Editor's note:

Dal­las Willard helps us see the heart of work in his arti­cle, The Busi­ness of Busi­ness. It’s an impor­tant piece for those of us work­ing in the mar­ket­place and seek­ing to be faith­ful appren­tices. At the core of work­ing well is dili­gence: care­ful and per­sis­tent work. In the the­saurus, dili­gence” is asso­ci­at­ed with words like con­cen­tra­tion, effort, indus­tri­ous­ness, rig­or, thor­ough­ness, per­se­ver­ance, and dogged­ness. That’s good com­pa­ny. Yet some­thing is miss­ing in all those strong and stur­dy words, some­thing sub­ter­ranean, a rich sunken mean­ing that our con­tem­po­rary busi­ness cul­ture needs to recov­er. Under­neath the veneer of the Eng­lish word dili­gence” is the Latin word diligere, which means to love. Care­ful and per­sis­tent work is a form of lov­ing — and that’s what I think Dal­las wants us to recov­er. When we pro­vide well, work hard, and serve oth­ers, we love. When we cre­ate a qual­i­ty prod­uct, we’re lov­ing our cus­tomers. This is why we shouldn’t sep­a­rate love from dili­gence, and dili­gence from work. If we do, we’ll have very few places to prac­tice, share, and grow into love.

—Jonathan Bailey

What is busi­ness (man­u­fac­tur­ing, com­merce) for? Today the spon­ta­neous response to this ques­tion is: The busi­ness of busi­ness is to make mon­ey for those who are engaged in it. In fact, this answer is now regard­ed as so obvi­ous that you might be thought stu­pid or unin­formed if you even ask the ques­tion. But that is only one of the effects of the per­va­sive miss-edu­ca­tion that goes on in con­tem­po­rary soci­ety, which fos­ters an under­stand­ing of suc­cess essen­tial­ly in terms of fame, posi­tion and mate­r­i­al goods. How­ev­er, that only reflects a quite recent view of the pro­fes­sions — of which we will here assume busi­ness to be one — and, even today, is def­i­nite­ly not the view of suc­cess in pro­fes­sion­al life shared by the pub­lic in gen­er­al. No busi­ness or oth­er pro­fes­sion that adver­tis­es its ser­vices” announces to the pub­lic that it is there for the pur­pose of enrich­ing itself or those involved in it. With one accord they all say their pur­pose is ser­vice, not serve-us. I have nev­er met pro­fes­sion­als” who would tell their clients that they were there just for their own self-inter­est. Still, many pro­fes­sion­als today are dom­i­nat­ed by self-inter­est, and that is the source of the con­stant stream of moral fail­ures that occu­pies our courts and what we now call news.” And many who would nev­er say it pub­licly real­ly do think of their suc­cess in terms of self-advance­ment, and will say so after hours.” The role of the pro­fes­sion­al” is real­ly a moral role in soci­ety, and not just one of tech­ni­cal exper­tise in the mar­ket­place of untram­meled competition.

The old­er tra­di­tion of the pro­fes­sion as, at bot­tom, a moral role in soci­ety was more obvi­ous and defen­si­ble before the days of mass soci­ety and urban anonymi­ty in which the indi­vid­ual doc­tor, lawyer, etc. more or less dis­ap­pears as a per­son liv­ing togeth­er with oth­er per­sons. The spe­cial train­ing, posi­tion and respect giv­en them was, in oth­er days, an appro­pri­ate response to the spe­cial and poten­tial­ly self-sac­ri­fic­ing good that they made avail­able to ordi­nary peo­ple in the social set­ting: to the pub­lic or com­mon’ good, as used to be said. With respect to the mer­chant or man­u­fac­tur­er there has always been less clar­i­ty about this than with the old­er pro­fes­sions of cler­gy, med­i­cine and law, but his or her spe­cial posi­tion and pow­er in the com­mu­ni­ty was nonethe­less under­stood to bring with them unique and unavoid­able moral responsibilities. 

Writ­ing of this in 1860, John Ruskin remarks: The fact is that peo­ple nev­er have had clear­ly explained to them the true func­tions of a mer­chant with respect to oth­er peo­ple.” He then puts what we today would call busi­ness” in the con­text of the Five great intel­lec­tu­al pro­fes­sions” nec­es­sary to the life of every civ­i­lized nation.” With respect to that nation: 

The Soldier’s pro­fes­sion is to defend it. 

The Pastor’s to teach it. 

The Physician’s, to keep it in health. 

The Lawyer’s to enforce jus­tice in it 

The Merchant’s to pro­vide for it.” 

He appends to this list: And the duty of all these men is, on due occa­sion, to die for it.” The sol­dier to die rather than leave his post in bat­tle,” the physi­cian rather than leave his post in plague,” the pas­tor rather than teach false­hood,” the lawyer rather than coun­te­nance injus­tice,” and the mer­chant… rather than… what? It is here, Ruskin acknowl­edges, that peo­ple are apt to be unable to fin­ish the thought. What is it that the mer­chant” would die rather than do?

