‘It’s just business.’
This is one of my least favorite phrases of all time.
It seems to be used, generally, to explain away unpleasant, unkind, or unethical behavior, or to avoid addressing or dealing with the undesirable side effects of a difficult but necessary decision, in a situation where money is involved.
Yet just because the phrase ‘it’s just business’ might be used only in difficult or unpleasant situations, that doesn’t make it wrong, does it? Couldn’t it be a shorthand way of pointing out that it’s impossible to make everyone happy in every business transaction, since it involves two or more opposing sets of interests? In fact, the phrase could be revealing humane concern, a regret that there are often undesirable side effects to the other in conducting business.
Yes, I allow; the utterer could be expressing these sentiments, choosing this phrase because it’s a ready-made, widely understood part of our lexicon.
But we don’t hear it being used this way much, do we? It seems this phrase is almost always used to justify rudeness, treating human beings as if they’re merely a means to an end or taking advantage of an opportunity to exploit others; to explain away bribery, theft, extortion, bullying, abuse… It’s not generally used in cases of honest dealing, of courtesy and respect for other person(s) involved in a transaction, of doing one’s best to make sure an employee is treated or ‘let go’ in as just and fair a manner as possible. In such situations, no such disclaimer is necessary.
So why am I bringing this up? What’s caused me to think about why and how people use this phrase, and for it to rankle with me enough to write this essay?
Full disclosure: I have a working gal’s chip on my shoulder.
I’ve worked for a living my entire life, since I was about seventeen. Most of those years I worked in customer service. I’ve prepared and served food and drink, I’ve sold goods and services, I’ve made art and things to wear, I’ve lifted and carried loads, I’ve decorated and cleaned, I’ve answered phone calls, I’ve scheduled appointments and events… The list goes on. I consider it all honest work, and I think… no, I know
, I’ve helped make life better for many, many people along the way.
All this is true, in fact, of most of the people in the world. Behind every counter and cash register, on the receiving end of every phone call and email, in every kitchen and factory and field and warehouse and office and hospital, other people’s work make our lives better. We depend on them for providing the necessities and the luxuries of life. Their hard work makes our lives enjoyable and even possible. Given this fact, it never fails to disappoint me, and sometimes still surprises me, how often people feel entitled to treat working people with condescension, disdain, and even abuse, from the first moment of interaction.
Now most people I’ve worked for and done business with have been decent, many more have been polite, friendly and supportive, and some have been the loveliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, some have become dear friends. I consider myself lucky that in so many ways, throughout the course of my working life, I’ve enjoyed a great deal of moral and financial support, others’ concern for my well-being, a richness of interesting experiences, of opportunities to improve my situation, of the goodness of other people, and of the chance to expand my talents, exercise my creativity and problem solving skills, and best of all, to never stop learning.
But I also couldn’t possibly begin to make a full account of the number of times I’ve felt dismissed, condescended to, treated like a machine or a servant, and attacked for all manner of disappointments and inconveniences (real or perceived) whether I was responsible for them or not, simply by virtue of being on the other side of that counter, that receipt book, that telephone, that paycheck. I am also keenly aware how instrumental I was, or at least tried to be, in making that person’s life better at that moment. And this, again, is true of every working person in the world. Without us working people, no one could eat food, drink water, keep themselves and their homes and cities clean, travel, heal their ills, enjoy any luxuries, and so on, in comfort and security. And of course, the category ‘us working people’ include the vast majority of humanity. Most of us work for a living, and each job we do involves at least some kind of business interaction. It’s work that provides the (real) goods and services for sale in any business transaction. And almost all of us who live in this world have had many occasions to bemoan ill treatment in our capacities as workers and engagers in business.
This is where we arrive at the connection between the phrase ‘it’s just business’ and why it bothers me so much. I detest it because it expresses an attempt to dehumanize the interaction and, by extension, the person one does business with. It implies that one can remove the ‘human element’, the consideration of the other as a being with moral worth to whom we have certain obligations, from the realm of business. And if it’s not really a human interaction, therefore, one does not have to act with kindness, fairness, or respect.
I argue that this the attempt to dehumanize business is impossible: business is entirely about people. All business transactions are a type of human interaction. It’s true that when we make a bargain, when we exchange money for something we want, certain elements are added to the interaction. There are problems of fairness to be resolved, there’s customer loyalty to be won, the need for expediency may be pressing, and so forth. But all types of human interaction contain unique elements: all involve a particular combination of expectations, obligations, etiquette, and other considerations. The fact that it’s a business transaction, and not another kind, does not subtract from the basic fact that all parties are human beings to whom we owe a basic level of respect and courtesy.
