Reflections on a Battle of Ideas

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Yesterday, I spoke in a debate sponsored by PwC and The Institute of Ideas. The question was whether an over-eagerness to “do the right thing” was actually contributing to growing mis-trust in businesses’ true motives?

In summarising, I made three points:

First, that “Doing The Right Thing” cannot be about absolutes. It is about choices. Those choices are deeply personal and behavioural. As citizens, we all have the power to act and to drive change. We need to unlock and unleash our collective power – in the workplace, at the till point and in the voting booth – to hold others accountable for their actions. We no longer need to be passive acceptors of hierarchies, elites or the status quo.

Second, as the debate brought to life, the age-old tension between Hayek, Friedman and Marx is still alive & kicking and, for many, un-resolved. I am surprised that there are still those who cling to the maxim of profit maximisation (bad) over profit optimisation (preferable) but, as I tweeted at the time, I sat one chair away from what appeared to be the ghost of Milton Friedman. My own view is that profit and purpose are compatible. We do not need to make it a binary choice.

Third, “doing the right thing” includes being able to ask the right questions. Not asking the right questions about the ambitions of business – and simply accepting the Friedman point that the social responsibility of business is to maximise profit – seems lazy, crazy and anachronistic. Invoking the spirit of the classical Greeks, the polis was famously created to protect and nurture the flourishing and wellbeing of all its citizens, not for the pursuit of profit and power by a lonely elite.

Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas, and I profoundly disagree on many things (as she tweeted after the debate). She was kind, however, in acknowledging my challenge to prevailing orthodoxies. We can never “do the right thing” if we are afraid to ask the right questions – even the uncomfortable ones.

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