The answer to this ques­tion is sup­plied by the merchant’s or manufacturer’s func­tion and the good that it sup­plies to the peo­ple in his com­mu­ni­ty. His task is to pro­vide for the com­mu­ni­ty. His func­tion is not to pluck from the com­mu­ni­ty the means of his own self-aggran­dize­ment. It is no more his func­tion,” Ruskin con­tin­ues, to get prof­it for him­self out of that pro­vi­sion than it is a clergyman’s func­tion to get his stipend. The stipend is a due and nec­es­sary adjunct, but not the object of his life, if he be a true cler­gy­man, any more than his fee (or hon­o­rar­i­um) is the object of life to a true physi­cian. Nei­ther is his fee the object of life to a true mer­chant. All three, if true men, have a work to be done irre­spec­tive of fee… That is to say, he has to under­stand to their very root the qual­i­ties of the thing he deals in, and the means of obtain­ing or pro­duc­ing it; and he has to apply all his sagac­i­ty and ener­gy to the pro­duc­ing or obtain­ing it in per­fect state, and dis­trib­ut­ing it at the cheap­est pos­si­ble price where it is most needed.” 

Ruskin pro­ceeds to empha­size the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the mer­chant” for the well­be­ing of those in his employ. The mer­chant has a direct gov­er­nance over those who work for him. So “… it becomes his duty, not only to be always con­sid­er­ing how to pro­duce what he sells in the purest and cheap­est forms, but how to make the var­i­ous employ­ments involved in the pro­duc­tion or trans­fer­ence of it most ben­e­fi­cial to the men employed.” Hence the func­tion of busi­ness requires “… the high­est intel­li­gence, as well as patience, kind­ness, and tact… all his ener­gy… and to give up, if need be, his life in such way as it may be demand­ed of him.” As the cap­tain of a ship is duty-bound to be the last to leave the ship in dis­as­ter, “… so the man­u­fac­tur­er, in any com­mer­cial cri­sis or dis­tress, is bound to take the suf­fer­ing of it with his men, and even to take more of it for him­self than he allows his men to feel; as a father would in a famine, ship­wreck, or bat­tle, sac­ri­fice him­self for his son.” 

Well, need­less to say, this change of mean­ing has not yet hap­pened. Texts by Ruskin and by Bran­deis, along with sim­i­lar ones, are not pop­u­lar ref­er­ences in our schools of busi­ness today. These schools, for all their good, are, instead, far too much giv­en to The excus­es which self­ish­ness makes for itself in the mouths of cul­ti­vat­ed men,” to quote anoth­er per­son from the times of Ruskin and Bran­deis. Cer­tain­ly in busi­ness one must make a prof­it, and one’s busi­ness must sur­vive if it is to serve. But not at the expense of the pub­lic good and the well-being of indi­vid­u­als who depend on you — not, for exam­ple, if you must sell taint­ed food or shod­dy fur­ni­ture or elec­tron­ic devices to stay afloat or thrive. And cer­tain­ly not as the aim or goal of those involved in busi­ness. It is not enough to say that the mar­ket” will dri­ve you out if you don’t do what is right. 

That slo­gan, with its grain of truth, is brain surgery with a meat cleaver, at best; and in fact it rarely turns out to be true. It serves at all only because, at this par­tic­u­lar time in our his­to­ry, the weight of moral call­ing and moral char­ac­ter is unable to serve as estab­lished points of ref­er­ence for indi­vid­ual prac­tice and pub­lic pol­i­cy. They are not treat­ed as aspects of real­i­ty which must be appealed to in judg­ment and with which any decent per­son must come to terms. There is no legit­i­mat­ing sup­port, there­fore, for the ide­al­ism of young peo­ple who go into the pro­fes­sions or the jus­ti­fi­able demands of the pub­lic to be served. It is a con­vinc­ing frame­work of call­ing and char­ac­ter that must be restored if pro­fes­sion­al life is to be direct­ed in a man­ner which — sure­ly every­one deep-down knows — is suit­ed to its func­tion as provider and pro­tec­tor of the pub­lic good and of indi­vid­u­als through­out our neigh­bor­hoods and beyond. The great­est chal­lenge to an offi­cial­ly Post-Chris­t­ian world is to pro­vide that frame­work. To this point it is not doing very well with the task. Sure­ly the best course — find a bet­ter who may — is to take up one’s pro­fes­sion as an appoint­ment from God, through intel­li­gent dis­ci­ple­ship to Jesus Christ. This pro­vides a time test­ed and expe­ri­en­tial foun­da­tion and frame­work for pro­fes­sion­al life that yields the nobil­i­ty seen by Ruskin and Bran­deis — and much more.

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Pub­lished at Dal­las Willard’s web­site (The Busi­ness of Busi­ness) and used here grate­ful­ly with their permission.

Pho­to by Alexan­dre Godreau on Unsplash

Originally published September 2006