On Radio 4 recently, Clifford Longley, the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent, quoted Bob Diamond’s notorious comment that business culture was ‘how people behave when no one’s watching’.
Longley went on to draw the distinction between the self-interest that governs so much of society today and the Aristotelian version of ’how people behave when no one’s watching’, which is to say according to the four cardinal virtues: justice, prudence, temperance and courage.
These were what ancient Athenians required, Aristotle believed, in order for democratic society to function. Any business culture based on these precepts would similarly strive to serve the common good, not the individual interest, Longley suggested, adding Thomas Aquinas’s trinity of faith, hope and charity for good measure. Could business culture be humanised by adopting all these virtues rather than being driven by profit and the maximisation of shareholder value? Many people now think it has no alternative, he concluded.
I would count myself among those many. But it was the word humanised at which I really pricked up my ears – because it seems in one sense absurd that an activity such as business, so central to our human existence, should be in need of humanising. And yet we all know what he means.
There are many different lenses through which to view the business world. Mine is the lens of language and storytelling. What do these seven virtues mean when framed in that particular way? I think they mean finding a language that is respectful of humanity, not disregarding of it. They mean telling stories that contain authentic human truths, not self-serving corporate constructs. All of which, my experience tells me, is perfectly possible and eminently desirable from every point of view.
Aristotle would almost certainly have journeyed to Olympia to watch the games of his day. He would doubtless have found his virtues embodied in the behaviour of the contestants and the spirit of the games themselves. And were he to have travelled forward in time to attend ours, although he might have found the emotion displayed by contestants, commentators and spectators excessive, he would at least have recognised it as something profoundly human, flowing from people for whom his virtues are not entirely alien. But he would surely have been baffled, perhaps even repulsed, by business, even though it shares with the games that most basic human ambition to strive and overcome and achieve.
Everywhere we turn during these electrifying two weeks we hear voices that are full of passion and conviction, stories rich with every experience from struggle and disappointment to glorious crowning success. These voices and stories enliven and connect us. Business should be listening to them.