Conscience Is Key To Business, But Only The ‘Correct’ Kind
Religion & Liberty Online

Conscience Is Key To Business, But Only The ‘Correct’ Kind

Business, we are told, is supposed to have a conscience to survive. For instance, Chad Brooks at Fox Business says that businesses have to be “socially conscience” in order to attract customers:

Young consumers consider social responsibility most when shelling out big bucks for products such as automobiles, computers, consumer electronics and jewelry, the study found. Specifically, more than 40 percent of consumers under 30 consider social issues when buying a big-ticket item, compared to just 34 percent who factor in those issues when buying everyday items, like gasoline and food.

Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont-based ice cream producers, became known not only for “Chubby Hubby” and “Cherry Garcia” ice cream, but their devotion to the “triple bottom line” — profits, people and planet. MBA students from the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business set out to study a variety of businesses that had one thing in common:

No MBA student would confuse a women’s hospital, a municipal vehicle fleet, and a sustainability nonprofit for having much in common—not in mission, not in deeds, and not in challenges. After all, how do hydraulic lifts and socket wrenches relate to anesthesia and O.R. scrubs?

Sharp distinctions aside, these organizations share a universal truth: they each serve stakeholders who, however different, demand that their organizations act in an ethical, principled manner; in other words, that they practice corporate social responsibility (CSR).

That’s right: businesses with a conscience have their own acronym: CSR or corporate social responsibility. Demand is high for business to bring values into the work they do.

Unless those values are CSR but not PC.

Mary Ann Glendon, a professor at Harvard Law School, says businesses should have the ability to act with conscience, despite the fact that some businesses are currently fighting the federal government to do just that:

But whether a for-profit business should have legal protection for its freedom of conscience is a hotly disputed issue currently before the Supreme Court.

The court has announced that it will grapple with this question in the new year when it hears a case concerning the objections of the Green family, who own the Hobby Lobby and Mardel Christian bookstore businesses, to the Affordable Care Act’s command that they include the so-called “morning-after pill” in their employee health benefit plans. The Greens, who are represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (where I serve on the board of directors), have no conscientious objection to paying for most forms of contraceptives, but they do object on religious grounds to paying for drugs and devices that the government says may prevent implantation of a fertilized human egg. In the Greens’ view, this is an abortion, and it would be wrong for them to help it happen.

The question before the Supreme Court is whether the Greens and their businesses can even raise a religious moral objection to paying for these drugs and devices. The federal government says no: In its view, for-profit businesses do not have consciences and thus cannot engage in the religious exercise of making a conscientious objection. At the core of the Hobby Lobby case is the idea that the Greens should be able to operate their own private family business according to their own deeply held convictions. At the core of the government’s case is the idea that the government itself is the only arbiter of conscience rights.

Glendon says we are “outraged” when we see a business acting immorally (think Enron). We want BP to not only be held responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf, but they should clean up their mess. We are thrilled that jewelers don’t carry “blood diamonds.” So why should Hobby Lobby or Conestoga Wood or Autocam be treated differently in the eyes of the law?

The simple truth is that if we want businesses, incorporated or not, to be responsible for their actions, they must be treated as having some moral agency. And with moral agency and accountability must go the freedom to act in accordance with conscience. If we want the Greens’ businesses and other businesses like them to act conscientiously, they must have the freedom to follow their consciences. Indeed, it is probably with respect to our largest corporations that a fostering of moral and social conscience is most needed. The Supreme Court should take the opportunity to confirm that businesses can and should have consciences.

Read “Free businesses to act with conscience” at The Boston Globe.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.