I went to a small networking event the other day in which we divided up into professions and topics for small group discussions. Though I am not exactly a business professional, I found the topic a bit provocative and decided to join in. The topic of conversation was centered around finding a moral balance in the private sector. The professionals in the conversation ranged from a high-level executive at IBM to an MBA student looking to move from the non-profit sector into the private sector.
After a few obvious sentiments were drained of interest (sentiments like “I feel guilty firing people” and “I don’t like the demonization of Wall Street”) we moved onto discussing a question that I believe plagues so many non-profit and for-profit professionals alike. In the long-term, can’t the private sector in fact achieve more total good than the non-profit sector? The private sector has undoubtedly helped reduce the effects of some of the world’s greatest problems. It is thanks to the millions of dollars funneled from Goldman Sachs into The Goldman Sachs Foundation’s 10,000 Women initiative that thousands of women and counting have been able to build their own businesses and support their families. It is thanks to much of the technology industry that many people can feed their children, that we can drive fuel-efficient cars, and can reach unprecedented medical achievements. And finally, it is thanks to the mega-philanthropists like Bill Gates that public education has changed for hundreds of thousands of American students.
But if the private sector is so noble and good-doing, why were we having this conversation to begin with? What I had heard over and over again from these professionals was that the business tactics taken to earning the collective billions have not always been ethical. Negotiations are more often than not “unfair,” as lies are told and truths are hidden. We discussed how many people Bill Gates had to hurt to get to the level of wealth he has achieved, and how many people lost their life savings or homes to major banks that were involved in predatory lending.
The question we must ask ourselves is if the ends justify the means. If Bill Gates has fed hundreds of thousands across the globe and helped educated just as many children, does that end justify the tactics he may have taken to earning his billions? When do we say that the way we achieve good matters as much as the good we achieve? Does net-good matter more than the individuals that may have been damaged to achieve that good?
I have no answer to this. I know what the Jewish answer would be, and it would be no- the ends do not justify the means. And I know what my personal answer would be for the moment- again, the ends do not justify the means. But on the whole, I truly do appreciate all the private sector has done to advance society and achieve putting the world back together. I just can’t ignore that voice in the back of my head reminding me how many dishonest deals have been made on the road to achieving good.
This is a question I expect I will be thinking about for the rest of my life. I don’t think the answer is all so black and white.