Essays Toward A Principled Economics

Mose Durst Ph.D.

4. A Portrait of a Virtuous Entrepreneur


Every culture presents human role models that represent the ideals, norms, or standards by which the culture seeks to define its values. In Western culture, for example, Mother Teresa is often cited as the person most admired by the populace. She embodies the classical Christian virtues of love, sacrifice, purity, hard work, dedication, commitment, and numerous other noble qualities. In the Judeo-Christian culture of the West, it is not surprising that someone like Mother Teresa represents the highest ideal. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Albert Schwietzer are recognized as embodying the ideals of many cultures, both East and West.

If, however, the business of the world is largely business -- the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services -we lack clear definitions and role models of virtuous people engaged in business. Numerous books describe the practice of successful people, portray the life-styles of the rich and famous, and decry the evils of the corrupt capitalist or ex-communist, but few connect an ideal of virtue with business.

There is, in fact, a history of anti-capitalist literature that is found not only in the classical writers and the Christian theologians, but in the popular literature of the 19th century which accompanied the industrial revolution and in contemporary fiction. Donald Trump, Leona Helmsley, and the heroes of hostile takeovers are merely the latest embodiments of characters we find in novels from Disraeli's Sybil to Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. There are many images of the selfish, corrupt, and vicious business person, but few of the virtuous ideal.

Certainly, however, the business person can be as much a model of virtue as the minister, the teacher, or the doctor, and even the images of these roles have lost much of their virtuous character in the 20th century. The Principled Economics Institute seeks to define and promote the classical religious ethical norms as a framework for value in the realm of economics. Within such a framework, economic choices can promote virtuous behavior in individuals and contribute to the common good, the virtuous society.

The Principled Person

A virtuous individual, a principled person, is one who understands the divine value of the human person; one who realizes all human beings are not only worthy of the greatest respect, but there is a responsibility, a covenant in Jewish and Christian terms, to draw out the divine value in all relationships. The motivation of any act, in economics or in any other area of culture, is to create value. Through love, goodness, service, sacrifice, compassion, kindness, and numerous other virtues, the principled individual exhibits divine creativity and realizes the greatest value.

The behavior of such virtuous individuals contributes to the principled society, for one demands virtue as seriously as one offers it. A business is a little world that shapes individuals and the larger society. We interact with businesses each day, and if we fail to understand models of virtue, we often exhibit destructive behavior that violates people and the environment. Business must obviously create material wealth, but business is successful only as simultaneously it contributes to the well-being of individuals, families, the environment, and human culture.

Corrupt Business

Any attempt to define and to promote virtuous examples of business behavior must inevitably confront the image of corrupt moral behavior that is pervasive in the literature critical of capitalist or communist economic activity. For many people even the phrases "principled economics" or "virtuous business persons" are inherent contradictions, for the stereotypes of the self-interested entrepreneur are so common. Benjamin Disraeli's novel Sybil, or the Two Nations, first published in 1845, gives the characteristic description of the 19th century oppressor of the working classes:

He was a short, thickset man, powerfully made, with brawny arms disproportionately short even for his height, and with a countenance, as far as one could judge, of a face so disfigured by grimy toil, rather brutal than savage. His choice apprentices, full of admiration and terror, worked about him; lank and haggard youths, who never for an instant dared to raise their dingy faces and lack-lustre eyes from their ceaseless labor.1

Dickens' novels, such as Hard Times, diatribes from Thomas Carlyle about the "Gospel of Mammonism," and criticism of business and industry by William Morris and John Ruskin all reinforced the image of the selfish, insensitive, cruel world of business. The United States contributed its share of criticism in the twentieth century from such muckraking novels as The jungle by Upton Sinclair to the biting satire of Tom Wolfe's Wall Street hustlers, our current anti-heroes, in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Now that communism has collapsed in much of the world, we learn of the total moral rot of a system that corrupted everyone. In a profound analysis, The Moral Collapse of Communism, John Clark and Aaron Wildavsky describe how an entire political economy can corrupt all of its actors:

To have been among Poles before the collapse of communism in 1989 was to understand the meaning of alienation, to have witnessed a visceral rejection of existing political and economic institutions. It is a wholesale and unrelenting rejection of what the party-state does --imprison, beat, lie, and destroy -- and what it had made most Poles become - criminals, manipulators, cynics, dissemblers. The Communist party was regarded as incompetent as well as evil. These two things, economic idiocy and political coercion, combine to produce the mixture of contempt and dismay with which economic planning is regarded.2

As former communist nations are being transformed to free-market economies, intellectuals, religious leaders, and thoughtful people worry whether the economic transformation will also be a moral transformation.

Moral and Ethical Purpose

Moral and ethical purpose should not, however, be an afterthought or a public relations ploy once the material success of economic activity has been accomplished. Rather, the classical religious and ethical framework should be at the forefront of consciousness in defining and motivating economic activity. Only then will economic success also contribute to the wellbeing of individuals, families, and the common good.

