Richard Turnbull: “Business Ethics and Catholic Social Thought” edited by Daniel K Finn

Daniel Finn holds chairs in both Economics and Theology at St John’s University and the College of St Benedict in Minnesota. He is, therefore, both a representative and exponent of the intellectual tradition within Roman Catholic thought that seeks to apply Christian thinking to economics and business.

Finn has brought together 12 authors to contribute, singly or jointly, to this volume of essays which seeks to explore the moral assessment of business from a Catholic perspective and to do so in a deeper way than the more usual debates around personal integrity or assessments of capitalism and socialism. He argues that such an approach leaves fundamental questions unanswered, although the actual content of those questions is not entirely clear. Nevertheless, this volume presents a series of essays which seeks to address the morality of business within the tradition of Catholic social thought.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one consists of two useful chapters on the perspectives of CEOs and then a reflection on the history of commerce and communion in the history of Christian thought. Part two discusses the internal dynamics of business with three chapters dealing with matters such as agency and the technocratic paradigm. Part three looks at the wider responsibilities of business including approaches to business ethics, the idea of “good goods”, the moral ecology of business and the moral legitimacy of market decisions.

The first chapter gives fascinating insights into the perspectives of three CEOs of companies ranging from a family-owned manufacturing company to a more widely held investment and banking company, one of whom spent many years as a senior executive of a large public company.

These insights are wise, incisive and illuminating. The purpose of business lies at the heart of these senior leaders’ perspectives. Business is intended to meet real needs, profit is essential. However, trust, integrity and quality products are not by-products but central to the mission of their companies. Thomas Holloran noted that during his time with a large public company the shareholders all did very well and yet the company’s mission was not about maximising shareholder wealth. Unsurprisingly, all three opt for a stakeholder model. Although I largely agree with this approach one wonders whether we may have so caricatured the idea of profit maximization that we are in danger of missing some important aspects of the purpose of business. Mary Hirschfield, in chapter 5, dealing with the technocratic paradigm, undertakes a useful exercise in setting out the main arguments in defence of profit maximization as producing socially optimal outcomes in a logical and balanced way (pp95-98). We need more of this honest debate.

All three of the CEOs also emphasised personal responsibility, culture, virtues and the moral qualities of goods and services. Thomas Holloran points out that it is a misconception that most business people are greedy or dishonest. On the contrary, he argues, most are deeply moral (pp22-23). This is an important corrective to the notion that all business is exploitative and business executives are only interested in their own success and profits.

The remaining chapters are somewhat more of a mix tackling important individual subjects but it is not always clear how they relate to the wider picture. Too many of the chapters are stand-alone narratives (albeit with attempts to cross-refer). I would have preferred a more clearly articulated overall vision rather than Daniel Finn’s very brief introduction. However, this is a relatively minor quibble and does not take away from the importance of the collection as a whole.

The strongest chapters are those that reach out further into wider debate.

One example of this is Martin Schlag’s chapter on the responsibility of business for the moral ecology in which they operate (chapter 8). Professor Schlag engages critically with two recent critics of the market, Michael Sandel and Jean Tirole.  Schlag rejects the presumption that markets and morals are in opposition to each other, noting that for Thomas Aquinas, ‘it would be inconceivable to affirm that markets are amoral in their operations’ (p165). Schlag, then, is determined to make us work hard through involvement in the market rather than separation from the market. This is an important theological corrective to the points of view either that business is evil and to be avoided, or that our real calling is to Christianise business. Rather we should view business as part of God’s provision for humanity and a place to exercise Christian character and responsibility. Schlag also builds on Aquinas to remind us that private ownership entails obligations and this includes the owners and ownership of business. In this way business is an integral part of the wider ecology of economic life encouraging the flourishing of all.

Chapter 7, by Daniel Cloutier, dealing with “good goods” is a useful and interesting discussion around the nature of goods. The author identifies three categories of questionable goods, those that are defective, harmful or futile. However, these criteria are negative and not always straightforward (for example, in the case of weaponry). The criteria adopted for futile goods are more instructive. We might purchase futile goods for three reasons, according to the author, the pursuit of luxury, our own self-identification, or consumption as an end itself. The point is that they suggest, “an implied reversal about what is important in life” (page 151). This chapter also discusses the gig economy which sets up some interesting questions. Unfortunately, these are then not pursued leaving the reader feeling rather let down that the analysis had not been extended to a central feature of the modern economy.

One helpful feature of the book is the manner in which the authors of many of the chapters refer back to and locate their observations in the comments of the CEOs in chapter 1. This is a useful link of theory and practice.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it. The chapters were somewhat more disparate than I expected; all were interesting, some were outstanding. We can also give thanks that a group of theologically informed writers are both willing and able to engage with economics and business. Most of what was discussed was relevant to our common Christian tradition.

Daniel Finn asks an appropriate question in his opening sentence, ‘Can a religion whose founder taught love of neighbour as the most fundamental moral principle give moral approval to profit-seeking business firms in a global economy?’ (page 1). As James Heft noted in his Afterword, the CEO interviews reveal that all business leaders “face decisions that are often not black and white and who have to make practical judgments that involve inescapable trade-offs, situations where hard decisions have to be made” (page 222).

Elusive though the answers may remain we should be thankful for this group of scholars exploring these questions and dilemmas. We leave the last word to Professor Schlag:

‘The task of Catholic social thought is neither to be irenic nor cynical but realistic, with a realism that presents constructive, practical solutions not for the righteous but for reasonable people’ (page 174).


“Business Ethics and Catholic Social Thought,” edited by Daniel K Finn was published in 2021 by Georgetown University Press (ISBN: 978-1-64712-074-0). 245pp.

Richard%20Turnbullweb#1# (2)Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics (CEME). For more information about Richard please click here.