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Teaching the Common Good in Business Ethics: A Case Study Approach


This paper addresses the instructional challenges of teaching business ethics in a way shaped by Catholic Social Teaching (CST). Focusing on the concept of the Common Good in CST, I describe my use of a case narrative in classroom instruction to help students understand the concept of the Common Good and to perceive the variety of ways businesses can serve or undermine the Common Good in a small city. Through these pedagogical explorations, I illustrate the distinctive vision of business ethics that flows from CST.

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  1. The editors chose to represent this view with Milton Friedman’s famous article on the “The Social Responsibility of the Business is to Increase its Profits.” Donaldson et al. (eds.) (2002), pp. 33–38.

  2. The spokesman on this side is Ed Freeman, in his essay “Stakeholder Theory of the Modern Corporation.” Donaldson et al. (eds.) (2002), pp. 38–48.

  3. Though it has earlier antecedents, by “modern Catholic Social Teaching,” historians typically mean the teaching developed in Papal and other church documents inaugurated by Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891, and developed continuously in both papal and other official documents of the Catholic Church.

  4. Pope Francis (2015a, b), #129.

  5. He reminded our elected statesmen of their calling to lead their fellow citizens by protecting their dignity “in the demanding pursuit of the common good, for the is the chief aim of all politics.”

  6. Paul VI. Vatican Council II. 1965, # II.26.

  7. Piux XII works analyzes the distinctions among social bodies in Mystici Corporis. “In a natural body the principle of unity unites the parts in such a manner that each lacks in its own individual subsistence; on the contrary, in the Mystical Body the mutual union, though intrinsic, links the members by a bond which leaves to each the complete enjoyment of his own personality. Moreover, if we examine the relations existing between the several members and the whole body, in every physical, living body, all the different members are ultimately destined to the good of the whole alone; while if we look to its ultimate usefulness, every moral association of men is in the end directed to the advancement of all in general and of each single member in particular; for they are persons.” (Mystici, 61).

  8. The form of a social group varies from families, to labor unions, churches or nations. The history of the concept of social group, or “society,” with special public standing, or “dignity,” is traced by Russell Hittinger in his seminal article, “The Coherence of Catholic Social Doctrine.” Key to the history is a developing distinction between the unity of a single organism (“natural unity”) and the “unity of order” (unitas ordinis) of social unity characteristic of a group of the kind in question. Unlike the unity of a human being, where to separate the parts of mind and body would destroy the organism, the unity of social body permits the individual parts or members to come and go while the social body persists. This explains somewhat the definitions need to refer to individuals as well as social groups, for the former have an existence that transcends membership in any one group. See also Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, 61 (above), and John Paul II’s reference to social groups as “subjective unities” in. Further, social unity is ordered toward unified action, and social bodies will be distinguished by the ends for which they act.

  9. “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone. This is the foundation of the universal destination of the earth's goods.” Pope John Paul II (1991) #31. While John Paul II is often credited with emphasizing this concept, it is important to note that the idea has deep roots in CST and church history.

  10. For the theme of “participation” as an individual’s right in the light of justice, see Economic Justice for All (USCCB 1986, #15).

  11. David Hollenbach has emphasized the link between the common good and “non-instrumental” values in modern societies. While social life is “necessary [instrumentally] to meet a person’s needs for food, shelter, familial nurturance in childhood, basic education, the protection of public safety, etc.,” social interaction is also intrinsically valuable as the ground of common action and meaningful relationships. He further writes, “the common good of a republic fulfills needs that individuals cannot fulfill on their own and simultaneously realizes non-instrumental values that can only be obtained in our life together. These non-instrumental values include the relationships that come into existence and public speech, joint action, and shared self-governance…They are goods that, by their very nature, cannot be enjoyed privately.” pp. 81–83.

  12. As Russell Hittinger writes, “the Aristotelian-Thomist ontology of unity of order is meant as a point of departure for empirical and moral investigation. It allows us to begin correctly…”.

  13. Freeman’s piece mentioned in note two spells out this dynamic. See Freeman, Ed. “Stakeholder Theory of the Modern Corporation” in Donaldson et al. (eds.) (2002), pp. 38–48.

