COV&R-Bulletin No. 14 (March 1998)
Jim Grote and John McGeeney, Clever as Serpents. Business Ethics and Office Politics. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press (Michael Glazier Book), 1997. 149 pp., $11.95.
This is an impressive little book. Clever in its ethical instruction, yet advocating the innocence of service in the freedom of love (cf. Matt 10:16 and Lk 10:3), it is the best popular book on ethics that I have read in a long time. I say "popular": it is indeed written for a lay audience. Yet it requires some thinking, particularly regarding its theoretical base, and it also demands concentration for the realization of its instructions in "askesis" or practice, which involves an adaptation of the monastic tradition in the work setting.
The authors bring broad experience to their project. Grote works in stewardship and development for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville. He has taught and published articles in ethics, theology, and philosophy. McGeeney is an in-house attorney for a financial services company. He has work experience in securities law and in a social services organization. They draw upon a number of sources for theoretical and practical insight on human evolution, rivalry and competition, and the contemporary work-place, including Scott Adams and his cartoon strip, "Dilbert," and Watterson's comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes." But the theory informing their manual is Girard's concept of mimetic desire ("borrowed desire") and its relation to scapegoating as a social and culturally generative phenomenon. They argue that "Girard's analysis of borrowed desire relocates the central problem of economics" (37). Except for a paragraph on "The Dilemma of Desire" which is not too clear, they offer a nice exposition of borrowed desire, which leads to the dilemma of competition: the loss of desire after winning (because one has overcome the model-rival who seeks the object) or the increase of desire due to losing (because the model-rival has gained the object). Idolatry is perverted transcendence or mistaken identity.
After a further chapter on blame as the secret of management, they turn to an ethical asceticism, dealing with "the Boss and the Mob," competitors, customers, and finally work as the wisdom of tradition. The writers identify their own Christian, Roman Catholic commitment and acknowledge its influence on them. Their ethical insights and recommendations are made in the light of the imitation of Christ. Much of the book, however, could be very useful to people in other religious traditions or who claim no religious affiliation.
I recommend this book very highly for both individuals and study groups. The authors have, in my judgment, written a book on virtue in business from a "micro perspective" which may "enable individuals to bring a modicum of freedom into the unfree market of imitation and sacrifice" (129). The ideal they set forth is not to free the market, "but to free the people within the market...from borrowed desire, from envy, from mindless competition...." (ibid.). Should that occur on a wide scale, the market would of course be affected. But meanwhile, both understanding and practice are required. As the Zen proverb says, "Before enlightenment, chopping wood and hauling water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and hauling water" (ibid.).
James G. Williams