By Rev. Oliver F. Williams, C.S.C., Director of the Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business in the Mendoza College of Business
Within the last year, my travels have taken me to Rwanda, Tanzania, Madagascar, Zambia, South Africa, and South Korea. As a professor of business ethics and corporate governance, what strikes me is that globalization is a fact of life, worldwide interdependence is a reality. Subsequently, there is an astounding gap in wealth and income throughout the world. While some poor countries have become prosperous, in many nations poverty and inequalities have deepened, especially in Africa. Today there are more than one billion hungry people, up 25 percent in the last five years. Every day 17,000 children die of hunger. Too many people are jobless. Over 25 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have HIV. What is the moral response to these painful disparities?
Catholic social teaching employs the term “common good” to convey the idea that we ought to try to shape a world where all are able to share in the wealth and other benefits that come from economic development. Thus, for example, Pope Benedict XVI, in the 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate acknowledges the fact that free global trade has created massive amounts of wealth but laments the fact that so many people have no possibility of sharing in that wealth and exist in dire poverty.
For Christians, the biblical vision of the moral life is summarized in the Gospels: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22: 39-40). Because the human person is created in the image and likeness of God, the person is endowed with a unique dignity and thus, everyone should have the possibility of a fulfilling life. The biblical vision stresses the communal and social dimensions of human life—that we become a person only through relationships in a community setting. The minimal conditions that allow for the possibility of life in community are called human rights. Thus, the rights to food, housing, and jobs are considered essential for the development of the human person. Individual actions as well as government policies are obliged to meet these rights when possible.
While individuals and governments can do much to encourage the common good, increasingly businesses play a role. One new initiative on the part of businesses to promote and enhance the common good is the United Nations Global Compact. Founded in 2000 by then Secretary-General of the U.N., Kofi Annan, the Global Compact is intended to increase and diffuse the benefits of global economic development through voluntary corporate policies and programs. By promoting human rights and labor rights, enhancing care for the environment and encouraging anticorruption measures, the 10 principles of the Global Compact are designed to shape more peaceful and just societies. Initially comprised of several dozen companies, the Compact as of 2010 had over 7,000 businesses and 1,400 NGOs in 135 countries. The objective is to emphasize the moral purpose of business, with member companies setting a high moral tone throughout the world.
To advance this vision of business and the common good, the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business at the Mendoza College of Business, in partnership with the United Nations Global Compact, will convene a major conference at Notre Dame, March 20-22, 2011, titled “The UN Global Compact: The Challenge in Seeking the Common Good.” The conference will bring together some of the leading businesses to tell of their projects, especially those advancing the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) designed to help alleviate dire poverty. Academics, government officials, and NGO leaders will focus on some of the practical as well as the conceptual issues involved.