Book Review: Doing Virtuous Business

This book is Theodore Roosevelt Malloch’s argument that capitalism is most successful when it is conducted in a virtuous way. Virtuous enterprise, according to Malloch, both makes the world a better place and makes businesses more successful (7). In fact, companies that pursue profit to the detriment of all else are unhealthy. He states, “I strongly believe that profit-only companies are, in fact, parasitic, and that they damage the economy at large with their limited and self-focused view of their role in the marketplace” (2). In addition to the well-known concept of social capital, Malloch says there is something called “spiritual capital” which those who conduct business from a faith-based perspective possess. Like any other kind of capital, it can be renewed or drawn down over time. Spiritual capital is renewed through the exercise of virtue, and he expounds on several such virtues: leadership, courage, patience, perseverance, discipline, justice, forgiveness, compassion, humility and gratitude. Practicing these virtues renews spiritual capital, and the growth of spiritual capital leads to greater success than would otherwise be achieved.

I must admit that I was wary when I first began to read this book. I have read too many uncritical dismissals of capitalism as well as too many uncritical endorsements of it, and I had my suspicions that this book might fall into the latter category. As I read, however, I was glad that Malloch’s emphasis was on a classical list of virtues, rather than what has been called “the virtue of selfishness.” If anything, I wish that Malloch had spent even more time unpacking what it would mean for businesses to operate while pursuing virtue. He calls attention to several individuals and companies as exemplars of particular virtues, but I am still skeptical about whether these companies (especially Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods, which are both mentioned in the book) are actually operating under a broad list of virtues rather than just one or two.

Early in my reading, I wondered whether Malloch had a purely instrumental view of virtue. That is, his emphasis on the success that doing virtuous business brings made me wonder whether he saw virtue as simply a tool to achieve the greater goal of success. He does address this objection, and I will quote him: “The examples I have given concern sincerely religious people whose faith has helped them in their business and who have been rewarded for their virtues. This is no the justification for their faith, nor has it been their motive. On the contrary, it is precisely because faith motivates them to other and higher goals, turning their minds away from the thought of profit, that they have been able to unleash, in themselves and others, the store of spiritual capital that has brought profit as one of its first effects” (118). In other words, Malloch is saying that in his examples, companies pursue virtue and experience profit as a byproduct. This is wonderful for the companies Malloch uses as examples, but I’m not sure whether Malloch’s emphasis on the close link between virtue and success is the best way to encourage companies to act more virtuously. It was good to see Malloch say, in telling the story of Malcolm Pearson (141-144), that doing business virtuously can lead to a lack of success, at least in the short term. I wish that he had taken more account of situations such as Pearson’s in his argument throughout the book, as there were times when it seemed he was saying the virtuous company could always have its cake and eat it too.

This book is valuable insofar as it explores the role of virtue in doing business. Unfortunately, I think that it only scratched the surface.

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