Is it time for spirituality in business?

Photo credit:   swisscan

January 25, 2012 // By: David Boyle

The new economics is a kind of journey, asserting, putting into practice, dealing with the side-effects and moving on – and nowhere more than in the business of asserting that spirituality is also an economic concept.

That was one of those issues which united the diverse group of people who launched nef in 1986 – that simply asserting that people brought their values to their buying behaviour was not enough. Those values derived from somewhere. They weren’t just a peculiar blip among people looking for bargains.  They came from people’s human aspirations at their highest.

That turned out to be hugely important. The ethical investment sector was emerging at the same time, and the ethical economy – judged now to be worth £46 billion a year in the UK – has broken the narrow old idea that economic efficiency was just about price.

Ethics was the straw that broke the camel’s back of old-style Thatcherism.

Of course economists have always recognised that their concept of ‘utility’ was more complex than price, but policy-makers relying on a bowlderised version of the oldest, most reductionist economics there is, usually forget this.

Hence the problems of the world.

The new economics asserts – despite Dawkins and his band of positivists – that economics simply doesn’t reflect the real world unless it recognises that human aspirations are often higher than just getting the lowest price. That means spirituality, not just ethics.

We asserted the importance of values, and ethics in the 1980s, and then along came the whole array of indicators, to review every corporate entity and every product – and the business of ethics was handed over by companies to their accounting departments with a sigh of relief.

A whole worldwide industry grew up around these standards and reporting initiatives. Somehow we need to rescue the concept of business ethics from itself. 

Luckily, along comes a new collection of essays called the Palgrave Handbook of Spirituality and Businessedited by the Dutch philosopher Luk Bouckaert and the Hungarian business academic Laszlo Zolnai.

I have to declare an interest, there is an essay by me in it about authenticity, trying to protect the concept from the Harvard Business School, but that’s another story.

The Palgrave Handbook is outrageously expensive, but if the publishers want to keep it to themselves, that’s their affair. It asks the crucial question: Do we need another kind of business ethics?

The answer is emphatically yes. It is time to claw back the idea of business spirituality from the standards industry and think afresh about what kind of businesses can genuinely create shape the world we want to live in.

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