REALITY BITES - We are awash with moderates today. Even the environment movement talks about sustainable growth rather than questioning the growth ethic.

by Richard Reeves, a consultant and business writer
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

We are awash with moderates today. Even the environment movement talks about sustainable growth rather than questioning the growth ethic.

One of the myths of modern life is that orthodoxy has been banished. That we live plural, diverse, self-determined lives free from the shackles of an imposed worldview.

But this freedom - the main gift from the Enlightenment - has been lost. The religious and ecclesiastical conventions of the 17th century have been replaced by the economic and business conventions of today. As Robert H Nelson argues in Economics as Religion: 'The most vital religion of the modern age has been economic progress.' And in the absence of significant challenge, this has hardened into an unquestioned way of life. Welcome to a new Age of Orthodoxy.

You can tell that a set of beliefs has achieved the status of orthodoxy when all actions are judged against them. And so it seems at the moment that no change to business practices can be advocated without an attendant 'business case'. The education lobby argues for school reform on the grounds that 'the economy needs skills'. Politicians and social campaigners, at least as much as businesswomen and men, feel obliged to make the business case for gender diversity, family-friendly policies or corporate social responsibility. The Equal Opportunities Commission recently argued against the gender ghettoisation of the labour market on the grounds that it is impeding productivity growth - and got a better response from Government ministers than it had before. To be heard, you have to sing from the orthodox hymnsheet.

Of course, good work can be done under the cover of the conventional case (however spurious), just as in previous orthodox eras. Key moderate Enlightenment thinkers such as Newton and Locke succeeded largely because their scientific approach was positioned not as a challenge to Christianity and the Church, but as a support for them. Newton believed he was describing the 'mind of God', arguing that the only plausible explanation for the existence of gravity was that it emanated directly from Him. Newton thus made a good 'ecclesiastical case' for his work; as Alastair Campbell more recently put it: 'It's all in the spin.'

But the ultimate triumph of Enlightenment thinking relied on the work of both moderates such as Newton and Descartes and of radicals like Spinoza and, later, Voltaire, who questioned the divine right to rule, the immortality of the soul, the literal interpretation of the Bible and even the existence of a separate God. To alter the mainstream course, you need some people working outside it.

The problem with the contemporary debate is that we are awash with moderates. We need a dose of Spinosisme. Even the environmental movement now talks about sustainable growth rather than questioning the growth ethic itself. When a non-business argument is the one with the real force, we are all too often required to go along with the orthodox line. A recent survey of HR professionals by Roper, Cunningham and James showed that family-friendly policies were more often supported on social justice grounds than on business ones. It is doubtful, however, that an ambitious HR director would voice these subversive thoughts in a board meeting.

It is perhaps in the area of corporate social responsibility, though, that the business case is so thinly spread. Half-baked surveys and unrepresentative case studies are marshalled to persuade companies that being responsible will lift the bottom line. But the more sophisticated observers of CSR recognize that its real attractions do not lie in a narrow business case.

Steve Hilton and Giles Gibbons ask in Good Business why CEOs are getting into CSR, given that the business case for it is so flimsy: 'Is it something much more human, much simpler, at work? Could it just be that business people would actually like to help make the world a better place - or at least, to avoid making it a worse place? ... Maybe the real explanation for the growing commercial appeal of corporate social responsibility is cultural rather than economic.'

Radical stuff: if there is a business case, it is that in the long run, successful companies have to be seen to reflect and enact our wishes for the world.

Throwing off the orthodoxy of economics and business does not mean discarding them. It means recognising them as means to certain ends, rather than as ends in themselves. The business case for gender equality, like that for CSR, is thin. Despite decades of trying, no-one has yet shown incontrovertibly that there is always and everywhere a clear commercial rationale for treating men and women equally - which may be why gender equality remains more rhetoric than reality in most businesses.

But the business case is not the only, or even the most important test. If gender equality in all spheres of life is an important social goal, we should be asking how much business is doing to help us achieve it. Rather than constantly searching for a business case for gender equality, we should be checking the strength of the gender equality case for business.

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