomes, fairness, and individual rights; maximization becomes the goal of good living. This reasoning can lead to skewed moral decisions, but Brown suggests it has also created a meta-ethic of preference: The right to pursue our desires as the ultimate good. This new ethic takes us down a path where self-reliance is confused for courage; where relationships are pursued for outcomes; where value is defined by a price tag; and the mantra of the hour is, “Be true to yourself.” In short, to be rational is to be driven by unbridled desire.

As Brown argues, this reasoning assumes our desires are good; it feeds the glorification of self; it lacks any thought of ultimate design or intended purpose; and – most dangerous – our conception of God becomes a matter of personal preference. Our hearts curve in on themselves. This is where virtue and Scripture enter the scene. Given the Fall, we have a limited capacity to desire good; therefore, moral education must include an education of the sentiments and a proper ordering of our love. This journey begins with a right understanding of God, which requires us to empty ourselves. Brown states that the true question – “Who is Jesus Christ?” – is at the very center of our moral decision-making and development.

Understanding that the pursuit of virtue is the pursuit of character, Brown uses Micah 6:8 to weave virtue ethics into the pursuit of Christ. Justice, mercy, and humility are not merely virtues – they are the character of Christ. The pursuit of these is the pursuit of good. Practicing spiritual disciplines can feel like the development of habits, but the motivation and ability to sustain this pursuit requires a relationship with God. This is the fundamental point of diversion for virtue and Christianity. This is also the primary fallacy of preference ethics. We cannot be self-sufficient, and we cannot will our way to the good life of virtue – we simply need a Savior.

Brown ends his book with a question, both for the follower and the not-yet-follower of Christ: “Why should I be moral?” This is a question of motivation. In many seasons of life, pursuing a life of virtue can be economically unprofitable. Therefore, Brown suggests, our motivation must come from the fact that God is good and has designed us for good works. When our desires conform to his, we become the best versions of ourselves.

Two parts of this work stand out. First is the argument that utilitarianism has led to a meta-ethic of preference. Understanding this meta-ethic’s pervasiveness brings into sharper focus the role of Christian business faculty. The teaching of ethics is not a neutral exercise. Rather, in saying that we are espousing the good life, we are also fighting against the natural sentiments of autonomy, choice, and self-sufficiency, which are difficult to separate from accepted business practice. Without proper perspective, the marketplace can be detrimental to one’s character formation. 

Second are the everyday examples to enliven classroom conversation. Instead of being a book that offers moral dilemmas with obvious answers, this volume offers examples that are thought-provoking, nuanced, and helpful in articulating the essence of virtue ethics. With the benefit of the end-of-chapter questions, Brown gives a gift to those of us who teach business ethics.  

Overall, this book is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read and a valuable contribution to the field of Christian business ethics. I would strongly recommend it to Christian business faculty, first as a means of crafting meaningful classroom objectives and second as a resource to put into students' hands to frame classroom discussion. In reading this, I am reminded of Hebrews 5:14: “But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” Brown’s contribution articulates those key links between the practice and training of the senses (virtue), which lead to the solid food and maturity of faith in Christ.

Josh Sauerwein is assistant professor of accounting at George Fox University in Newburg, Oregon.

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