On Fat Tuesday, I gave a talk titled, “Business as a Force for Good.” A gentleman from the back haltingly raised a question, “What would you do when all your competitors cheat?”
This is a common inquiry. People want to do good, but they are subjected to an increasingly lax moral environment where cheating not only takes place but seems to become more routine.
Studies on academic integrity report rampant cheating across campuses with and without honor codes; people list degrees they have not earned; bank personnel create false accounts; parents bribe academic counselors and admission officials; car companies fudge test data; drug companies overcharge and oversell; politicians blatantly lie; even Church leaders pen anonymous articles with damaging accusations.
Goodness and integrity — to whom do these matter?
First, it matters to the people relying on the products and services an organization provides. We know so little about what we buy, whether it be food, car repair, plumbing services, health care or investments that we rely on an implicit contract of truthfulness and integrity.
Regulation and consumer protection provide some guardrails, but these are seldom high enough or sufficiently comprehensive to prevent all misbehavior. Competitors who cheat may gain a one-time advantage, but not a position of sustainable success.
I do believe that any enterprise that stands behind its offerings and charges a reasonable price delivers not only a product, but peace of mind to the customer who senses she is in the hands of good people who care.
Second, integrity matters to society. What would our lives together as a human community be like if we give up on integrity as the general presumption? How would we retain the goodwill, mutual amity and collaboration needed in the most basic of daily interactions?
What answer would you give to another student who posed this challenge: “Dean Woo, these speakers who preached ethical behavior, did they really behave that way?”
Answers given in words do not matter. People will compose answers that constitute profound perceptions of how the world really works by the behaviors they observe.
As they watch us, will they conclude that “everyone cheats” is a gross mischaracterization, because they have seen otherwise? Or will they harden into cynics who either compromise or withdraw?
Third, our integrity should matter most to us. There is no hiding from God: God is either sovereign in our lives or not. As Jesus taught, we need to be clear on what belongs to God and what belongs to the world. I know of people who get to this point, so filled with the presence of God that they could not help but do the right things.
Dr. Li Wenliang, who first discussed the emergence of the Wuhan virus with his colleagues, was censored and then died of the disease. A poem written in memory of him indicates that he did not want to be a hero. He was deeply sad to leave his parents and his wife, who is pregnant with their second child. He also was worried about the mortgage to be paid. The poem states that his sense of loyalty, duty and care took over:
“I cannot just see this unknown virus/ Hurting my peers/ And so many innocent people.”
It’s thought that Dr. Wenliang was a “seeker of the faith.” The poem’s ending proclaimed:
“’I have fought the good fight./ And I have finished the race./ I have kept the faith./ Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness.’ (2 Tim 4:7)”
Editor’s note: Woo’s talk, “Business as a Force for Good,” was the 2020 Servus Omnium lecture at the University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne.
Woo is distinguished president’s fellow for global development at Purdue University and served as the CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services from 2012 to 2016.
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