May 2006 - Volume 10, Issue 10
Standing stern and forbidding on a rocky island in San Francisco bay, the former prison Alcatraz endures as a stark sentinel against the stratagems of the criminal mind. This now popular tourist attraction once housed the most infamous evildoers in America. Men would arrive by boat. Stepping ashore, they left the mainland, their past, and their very identities behind them. Once in Alcatraz, a prisoner's fame and status dissipated into a gray equality with every other prisoner. The incarcerated had no names, just numbers. Chicago's and, indeed, America's most noted gangster Al Capone was sent to The Rock in 1934. Capone would spend the next five years performing servile jobs. Stripped of all his past renown, he labored. Capone, simply, was number 85. In 1939 he was released, he would spend his remaining years physically living in his mansion in Florida, but mentally wandering aimlessly through a syphilitic nether world.
Reasonably, one may be tempted to assume that young Alphonse Capone was the product of a broken home and of an upbringing devoid of a moral code. But the opposite was true. The Capone family arrived in New York City among the many families who were part of the flood of Italian immigrants during the early twentieth century. In Brooklyn, the parents worked hard in pursuing the American Dream. Eventually, their son decided to work at a job which was antithetical to the values of his parents.
Nearly two thousand years earlier, another family left their native land to find a safer and more promising life, not in America, obviously, but in Egypt. Later, the family would return to their ancestral home, where the parents would work hard to make a good life. And their son - well, we know how he turned out. The month of May begins with the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker. The reason for this particular emphasis on work is not meant merely to promote the dignity of labor, but to underscore its purpose. Saint Joseph practiced the profession of carpentry, not just to create useful objects, but to secure the well being of his family. The fact that Saint Joseph worked to achieve such goals is neither unique, nor uncommon. The significant factor is that he understood his profession to be a valued and satisfying skill that found its ultimate meaning in something beyond the career itself. One may construe that Saint Joseph also viewed the quality of his work as, in some way, indicative of the quality of his character. Today, this can be expressed in the saying that Saint Joseph was proud to put his signature on his work.
Returning to the present, this age's emphasis on unbridled materialism puts at risk the quality and the nobility of work. When the number and the cost of one's possessions become the measure of the worth of one's labors, the person fades before the thing. What one does for a living and how one's does it becomes irrelevant. There is something dehumanizing in leaving a person to draw fulfillment from work through abundance and price tags.
My father loved his work. He owned an eponymous general construction company and did quite well. When Monday morning dawned, he rose looking forward to the day ahead. He enjoyed the art of building so much that I believe he felt relief at giving over the running of the business to my brother. The pride and the joy my father took from the excellence of his work had a great impact on my life. Although I did not receive the construction gene, the lessons of his example were not lost on me. As important as the desire my father had to provide his family with the comforts and opportunities of life, there was never a question that he wanted us to recognize where his true wealth lay and where ours should too.
Christianity taught us to care. Caring is the greatest thing, caring matters most.
- Friedrich von Hugel, his last words.
From confidential conversations to public debates the topic of business ethics comes to the fore. Is business ethics an oxymoron? If the notions of quality workmanship, fair pricing, just labor practices, honesty in the workplace, and every other virtuous act regarding the task of doing business still mean something, then, no it is not. Profit alone need not be the Bible of business. Profit and social responsibility along with loyalty, concern for the common good, environmental awareness, and care regarding a business's impact on a community can - perhaps must - become business as usual if the future is to be a bright one. This reality will come about by the determination of good and powerful people who are willing to accept some risk in doing the right thing. They must believe in the appeal of making a fact of the very ideals that everyone seems to want in the business world. Whether in the stock room or on the stock exchange, more people like Saint Joseph rather than number 85 must be found.
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