Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Spiritual Virtues and Corporate Values

Religions have always promulgated lists of virtue; commercial companies do the same with their statements of Corporate Values. How do they compare?

Wikipedia enumerates many sets of virtues, and lists more than a hundred recognized in Western culture alone. The following core spiritual virtues occur in most traditions, East and West: loving-kindness, humility, and diligence.

The values statements of American companies are a rag-tag bag of buzzwords [see note below]. A few corporate values seem to be the core of what they want of their employees: integrity, excellence, and teamwork.

(Finding patterns in such lists is like seeing faces in clouds: any grouping is subjective and arbitrary. However, because of our shared physiology and culture – brain structure and social structure –observers will agree more often than one might expect given the subject’s complexity and ambiguity. Of course, even agreed patterns may not “really” exist, since humans are such pattern-finding paragons that they see meaning where there is none.)

There little overlap between the core spiritual virtues and the core corporate values. Companies prize the assertion of ego in the service of the group (cf. excellence, teamwork) whereas spiritual traditions esteem renouncing the self, and serving all equally (cf. loving-kindness, humility).

This contrast characterizes not just corporate life, or even Western values in general, but is a distinction between everyday life and most spiritual paths. Two of my friends who have engaged in meditation – an artist and an entrepreneur, respectively – have each found themselves struggling to resolve the tension between renouncing the ego and making their way in the world.

Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation tells the story the Axial Age, that pivotal period from about 900 to 200 BCE when many great religious traditions came into being: Confucianism and Daoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece. She sums up their common insight [Ch. 10, p.391]:
Regardless of their theological “beliefs” – which, as we have seen, did not much concern the sages – they all concluded that if people made a disciplined effort to reeducate themselves, they would experience an enhancement of their humanity. In one way or another, their programs were designed to eradicate the egotism that is largely responsible for our violence, and promoted the empathic spirituality of the Golden Rule.
It is difficult to reconcile the spiritual path with workaday reality. Armstrong describes the Mahabharata, which emerged in the oral tradition around 500 BCE, as a prototypical struggle with this dilemma [pp. 306-13]. How could a warrior reconcile the ideal of not harming others with his duty and vocation to fight and kill in defense of his community? There is no answer; the Mahabharata is a tragic cycle of violence and betrayal that ends in nihilism.

On a small scale, the circle can be straightened, if not squared, by limiting one’s ambition and circumscribing one’s scope: there are caring vocations that will pay a living wage. Buddhists believe that householders can stay on the path by avoiding certain livelihoods. Becoming a monastic is a high price to pay for attaining higher virtue – but at least one will not be beholden to Mammon or Caesar. Unless one renounces the lay life, the struggle between spiritual virtues and ego-based values will continue, inside and outside the corporation.

--- Note ---

I did a Google search on the keywords corporate, values and statement, and looked at companies on the first results page. Firms examined include: Boeing, Copyright Clearance Center, HMR Tech, Home Depot, IBM, Marklund, Merck, Microsoft, and Whole Foods

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