Scrooge’s Business Ethics

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself. “Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” It held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again. (from “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens)

Charles Dickens was aware of the contradictions at Christmas time in his own period with the message of salvation and joy conflated with the abject poverty of many of those at the lower end of society. Scrooge’s attitude to the poor masses lead him to conclude that poverty reduces the surplus population, but he is challenged by a vision of that outcome for his own remaining family, when the ghosts of Christmas present and future point to the consequences of poverty for his own nephew, Bob Crachet, and a vision of what the loss of Tiny Tim does to his family.

Dickens’ seasonal ghost and morality tale contains this outburst of regret from Jacob Marley’s ghost which underpins the story of Scrooges redemption as he realizes there is more to life than material gain.

In our own times seasonal good cheer and the fantasia of Christmas presented in shop windows and on advertisements masks the high rates of marriage breakups, suicides and the enormous tensions caused by the expectation of material gain. Scrooge is a sharp business man, but also a person who has lost his humanity. This attempt to bring humanity into business ethics is a challenge. Recently a large company has had to substantially change the pension arrangements for its employees. They are going to get a worse deal when they retire because the company cannot afford the more substantial deal on offer. Another large company has folded and laid off its workers. To some this is simply business as one company struggles to survive in the market place, while another fails. Good will to all is no substitute for good business. A bad business with a good conscience is no business. This has led some to say that the only ethic that business must follow is to stay in business. However, good business can exploit, can cause suffering if it has no sense of corporate responsibility. In places where workers have no choice about who to work for a business can take advantage of its strength by having dangerous conditions or poverty levels of pay. This can be the case in unregulated developing countries, or in places where there is no alternative work. If that is the standard that drives the price, business that treat its workers reasonably, that honour their workers’ human rights and pay a fair wage, can go out of business because others exploit workers and get the lower price. The consumer has a moral responsibility here. If the systems of justice fail to rebalance this and consumers purchase products produced by near slave conditions, they contribute to the downfall of morally conscious companies. The consumer and the corporation are both moral agents that affect the quality of life of the workforce. To leave things open to a ‘free market’, to trust that you have no moral duty to know about the history of a product, is to abdicate moral responsibility. To say you did not know about the conditions of the workers who made the product you supported by buying shows a lack of interest. Bad business ethics is not just about bad companies, but bad consumers as well.

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