Good Life

Clergy Column: Bottom line of business is not the bottom line of life

Rabbi David Ostrich speaks during the 9/11 Community Memorial Service at Key Centre on Sunday, September 11, 2011.
Rabbi David Ostrich speaks during the 9/11 Community Memorial Service at Key Centre on Sunday, September 11, 2011.

Columnist David Brooks is making the rounds of talk-shows these days, touting his new book, “The Road to Character,” and I find myself nodding in agreement every time I hear his story. I’m also smiling because his message is one I’ve been preaching for quite a few years. Here’s my story:

Back in the 1990s, university business schools were clamoring for ethics instructors. Whereas ethics used to be a standard part of a college education, curricula had changed over the years, and the Wall Street scandals of the 1980s made it clear that ethics education needed a renaissance. While many business school professors were personally ethical, their training had been in the skills of business — accounting, finance, marketing, etc., and many were unable to teach the subject of ethics in an academic way. So, in their search for teachers, some universities turned to the clergy. We clergy may know little about business, but we do know about ethics, and I found myself on the faculty of the College of Business at the University of West Florida.

As I put together the class — relying on some excellent textbooks and some classical ethical texts — I searched for insights that could help people embroiled in the fierce competition of business to keep their moral compass. Several Biblical passages suggested themselves, but one stood out: Psalm 15: “Lord, who shall abide in your house? Who may dwell in your holy mountain? Those who are upright; who do justly; who speak the truth within their hearts. Who do not slander others, or wrong them, or bring shame upon them. Who scorn the base, but honor those who revere the Lord. Who give their word, and, come what may, do not retract. Who do not exploit others, who never take bribes. Those who live in this way shall never be shaken.”

What would it take for someone to “keep their word” even if it turns out to be difficult or expensive or non-strategic? Someone who values principle and honor over money. Though the goal in business is to show a profit on the bottom line, I believe that the bottom line of business is not the bottom line of life, and that became my main message.

There is nothing wrong with making money; it is the goal of business. It is, however, not an end unto itself. Money is made to be spent — spent on things like food, shelter, clothing, medical care, etc. These things are important, but there is more. Our souls also need things like justice, compassion, kindness and holiness. My hope therefore, in guiding business students, was to help them see the value in spending some of their money on these higher values — that it is OK and worthwhile to adjust the bottom line accordingly.

We clergy visit many houses of mourning, and we hear what the mourners say. Whereas people may promote themselves at business meetings or job interviews by recounting their return on investment, the comments by their mourners are very different and speak of compassion, respect, charity and kindness. Doing the right or just or charitable thing probably involved moving the bottom line and reducing profit a percentage point or two, but, to the beneficiaries of that largesse, it was well worth it. It improved the bottom line of life. It made life into a blessing.