Ethics and Elitism

I was having a conversation with a friend yesterday afternoon and she mentioned a situation that came up in a gathering she’s part of. She was with a group of people who were talking about the future of business — how it might be more human, more humane, less harmful to people and planet.

All was going swimmingly until someone in the group pointed out what an elitist project this was: what could it possibly mean for people of different class, status, culture, or opportunity? You know, the kind of people who can’t gather in a major European city for a day to talk about better business?

This apparently led to a breakout conversation and some commitments to explore how to bring the ideas of the gathering to less privileged people. And here, I’d like to add an asynchronous riff along those lines.

On one level, I believe this person was absolutely right. The people in a room like that, for a conversation like that, are almost inherently going to be people for whom the system works, and who already have the freedom and opportunity to try to innovate around the edges. They’re not producing T-shirts for pennies a day, or otherwise working jobs that bear the real costs of our current ways of doing business.

But on another level, I think it’s more complicated. If the people with power and privilege aren’t having conversations like that, how will things change? And if the goal becomes meaningful, humane work for all people on the planet right now, how shall we start making that reality?

Power, to use a popular term, is leverage. Working to help people with leverage see how they could move the culture forward is good work. Helping them understand that they’re responsible for how they use their leverage (or don’t) might be even better work. And helping them use their leverage to help build the culture is great work.

Wealth, power, and privilege aren’t going away. (Who holds them might be changing, though.) If we can begin to talk about who holds these levers, what’s expected of them, and what they expect of themselves, we might — just might — be able to lever up the quality of a lot of people’s lives.

And that might be very good and humane business indeed.