I first saw the difference on a typical Tuesday afternoon. It was simply a chance convergence of two experiences that brought it together for me, but on reflection it was obvious: Students going into medicine give very different reasons for their career choice than do students going into business. And it wasn't clear to me that they should.
As a college professor, one of my responsibilities is to serve on a committee that reviews prospective medical students. One of the tasks of those who serve on this committee is to interview about a dozen students, typically juniors, who hope to go to medical school. As an interviewer, my job is to ask a range of questions about motivation, academic competence, other abilities, maturity and interpersonal skills. At the end of each interview, I write a report giving my evaluation of the student's promise as a physician.
‘We Want to Help People’
Inevitably, this process involves asking the question, “Why do you want to become a physician?” In almost every case, I get the same answer: “I want to help people.” When I press for an explanation, almost every premed student talks about having done volunteer work. I am often quite impressed with the efforts of these students, volunteering in hospitals, tutoring children in reading or mathematics, helping in soup kitchens and doing a wide variety of community service. Almost every student says, “I like helping people, and I think going to medical school and becoming a physician would be a way for me to help people even more.” When pressed, most students I interview give explicitly moral and even religious reasons for wanting to help people and to make the world a better place.
After hearing this same answer repeatedly, I naturally became a bit suspicious about the true motives of the interviewees. Sometimes I would ask, “If you want to go into health care in order to help people, why not become a nurse? Mightn't there be other reasons that are motivating you as well? What about the large salary that a physician can expect?”
The answers to these questions varied. I heard, “Oh no, I'm not interested in the money.” Or, “Of course I want a stable job where I can support my family, but even more, I want to be able to help people.”
‘We Want to Make Money’
Immediately after finishing one of these interviews on that typical Tuesday afternoon, I went off to teach my class in business ethics. I decided to ask the students there, most of whom were business majors, the same kind of questions. I especially wanted to understand their motivation for going into business. Their answers were altogether different. “We want to make money.” Then I asked, “Why not go to medical school? Don't physicians make more money that most people in business?”
I began to suspect that there were contrary tendencies among premed students and business students. The premed students publicly understand their future careers as community service in which they will use their skills to help others. The business students, who I suppose are typical of people already in business, understand their work primarily in terms of self-interest, seeing any public benefit as an unintended consequence.
Who's Helped Mankind More?
Then I began asking my business students to consider another question. “In the 20th century, which has done more to benefit society and make everyday life better: medicine or business?” At first blush, almost everyone might think the answer is medicine. But think of all of the ways life has improved because of business — the improved buildings we live in, the heating and cooling systems we rely on, electricity and communications, better transportation, food and clothing, and innumerable luxury and entertainment items. Of course, we have greatly benefited from medicine as well, but most of us make use of the advances of medicine less often, perhaps only on a few dramatic occasions in life.
I propose that business has done at least as much as medicine to accomplish what my premed interviewees say they want to do with their lives — to help people and to make the world a better place. But, to a great extent, many Americans — and Catholics in particular — haven't had a philosophy and theology of business activity that gives them a way to understand it in terms of self-transcendence. The Catholic intellectual tradition, especially as expressed in America, has included a theology of labor, but it has also included an antagonism toward business. While many physicians have been socialized to think that everything they do is for others, most business people have been socialized to think they automatically operate solely out of self-interest.
The Church Praises Business
Of course, neither extreme quite captures the complexity of human activity. Our actions include both self-interest and self-transcendence; we can transcend ourselves to benefit others even as we remain bound to our own interests. Among other places, this way of understanding human activity was developed in a book by Pope John Paul II when he was archbishop of Krakow, The Acting Person. This understanding of human action, when applied to economic activity, stands at the heart of a new theology of business. The reason we work can include a motivation that goes beyond self-interest. As John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus, work is also “a matter of doing something for someone else.”
Throughout much of this century, business people have been taught to think of their work as ultimately based on self-interest, even though it may have the benefit of helping others. Many people in the Church have also followed this kind of account of human action, decrying business and the market as inherently based on self-interest alone.
During the pontificate of John Paul II, we have seen a new theology of business arise, calling for a deeper understanding of human actions and motivations, along with a recognition that in every human action one can both remain bound to one's own self-interest and transcend it at the same time.
Young people who pursue the life of medicine develop a habit of seeing their lives in terms of self-transcendence and of helping others. In a similar way, we might do well to encourage those who pursue careers in business to see their lives in terms of a vocation of disciplined, honest work that also helps others and serves the community.
Gregory R. Beabout is professor of philosophy at St. Louis University.