The important contribution of Christian ethics to the business world was discussed at a recent conference and book launch on ‘Quaker Capitalism’.
The ‘Quaker Capitalism – Lessons for Today’ conference in November focused on the historic example of Quakers who, at the time, regarded the Bible as their supreme authority and for whom values were central to business.
It accompanied the launch of a book of the same name by Richard Turnbull, Director of the group who organised the conference – the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics (CEME).
History and values
CEME was established to promote ethics in business, “drawing upon the history and values of the Judeo-Christian tradition”.
Speakers included Deborah Cadbury, descendant of the Birmingham chocolatiers. She spoke of the ethical framework which helped to establish the famous brand.
A number of key players in the business world attended, including Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Mr Turnbull’s book draws lessons from the historic influence of the Quakers in business, a group to whom “we owe a great deal in the development of both banking and manufacturing industry”.
The strong respect they attracted stemmed from their honesty and value driven approach to business.
Turnbull gives the example of ‘fixed pricing’ at a time when, “it was usual to haggle over the price of everything”.
“For many ordinary folk”, Turnbull continued, “this led to great uncertainty as well as the danger of unequal or unfair dealings”.
The Quakers operated on a system of values derived from the Bible.
It was their “emphasis on truth”, he argues, that “led them to be pioneers of fixed pricing”.
Centrality of Scripture
Although subsequent Quaker teaching is known for its emphasis on ‘inner light’, at their ‘Yearly Meeting’ in 1829, the authority of Scripture was clearly asserted.
Turnbull writes that “from the point of view of the Quaker in business, the essential moral code for life and work in a fallen world derived from both the revealed norms in Scripture and an experiential appropriation of that code to real life”.
A number of famous brands were set up by Quaker families, of which perhaps Cadbury and Rowntree are the best known.
Speaking at the conference, Deborah Cadbury, who has commented extensively on the family business, stressed some of their original ethics.
The company operated on the basis that wealth creation simply for personal gain is shameful, extravagant debt must be avoided and each individual should be treated fairly.
The company’s concern for the common good also extended to their workers in a way that had never been seen before.
For example, Cadbury founded Bournville (a village for their workers), provided health care, a canteen and support for the blind.
Turnbull writes: “Their vision saw the business as an extension of the family and hence the responsibilities of family extended to the workforce.”
He adds that the Quakers stood out “as compassionate employers with a genuine concern for their workforces, fed in substantial part by the basic Christian tenets of their belief”.
Lessons for today
In reminding us of the Quaker’s example, Turnbull lays down the basis for a modern adaptation of their values.
The final chapter of his book, titled ‘Lessons for Today’, expresses the heightened need for ethics in the market place in a culture where trust in business is low.
According to Turnbull, the “Quakers sought to develop business practices and models that reflected a moral passion for honesty and integrity”.
Great deal to learn
Turnbull acknowledges that the “Quakers cannot simply be copied or replicated today in a very different economic and social content.”
However, he believes that our experience since the 2008 financial crash “does at least suggest that we have a great deal to learn”.
The continuing relevance of ethics in business was developed by the other speakers at the conference.
Mark Austen, Chairman of leading insurance company, Liverpool Victoria, and Colin Mayer, Professor of Management Studies at Oxford University, were both clear on the challenge for today.
They spoke of the difficulty of operating with long-term values in a culture where short-term share holder value is key.
Mayer stressed that the Government’s response to a loss of trust in business has been more regulation but this approach is no substitute for ethics.
Shareholders, according to Mayer, should not be the guiding interest in a business because their limited liability encourages a move away from ethics.
He said that we have lost the notion of objectives and values other than financial profit.
The Quakers recognised that they were stewards of all that God had given them, including the welfare of their employees and society in general.
Businesses today, Austen and Mayer agreed, must have a broader purpose than profit. Whether corporations have a good or a bad impact largely depends on their moral fibre.
In his book Mr Turnbull concludes: “Thank God for the Quakers, their business leadership and the lessons they teach us today.”