In a lecture last February at the American University of Beirut on Lebanese business ethics, Dr. Harry Van Buren III predicted that greed in business would have serious consequences. His prescient warning came true on Aug. 4, when a massive explosion rocked the port of Beirut and killed at least 200 people.
Van Buren, now the Barbara and David A. Koch Endowed Chair of Business Ethics in Opus College of Business, brings to his students an external perspective and perhaps a warning. “I’ve seen what happens when business doesn’t promote the common good,” Van Buren said. While it may be easy to dismiss the inequities in Lebanon as something very distant, Van Buren points to statistics that we in the U.S. are not far behind. “The United States has a share of national income going to the richest 1% of double the EU level, at about 22%,” Van Buren wrote in a recent Theological Review.
Today he views the deadly explosion in Beirut as a grim and avoidable result of inattention to systemic corruption. “I wish I could say that the blast was a surprise, but in some ways it was inevitable. The incident represents a typical lack of care for citizens of Lebanon and an inability to regulate business and channel behavior for the common good,” Van Buren said.
As a visiting professor at the American University of Beirut prior to accepting his St. Thomas position last March, Van Buren witnessed vast and unsustainable inequities throughout the region. He observed the unscrupulous business practices that led to this inequity. He sees the divide between the haves and the have-nots as an affront to the human dignity Pope John Paul II referred to in Evangelium Vitae.
“In Beirut, you would see children begging in the street right next to a Rolls-Royce dealership,” Van Buren said. He wrote in
Theological Review that in EU nations about 10% of the gross income goes to the top 1%. In Lebanon, that figure increases to 25%. “It should not be surprising that many of the world’s wealthiest countries combine low levels of corruption and low levels of income inequality,” Van Buren wrote.
Make no mistake, Van Buren is a staunch proponent of business as a part of a thriving society. “Business is in many ways the essential social institution. Because people desire things that they can’t produce themselves, if the institution of business did not exist, it would have to be created,” he said. But he is adamant that in order to fully serve its stakeholders, business leaders must adhere to the kind of undeniable truths that serve as the bedrock to our theological traditions. To expand on these essential truths in business ethics, Van Buren quoted philosopher Michael Walzer. “We do not have to discover the moral world because we have always lived there,” Walzer wrote.
Van Buren desires that his students at St. Thomas heed the lessons he has learned in Lebanon. As future business leaders, he hopes that they take with them the sense of the duty and responsibility they hold to all stakeholders.