I and Thou for business


Some time ago now, when I was an undergraduate in the United States, the alienating intellectual pull of French Existentialism and The Beats was turning into the militancy of the New Left. Nonetheless, moral philosopher Martin Buber’s distinction between the ethical actions attendant on “I-It” perceptions and those associated with “I-Thou” sensibilities was still in common usage.

Opinion: I and Thou for business

Recently reminded of Buber’s dichotomy during a discussion of the Iraq war, I finally actually read his short essay. The copy of I and Thou that I borrowed from a local college library had last been signed out in 1999. Buber’s thought is far less current today, which is too bad as it still gives us a deep way of thinking about corporate social responsibility.

His “I-It” perceptions track our cynical sense for business and capitalism as self-centered manipulation of advantage while his “I-Thou” perceptions of what really “is” far better track our aspirations for ethics and a transcendent moral sense.

So, just as Buber believed that we can elevate ourselves from “I-It” exploitation of others to “I-Thou” respect and mutuality, my organization, the Caux Round Table, proposes that business can be conducted on the basis of principled concerns for stakeholders.

The Caux Round Table is an international network of business leaders that advocates a principled form of capitalism. In 1994 at the suggestion of some Minnesota business leaders (especially Charles M. Denny, Tony Andersen, Roger Parkinson, Harry Hammerly of 3M) guided by Robert MacGregor of the Minnesota Center for Corporate Responsibility, the Caux Round Table published a set of ethical guidelines for business decision-making.

These guidelines are the most comprehensive ethical standards for business in the world and are the only ones actually written by business leaders themselves. They invoke the moral concepts of Kyosei from Japan (mutual dependency and benefit between business and society), human dignity from Catholic social teachings, and stewardship of stakeholder interests from the Yankee Calvinist tradition.

These Caux Round Table core values align rather well with Buber’s thinking. For Buber “I-It” connotes the primary world of physicality and “I-Thou” establishes the world of relations, all that which takes on a moral dimension of justice and “ought.”

To use the words of Jürgen Habermas, a philosopher on whose work much of the Caux Round Table’s thinking about ethical action stands, the “I-It” perceptions focus on the realm of facticity and “I-Thou” sensibilities penetrate the realm of normativity.

According to Buber, the “Thou” that is there to meet us, comes to us through grace: “No system of ideas, no foreknowledge, and no fancy intervene between I and Thou. The memory itself is transformed, as it plunges out of its isolation into the unity of the whole. No aim, no lust and no anticipation intervene between I and Thou.”

For Buber, it is relationship values that can exist a priori – sensed but not subject to proof, connections like beauty, love, and pity. By entering into relation, Buber asserts, our personality develops out of the primal, physical world.

In other words, then, while living in facticity, we aspire to the greater by becoming aware of normativity. From a business point of view, this is to say that while seeking a cash profit, we can do better for ourselves by being responsible in our relationships.

The person who is conscious only of his or her “I” in the face of all “It”, stands before things, but not over against them. Such an “I” bends over particulars and objectifies them as scenery, isolating them in observation. The world of ”It” is set in the context of space and time. This world offers us comfort, incitements, excitements, activity and knowledge. Our primary connection with the world of “It” is experiencing and using. It is doing business as usual, without much application of principle.

Institutions, such as governments and corporations, inhabit the world of “It.” Buber says that institutions are where “all sorts of aims are pursued, where a man works, negotiates, bears influence, undertakes, concurs, organizes, conducts business, officiates, preaches. They are the tolerably well-ordered and to some extent harmonious structures, in which with the manifold help of men’s brains and hands, the process of affairs in fulfilled.”

Buber infers that “without ‘It’ man cannot live. But he who lives with ‘It’ alone is not a man.”

This is because, according to Buber, “in times of sickness it comes about that the world of ‘It,’ no longer penetrated and fructified by the inflowing world of ‘Thou’ as by living streams but separated and stagnant, a gigantic ghost of the fens, overpowers man. … If a culture ceases to be centered in the living and continually renewed relational event, then it hardens into the world of ‘It.’”

The world of “Thou” is a reality in which we share without being able to appropriate exclusively for ourselves. The self-willed person, unopened to relationships, cannot meet the “Thou” and is condemned to the doom issued by fateful powers driving the world of “It.”

According to Buber, the principal advantage to be experienced in the world of “Thou” is confirmation of meaning, a sustenance which gives us courage and vitality while living amidst the world of “It.”

Thus while the business of business may be business, the meaning of business – none other that the truly beneficial livelihood provided by business – must come from developing a sensibility to relation, from activation of the moral sense. It is here that some set of concerns such as those set forth in the Caux Round Table’s Principles for Business, and not mere market rationality, provides that awareness of relation that leads to living in the world of “Thou” as well as in the world of “It.”

Buber concludes: “Man can do justice to the relation with the Highest (God) in which he has come to share only if he realizes the Highest anew in the world according to his strength and to the measure of each day.”

I rather like the affirmation provided by Buber’s thought. His point seems to be, that while daily working within the world of “It”, we can nevertheless escape the worst tendencies of that world, which are to reduce us to mere mechanism in the service of nothing redemptive. It is this optimism that I wanted to share with you.