Spreading Flourishing Around

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Last week I spent a day in Cleveland with my colleagues on our spirituality in business project. Our collective thinking is being publishing very soon as Flourishing Enterprise: The New Spirit of Business. It has the same editor and publisher, Stanford University Press as my last book. It continues the effort to put the ideas in my books into play. The arguments here are closely tied to those in Flourishing.With this book, I seem to have found a magic formula for getting one’s ideas into print. I wrote the first one one, Sustainability by Design, my own. Then Andy Hoffman and I co-authored, Flourishing, and now I have joined eight co-authors for this latest work.

A flourishing enterprise is one in which the individuals are flourishing and, as a result, create a organizational system from which flourishing can emerge and flow out into the world. Our group meets under the auspices of the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value at the Weatherhead School of Management. One of the book’s premises is that spiritual practices induce a sense of connectedness that is critical to caring, which in turn creates the authentic human Being essential to flourishing. My role was largely in developing the core philosophy. Others on the team provided access to the way spirituality was being practiced in businesses and other organizations. One of the key features of the book is a number of chapters on these practices.

The Fowler Center has a motto and vision of business as “an agent of world benefit.” This carries it far from Milton Friedman’s notion that “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” Where this does go is yet a work-in-progress. The neo-classical measure of well-being as material wealth remains at the center of business strategy. Employees are treated largely as commodities in a competitive labor market, Manager’s compensation is set to retain key personnel in such a competitive setting. As long as this is the case, it is difficult to locate the source of world benefit. One possibility is to direct part of the profits to alleviate poverty here in the US and abroad. I offer a couple of alternates in this post.

Manfred Max Neef, a Chilean economist whom I have often written about, argues that we have the wrong conception of poverty. We should be speaking of poverties as plural, as domains in which people lack the ability to flourish. His notions closely parallel those of Amartya Sen, the Nobelist Economist, who argues that the purpose of an economy should be to provide the capabilities for a flourishing existence. The kind of capabilities he considers are very close to the categories of the poverties of Max Neef. I speak similarly when I talk about care as central to flourishing, and break it down into a set of distinct practices. All three of us see flourishing as a condition that becomes possible when a person possesses the means to take care of the essential domains of human existence.

Sen is silent about the specifics of these categories, but both Max Neef and I are explicit. We include categories like subsistence, protection, education, participation, membership, authenticity or self expression, and others. Few, if any, of these categories can be satisfied without means of some sort. Direct relationships, without intermediating technology, work in many cases, but, in general, people need means provided by the market and from the institutional structures that constitute the society in which they live. They need these means to enable them to care. Care is not just a mental attitude, an intention. It entails actions that rests on such an attitude. When people live with the poverties of Max Neef or without the capabilities of Sen, they cannot flourish. Simply raising their income cannot provide the same benefits as explicitly enabling them to care.

So, here is an opportunity for business to become a real agent of world benefit. Build businesses around enabling people to care, not merely to satisfy their needs. A very simple idea, but harder to put into practice. Care is something fundamental to human existence and to flourishing. Need is socially constructed and serves those who provide the means to satisfy it. While I may use “satisfy” both in referring to need and to care, the two meanings are very different. Poverties are identified by an entirely different process than is “need.”

Some businesses already do enable care, but rarely advertise themselves as such. Care is never about a comparison with societal norms; it is only about how one is being-in-the-world. That surely depends on how the world offers possibility, but it is an individual function. The institution that calls itself business can move toward a flourishing world in several ways. It can transform its mission from (creating and) satisfying need to enabling people to care. It can focus its innovation power on identifying new means to exercise care. Much of the vaunted social media enable people to communicate very easily, to share their lives with others. Sharing one’s life is not a caring act, however, especially when done at a distance. Imagine a research project to develop a technology to build and exercise empathy, a capability necessary to care. Please “like” this or that, a primary feature of many of the social media, is fundamentally narcissistic, the opposite of caring.

There’s plenty of money to be made in offering “enabling” product and services. If the Fowler Center wants to see its vision come to be, maybe it should try to convince its home, The Weatherhead School of Management, to eliminate its present Marketing courses, and replace them and the research on which they are based with a grounding in Sen, Max Neef and even me.

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