“Doing well by doing good”
February 13, 2011, 4:31 am
Filed under: Editorializing | Tags: , ,

I don’t know who dreamed up this gem, but I don’t like it. I understand that the concept that following one’s conscience (or establishing a conscience as part of a corporate culture) does not necessarily lead to financial ruin. One can both do well and do good. Yes. But …

There are dangerous and misleading implications of this phrase as well. One can also do poorly financially by pursuing “good.” (Keep an eye on solar and wind power manufacturers with too much inventory, and look up failed “healthy” fast food chain D’lites.) And one can also do really bad things and come out just fine, at least for the foreseeable future (c.f. Countrywide Financial’s slimy ex-CEO). So are unethical actions okay as long as they’re economical? Is an impact investing fund that’s losing money the victim of some secret sin (in some bizarre corporate reincarnation of the concept of predestination)?

Let’s not forget that economics is not democratic. Under democracy, it’s one person one vote. Under economics, it’s one dollar one vote. So private security firms keep on making money fighting wars, but the ethical situation remains unchanged no matter what their stock prices do. We are not all equal before the invisible hand.
And what’s more, “green” may not always be ethical. Using plants for fuels and oils, whether organic or not, whether alternatives to petroleum or not, can still push farmers off their lands and destroy ecosystems. And electric cars that are powered by coal-burning power plants could result in more pollution rather than less, not to mention issues surrounding the materials used in the batteries, and increased traffic and demand for parking if more people drive as a result of cheaper transportation costs. [See Green Gone Wrong for more examples.]

So what, finally, does this doing well by doing good phrase mean? Nothing? Exactly. Let’s stop distracting ourselves with it.


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