Although self-knowledge is most difficult in all areas of human conduct, it is necessary to examine motivation, purpose, and the fundamental value-basis of our actions if we are to achieve both material, social, and spiritual wellbeing. A virtuous individual, one rooted in the classic religious ideals of love, service, sacrifice, compassion, wisdom, and the sacred, covenental nature of reality, is capable of creating great value in the material, social, and spiritual realms.

The entrepreneur, the individual who creates a business that can generate wealth, can be -- and often is -- a virtuous individual that is motivated by profound religious ideals. If we can identify such individuals and examine the basis of their actions and the impact they have on others, we can promote individual models of virtuous behavior that contribute to the common good. Ethical ideals are no substitute for economic success, but they are a prerequisite for economic, social, and spiritual wellbeing.

The Virtuous Entrepreneur

Bradford Parker, the founder of "Exclusively Roses," a retail flower business with stores in Rockville, Maryland, and Tyson's Corner, Virginia, looks like his puritan ancestors from New England. He is tall, thin, energetic, serious, with an open, honest, and innocent look in his eyes. His smile conveys a genuine warmth, and his words are clear, direct, and sincere. In 1989, then in his mid-thirties, he decided to create a business. As we listen to his story, we learn about the motivation and purpose that, consciously or unconsciously, probably motivates many people who choose a career in business.

"I hold my religious values at the core of who I am and what I believe," explains Bradford. "It is very important that this is reflected in my life work or my business." For Bradford, business is the medium through which he has chosen to express his creativity and "to fulfill relationships in a moral and ethical way." Indeed, Bradford seems as comfortable on his living room couch, where we conduct the interview, as in the back work-area of the Tyson's Corner location of Exclusively Roses, where he moves gracefully, offering smiles, help, or encouragement to the employees that prepare flowers for specialized orders.

He elaborates on how the world of business is where he feels most at ease in relating to people and in practicing his "deep spiritual and ethical beliefs." He consciously takes in the challenge of how all areas of life can be integrated and unified by the same values. He proudly remarks on how he is able to make a successful livelihood while creatively expressing his spirituality. In the simplest sense, Bradford adds, "I am trying to bring value to all my relationships." The key relationships that he views as central to the success of the business are those with his customers, his employees, and his suppliers.

Customers, Employees, and Suppliers

With customers Bradford seeks to offer the highest quality product, the finest flowers, with the best service, at superior value. The customer and the business, he explains, must both be better off after a sale. "Making the luxury of fine roses affordable" reads the motto on Bradford's business card. Liz Hogan, a customer of ER since its inception, who is also a consultant in the field of total quality management, remarks: "When you call them, you know immediately you are dealing with quality." Sonia Yanez, who works at one of the many diplomatic missions in Washington, comments: "They always offer excellent quality, perfect service, and they are always very helpful."

"My relationship with my employees is my biggest challenge, for it is so complex, yet it is critical to building a healthy society." Bradford believes that in this critical relationship he must lead by example: "My employees know I work very hard; I have a concern for their situation, and I value and respect them." He goes on to explain that if he is to have faithful and loyal employees, he must exhibit those same qualities.

When Bradford hires people, he tries to make very clear what he can and cannot offer them, for ER is still a small business with only a dozen employees. He speaks seriously about his commitment to employees, and he knows that although he can offer few career positions, he can provide jobs that offer good disciplines and skills. "If they can work their way into a better job, God bless them, I'm happy for them." As the business has prospered, employees have received raises and bonuses.

Central to Bradford's vision of relationship to employees is his sense that he must create a genuine family feeling among them. This is not a family where the owner dictates the terms of relationship and the employees docilely obey. Rather, Bradford stresses the importance of caring for others with the purity of a mature parental heart. "When the relationships of trust, care, and concern develop, they are highly rewarding and also good for business - but they are not easy to realize," Bradford remarks.

Individuals have their needs, says Bradford, and it is difficult to balance compassion and understanding with the reality of getting tasks accomplished. Moreover, he is honest enough to admit that when he worked for employers, he was more concerned with exhibiting his own creativity and initiative than creating a family feeling in someone else's business. He now feels liberated in running his own business.

As a very young man, Bradford enjoyed observing, visiting, and participating in his father's business, where Bradford worked during summer vacations. He came to respect the creativity of employees, regardless of their education or background, for he saw how productive they could be if motivated properly and valued for their uniqueness. He even looks forward to the many opportunities he can present to his own children in his business.

With suppliers, Bradford demands the same quality and service that he offers to his customers. He prides himself on paying his bills on time, and the manager of one of his stores explains how upset he was when a bill was paid toward the end of the 30-day billing period. "I don't play any games with them [suppliers], and I don't hold onto their money," says Bradford. Sam Sucar, owner of Simplex Wholesale and one of Bradford's suppliers, says: "I trust everything he says." Sam is happy about their open, honest communication, pleased about how he pays his bills punctually, and offers his own philosophy that "high moral standards" should be the guide for business.