  14. In a poignant passage from the encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI articulates what is missing from the individualist picture of society, here in it ‘state plus market’ conception. His reference to “communion” is, I believe, closely related to the common good. “When both the logic of the market and the logic of the State come to an agreement that each will continue to exercise a monopoly over its respective area of influence, in the long term much is lost: solidarity in relations between citizens, participation and adherence, actions of gratuitousness, all of which stand in contrast with giving in order to acquire (the logic of exchange) and giving through duty (the logic of public obligation, imposed by State law). In order to defeat underdevelopment, action is required not only on improving exchange-based transactions and implanting public welfare structures, but above all on gradually increasing openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion. The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society. The market of gratuitousness does not exist, and attitudes of gratuitousness cannot be established by law. Yet both the market and politics need individuals who are open to reciprocal gift (Benedict XVI 2009, # 39).

  15. N.p., n.d. The Timken Company. Web. May 18, 2016.

  16. N.p., n.d. TimkenSteel. Web. May 18, 2016.

  17. Schwartz (2014).

  18. N.p., n.d. Relational Investors LLC. Web. May 18, 2016. The website has shut down since I accessed it. The page now simply states that the firm concluded all its business activities in December of 2015.

  19. Cf. Nussbaum (1990), 40–43.

  20. See Nussbaum (1990), pp. 3–10.

  21. Schwartz (2014).

  22. Berger (2013), pp. 189–190.

  23. Schwartz (2014).

  24. As far as the kind of learning aimed at here, what we are after is to bring students into encounter with a concept, and progressively make them more capable of using it in description and critical evaluation.

  25. To describe the order of learning, the following aphoristic formulation occurred to me: ‘students will come to see that the common good is this (i.e., case example); students will come to see this as the common good (definition).’ The point is that students will come to grasp the concept of the common good in the same moment as they come to see the new relevance of the case depictions.

  26. Instructors might at this point reflect on ways to indicate to students how businesses can be part of a web or network of social support. The virtue of narrative is in it ability to display such webs or networks of support within a community.

  27. Indeed, my students from the area have told me that the high school football stadium there bears the “Timken” name.

  28. The PowerPoint presentation created by CALSTRS that makes this claim also states that after the proposed split the Timken family will still have ownership prerogatives, the employment levels will remain the same and two independent companies will remain headquartered in Canton. Yet this is belied by the fact that the split will make Timken a likely target for leveraged buyout, and the large multinational likely to acquire it will have no particular loyalty to Canton.

    The following comes from the Schwartz article: “Rating the stock a buy, Jefferies said, ‘Acquisition interest likely high; potential acquirers plentiful, though TMST not looking to sell cheap,’ the day before it began trading. Analysts at Gabelli & Company reached a similar conclusion. ‘We believe an acquisition has better than even odds one to two years out,’ the firm said in a report weeks later. That TimkenSteel had little debt and an overfunded pension plan at the time of the spinoff, Gabelli added, makes its balance sheet ‘ripe for a sale.’”

    The PowerPoint in question was once available at As the site is no longer live, I owe my access to it to Dr. Terence Lau, Associate Dean of the School of Business Administration at the University of Dayton. He used The Way Back Machine to gain access.

  29. Reviewing the retirement fund’s argument with students, an instructor should point out that it is true that no jobs will be lost immediately, and that the family maintains ownership for the present. But seen in the broader light of Timken’s history in Canton, these are surface facts. They don’t do justice to the web of relations that have formed between company and town. Put differently, taken as CALSTRS takes them, these facts would make the fear of locals like Allison seem irrational. But when you acknowledge their place in the economic story of places like Canton—where large, loyal companies become a part of the web of support and then are bought by an industry giant and shut down—the fear becomes well grounded.


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Correspondence to Mark R. Ryan.

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Ryan, M.R. Teaching the Common Good in Business Ethics: A Case Study Approach. J Bus Ethics 147, 693–704 (2018).

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  • The common good
  • Catholic social teaching
  • Business ethics
  • Case study instruction
  • Narrative
  • Pope Francis
  • The Timken Company