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'Moral business practices' need not be an oxymoron

What do the battles over gun policy and the revelations about Walmart’s global bribery have in common?

What do the battles over gun policy and the revelations about Walmart’s global bribery have in common? It isn't just the fact that Walmart sells assault weapons.

As we reflect on another year gone by, both lead us back to a long-overdue conversation about the ethics of capitalism-as-practiced, as opposed to our ideals about free enterprise. While the supratext of the gun debate is public safety, a strong subtext is money—the money spent on political lobbying and on weapons themselves. On the selfsame day that families in Newtown, Connecticut, listened to bells ring for their dead children, the National Rifle Association mounted a press conference that had the feel of a desperate last stand. Among Americans debating gun laws, some no doubt feel that selling guns is never a honest business.

But I suspect many more believe that some guns and usages (like hunting and sport shooting) are fine, but casually selling weapons best suited to rapid-fire human slaughter is not. Teasing out that distinction is critical to the ongoing conversation over gun laws. The more we can make moral distinctions between types of gun usage, the more likely that gun owners themselves will become advocates for wise legislation, and for regulating the highly profitable weapons and rounds most suited for massacres.

Likewise, most Americans embrace the capitalism of entrepreneurship and fair enterprise. But shouldn’t we be disgusted when we find companies millions rely on, like Walmart, are willing to use ruthless and illegal tactics to build their empire? The fact that Walmart bribed officials in India, Brazil, and Mexico (where the company destroyed antiquities in the process of building without a permit) should give pause to any person or institution investing in their highly profitable stock. Their actions should be part of the moral calculus not only for company chiefs but investors as well. For that matter, how should American consumers and investors respond to Apple’s labor practices, particularly in China? It’s not easy to hold companies accountable when we venerate profitability above all else. Our acquisitive society places wealth on a pedestal, no matter where it comes from.

I'm not saying that wealth is bad. That simple assumption is just as flawed as saying wealth acquisition by any means is good. In the framing of the 1% vs. the 99%, the wealthy are assumed to be mean-spirited and devious. In Mitt Romney’s framing of the 47%, nearly half of the country was painted as parasitic. But how do military families on food stamps or uber-philanthropists like Chuck Feeney, who earned and gave away 7.5 billion dollars and now has a net worth of $2 million, fit into those rubrics? Why is it so hard for us to decouple earnings and net worth from what you do with money, your social impact? (It’s telling that the Bible verse “For the love of money is the root of all evil” often gets boiled down to a simple equation of evil with money itself, rather than how we lust for it or use it.)

Both secular and religious texts offer guidance as we seek to knit together American ambition—our focus on striving, winning, earning—with community-minded values. The Council for Secular Humanism states, “We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility.” The Buddhist concept of “right livelihood” refers to aligning your ethical beliefs and financial enterprises so you aid others as you earn. 18th-century Christian theologian John Wesley wrote, "There is no holiness but social holiness,” how we treat each other on a daily level and in society. The Talmud says men and women will be judged by the question “Did you conduct your business affairs with integrity?” And in Islam, the Prophet Muhammad said: “The truthful and trustworthy businessman will be in the company of Prophets, saints and martyrs on the Day of Judgment.”

In a pluralistic society like the United States, moral issues have so often been used to divide. But at a time like this, when the nation is uncertain and hurting, how can we avoid the challenge of ethical thinking? By seeking shared moral ground on questions of business practices, we can return to an unironic sense of America as a land of opportunity, and begin again to live the dreams we have for ourselves and our nation.

Farai Chideya is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University's Journalism Institute and author of Don't Believe the HypeThe Color of Our Future and Trust: Reaching the 100 Million Missing Voters. She blogs regularly at She was a guest on Saturday's MHP; see part of her contribution below.