The Experience of Employees

The response of employees, their comments about how Bradford affects them, reveals the significant impact that a virtuous person can have on the lives of many people. Jim Howell, who has been working at ER for about a year and a half, has been Bradford's friend for many years. When Bradford was studying economics in college, he lived with Jim's family in Washington, D.C. Now that Jim is an employee for ER, he feels the friendship has deepened. Bradford, he explains, has taught him how to run a successful business. Although Jim sees his present position as General Manager of the corporation as a transition to developing a career in international economics, he is being educated and having a worthwhile experience in learning from Bradford's example.

It is a "sobering reality" for Jim to see Bradford working seventy or eighty hours a week, yet he realizes now that it takes such work to bring success in the initial stages of a business. Jim admires how Bradford repeatedly emphasizes that customers must receive personal, caring attention. He has become aware of the extraordinary commitment, honesty, integrity, and love that must permeate all aspects of the business. From Bradford's purity (he will never make a crude joke or belittle anyone) to the genuine friendship that continues to build, Jim sees the importance of core values as the informing heart of economic life.

Rebecca Lenehan, an assistant store manager who has been working at ER for more than two years, is grateful for Bradford's kindness, respect, and consideration for others. "This job represents the kind of relationship I want in life. I'm maturing here." As Rebecca observes Bradford's leadership, she realizes he is successful because he acts in a "self-effacing way." He exhibits little ego as he seems to embody a highly principled mode of behavior. She has learned from Bradford that if she starts a business, "it will be to communicate truths -- something that will give value and joy."

Rebecca explains that each time she answers the telephone, "it's not just to sell a product, but to create a relationship with the customer." This quality of caring relationship allows her to feel that there is integrity and continuity of value between her personal life and work life. She values the open and honest relationship she has with Bradford, and remarks that she "comes to him as a brother." The image of brother-sister family relationship is an important shift from the paternal image that has permeated so much of business life and has made employees feel like resentful children, rather than equal brothers and sisters.

Judy Wilson, who has been the senior manager of the main store in Tyson's Corner for more than three years, is a quiet, soft-spoken and gentle person. She is pleased at how Bradford makes room for very different personal styles in the workplace. She values the consistency of how she can live her ideals of service and care at home and in the workplace. Judy supervises Marlyn Deleon, the ebullient, effervescent head designer at ER. How does Marlyn experience the workplace at ER: "It is wonderful; there is no stress, easy communication, and friendship. This is like my second home."

Bradford derives tremendous satisfaction from the quality of life he has created in the workplace: "If you can help someone and see their life and family develop, it is greatly rewarding." As Bradford develops the caring, creative, loving qualities in his business, he and his wife seek to create the same qualities in their home.

The Parker Family

In the early days of building ER, Penha Parker worked closely with her husband and shared the many hours at work each day. She enjoyed the new adventure of creating a business, but more importantly she admired Bradford's desire to apply "good principles" in all that he did. Now that the Parkers have a baby girl, Penha works part-time supervising the Rockville store and full-time caring for Jessica.

The Parkers share a similar vision of a principled business. They are devoutly religious people, and they very much want to embody their religious ideals in their home as well as in their business. Because Penha thoroughly understands the requirements of building and maintaining a small business, she doesn't struggle with the long hours her husband works. For Penha and Bradford, building a business has become an integral part of building a life together, one where they have not felt the necessity to sacrifice their religious beliefs. To the contrary, it has provided the opportunity to be consistent in their home and work life with their inner beliefs and values.

Challenges and the Future

The last few years have been challenging, exhilarating, and "dangerous," says Bradford. In the last two years, for example, gross revenue has doubled but the profit margins have been cut in half. Where two years ago he had hoped to open three more stores by now, and eventually to franchise his business, he now has no current plans for new stores. "The market place has forced me to re-write my business plan," he says. He now is concentrating on expanding his product line, improving customer service, and refining his marketing.

Most college students who studied economics with Bradford found the subject abstract, he observes. However, since he didn't finish his college degree until he was in his mid-thirties, he was able to see the dynamism of textbook economics from the vantage point of real experience in the market-place. In the last few years, for instance, with a business that has low barriers to entry, few regulations, and no dominant players, therefore much competition, every day he has found that he must be focused on adding value to his products and services, while avoiding costly mistakes - or just get run out of the market place. "It has definitely been a challenge, but also one that I cherish. For me, it's an opportunity I love."

Bradford's efforts in business illustrate how mind, belief, values, ethics, and textbook learning are the foundation of creative effort in transforming the material environment. At the core of his being are the spiritual values which empower him in ethical relationship. Built around that core is the textbook economic information which is integrated with tangible experience. In his family and in his relationships with others, Bradford seeks to express the same central values in creating a life of virtue.


1. Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil, or The Two Nations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 178.

2. John Clark and Aaron Wildavsky, The Moral Collapse of Communism (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1990), p. 222.

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