Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Corporate compliance and “the arc of the moral universe”

It is one of the most frequently-used and beloved quotes for champions of progressive values: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This famous line from Dr. Martin Luther King espouses a certain determinism, from nature or faith, that morality favors fairness and the truth in the end, even if it takes a long time and a lot of effort to get there.

Perhaps further motivation behind these words can be sussed out by understanding the original lines by which Dr. King’s statement was inspired. The older quote comes from Theodore Parker, a 19th century minister and abolitionist. He stated, in full: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

Parker was also a Transcendentalist scholar who wrote prolifically on the subject of justice and the conscience, and the sanctity of the rights of all people in the service of those virtues. In Parker’s view, then, justice can be elusive or disappointing, but it is unequivocally a moral force, and progress toward it, however slow and halting, is a high state of being for people and governments. In light of Parker’s remark, Dr. King’s words indicate that individuals alone cannot be definitively satisfied that society will become universally just, but this should not dissuade them from their commitments to their ideals or their personal responsibilities to uphold them, in both private and public.

However reachable this sentiment may seem to be (or not be) over history and in practice, this idea can still provide inspiration to those wishing to positively impact the journey toward a just society. Individuals, for example, may take this concept as a reinforcement of personal conviction, the kind which is passed down over generations in pursuit of an ideal. Organizations such as political action committees, community groups, or charitable organizations may see as a direct call to diligent and persistent public activism with the goal of societal change, often enforced by legal action.

But what about corporations? The concept of the corporation as a legal “person” is always controversial in contemporary society because it conveys rights and protections on companies that many feel should be limited to natural persons only. However, with this designation comes responsibilities and obligations also, and not just ones that may be important in a courtroom. Corporations can do their own part to positively impact progressive toward justice by adopting business values that elevate morality and encourage organizational and employee commitments to integrity and fairness.

  • Social responsibility sells: As companies compete in the ever-crowded global marketplace, price and product are far from the only deciding factors between success and failure with consumers. Companies are now putting their social responsibility interests at the forefront. This shows up in their business values that they communicate to their employees as well as their advertising, corporate branding, and strategy that they bring to the market and identify themselves with to their customers. Consumers want strong personal associations with companies when they have many choices for retailers or service providers. Embracing social responsibility and commitment to progress, inside and outside of organizations, gives corporations a competitive edge and a striking identity that helps them to stand out and be remembered.
  • Representation is key: It is well known that the workplace has much improvement to do before it starts to even appear as diverse as society is outside of the office. Representation at all employee levels, from starters to executive boards, is important in the efforts toward inclusion. In order to aspire for equality and diversity, people of all backgrounds need to first be present and practically included. Then the real effort for change can happen, where this truly representative group can start to work together toward the integrated, equitable type of collaboration and open access that is still lacking from many broader communities and discussions in the world in general.
  • …but tokenism is toxic: In order to support this ambition, however, obstacles must truly be removed, and merit and performance have to be the standards by which people are promoted and co-working is established. Representation in name only, or to fulfil an appearance, is empty and non-progressive. Companies must commit against token inclusion and truly seek to integrate and cooperate authentically. Only then can responsible corporate citizens inspire in the world the changes they see in themselves.
  • Transparency fosters a more equitable working environment: As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Open processes at a corporation will lean more easily toward equitable outcomes for employees and consumers. Unethical management decisions are easier to take and justify if they are concealed and never need to be explained. Having to reconcile the interests and feedback of others, however, helps toward mitigating unfairness. There will always be some amount of bold intolerance or exclusion, just as there will always be a few bad apples. However, it’s much more productive to focus on the decision-making that can be nudged toward a positive viewpoint and those people who will do good things when they are appropriately informed and supported to do so.
  • Integrity promotes sustainability: Sustainability – not the type that encourages re-using recycled coffee cups or only printing documents if it’s really necessary, but the type that focuses on longevity and sensibility of business practices and relationships – is, like social responsibility, a key competitive advantage. Integrity as a main business strategy shows that organizations value their relationships and want to make the right decisions not just for their profit, but for their partners and the future. In this sense, a strong moral code for business values represents both an investment in the aims of justice as well as a preparation for success.

For further contemplation on the concept of the moral universe and its predisposition to justice, and the nature of humans within this, amidst the challenges of the secular world and the frustrations of the individual, Theodore Parker’s “Of Justice and The Conscience” from his Ten Sermons of Religion is a powerful and interesting text.