Is greed good? This was the question debated by members of the HBS debate team at the kick-off meeting of the Leadership & Ethics Forum (LEF).
The argument focused on whether businesses have any social responsibilities beyond simply maximizing their profits. The format for the debate had two teams of three speakers with one team speaking for the motion (the government) and the other team arguing against (the opposition). In true British parliamentary style, the audience (the House) was encouraged to shout “Hear, Hear” when a speaker said something they agreed with or something less complimentary if they disagreed.
Andreas Sylverius (OB) opened for the government, arguing that businesses are designed with profit maximization in mind and are simply not fit for the purpose of pursuing other social goals, which is the role of the government.
Rob Bennett (OD) countered by arguing that the reality was much more complex and corporations could not simply waive their responsibilities to society.
Holger Schnoes (OA) extended the government’s argument by suggesting that “doing good” is almost impossible to measure and highly subjective.
To which Dylan Bourguignon (OH) replied, it is obviously the interests of companies to treat their employees well, not pollute and be responsible citizens.
Adrian Brown (OC) concluded for the government by arguing that providing employment, innovative products and wealth are social ends in themselves and important tasks that from which corporations should not be distracted.
Paul Hunyor (OA) concluded for the opposition by arguing that it was naive to simply rely on market forces to keep corporations in check, real leadership was required.
The floor was then opened for a broader discussion. The opposition was challenged on their apparent disregard for shareholders and fiduciary duty. The government was posed with the problem of an executive whose personal ethics were in conflict with those of the organization for which she worked. The extent to which government actions were influenced by large corporations was also highlighted as a force that blurs the line between business and government.
A final vote showed the audience unmoved by the discussion with two third against the motion, almost identical to the vote taken before the debate began.
The team’s next debate is at the annual grudge match against Yale on Friday, November 18, hosted here at HBS. Prior to this event, LEF will show the film The Corporation on Thursday, October 19, and welcome speaker Andrea Jung, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Avon Products, on Monday, November 6.
The Leadership & Ethics Forum challenges the HBS community to confront, consider and debate leadership and ethical issues. They organize debates, discussions, film showings and speakers. The club is free to join.
For details, email firstname.lastname@example.org