The Teleological Gaze: Part 5, What Is Business For?

In these posts we've been focusing on psychology (meaning, self-worth) and virtue. But in my series about Mary Hirschfeld's book Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy she makes a few points about the teleological gaze and markets.

In that series, we talked about how money obscures our ability to say "enough." Material goods have a telos, making them amendable to the question "How much is enough?" True, opinions can vary widely, but we can ask questions like, "How many cars is enough? How many homes? How many laptops?" And so on. It starts to look a bit excessive if you owned 100 cars, 100 homes, or 100 laptops. Again, no one can say where the line is for everyone, but when we are talking about material goods their telos--their purpose or function--allows the question of enough be raised and debated.

Money clouds this question. Money doesn't have a telos like a house, car, or laptop. Thus, it's impossible to say how much money is enough. Money erases telos, and without purpose or function all we are left with is raw desire. More money is always better.

Hirschfeld points out that something similar happens in the world of business. What is the telos of a business? What is a business for?

When a business is healthy it thinks teleologically: it exists because it provides society some good or service that is in demand. Businesses with a high degree of social consciousness focus on meeting that need, thereby making a contribution to the common good while also making a profit. But far too often, businesses lose track of their telos and become fixated on profits. And like money, the profit motive erases telos. The business stops caring about the quality of their goods and services--the reason for their existence--and starts thinking only about "the bottom line." The business starts to exist only for the purpose of making money. And once again, we can ask: How much profit is enough? Without a telos, the answer is always more.

All that to say, Hirschfeld's point is that when a business loses track of its function and purpose, its telos, and comes to focus solely on profit margins, we end up with the economic ills and dysfunctions we find all around us.

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