Business, in this sense, is always
Most of us, most of the time, recognize this. Most business, day to day, is conducted in a reasonably courteous and decent way. We greet the other person, we say thank you (if not always ‘please’), we ‘shake hands on it’. We don’t usually lie, steal, or bully to get what we want. We treat our colleagues and employees with decency at least when we come into direct contact with them, we praise their work and give them raises and bonuses if we can, we usually feel regret, at least on some level, if we feel we need to fire them, and we hope they do well in the future. When we consider the phrase ‘it’s just business’, we realize that it holds little meaning when considered in light of how we usually behave. Understood as ‘it’s just a human interaction that involves money,’ we realize it’s a rather meaningless statement.
So it appears clear that we resort to this phrase when doing the right thing by the person we’re doing business with becomes difficult or inexpedient to getting what we want. And I fear it’s became far too widely, and far too unquestioningly, accepted when used this way. Why have we come to acquiesce to the idea that when money enters an interaction, that its appropriate to overlook or cast aside our concern for the cost in human dignity, in respect, well-being, rights, justice, and simple decency? I fear that in our enthusiasm for the benefits of the marketplace, we too easily become complacent to what can be lost.
What we can lose is the respect we should have, as a central feature of our character, for the moral worth of others, and that if we let that slip, we undermine ourselves as social creatures, and in turn, everyone’s prospects for well-being. If our dignity, our moral worth, is up for sale, then the marketplace, ideally a highly cooperative, mutually beneficial institution, devolves into an arms ace where the most ruthless thrive in the short term, while trust erodes and the whole system of collapses in the long run. We can recognize this by comparing and contrasting various societies and their market systems, contemporary and historical. Oligarchies, tyrannies, rigidly enforced class systems and aristocracies, ideologically-based planned economies, are all extreme examples of how the disregard of individual human worth and dignity cause a marketplace to lose its ability to benefit all, and ultimately to self-destruct.
So, from a matter as minor as rudeness to a salesperson, to as serious as slavery, the same principle applies. The exchange of money for something we want or need makes no difference, morally, to the basic way we should treat anyone. That’s because, while goods or services are marketable, a person’s moral worth can never be, and should never be, up for sale.
It’s true that we’re sometimes justified in expressing anger and disappointment when doing business. Sometimes others fail, a little or a lot, in performing their part of the bargain or duties of their job, and we feel quite unfriendly when that’s the case. Sometimes others fail to provide good customer service, and are rude and unhelpful from the start. Sometimes others provide ‘services’ and products that are faulty, useless, or even harmful. In these circumstances it’s just to criticize their work, or to withhold or take back payment if the terms of the exchange aren’t fulfilled, or to let them know that you won’t be patronizing their business again. It’s appropriate, in such cases, and to voice one’s displeasure.
But this just reaction to the failure of the other to fulfill their part of the bargain is not what I’m criticizing here. It’s the unspoken attitude, unfortunately too widespread in my observation, that the person with the money in the exchange is automatically entitled to be abrupt and impersonal, to always demand, command, act impatient, and even abuse those they’re paying, in a manner inconsistent with respect for human dignity. It’s implied in the adage ‘the customer is always right.’ Are you the recipient of a payment, for goods or services, or as an employee on the clock? If so, many think, you are immediately transformed into a legitimate target for frustration, impatience, desire, greed, and sense of entitlement, whether or not you were responsible for the disappointment. In this sense, it feels as if you are no longer a person to them. Because if they consider you a person, wouldn’t they feel that they should be polite, respectful, or at a minimum, not rude or hateful to you, just as they would any other person?
Again, to argue that business is not personal, that it removes much or even all of the human element, is to make a very serious claim, with dire repercussions. It would imply that the moral worth of a human being is calculable in dollars and cents, and that it can be bought and sold. I argue that the number value of money and the degree of significance of a human life can never be aligned, and that you can’t ‘pay away’ your moral obligations towards any human being. When you pay for a good or a service, that, and only that, is what you pay for. Your payment does not apply in any way to your moral obligation to respect others.
One might object: ‘I didn’t choose to enter into any kind of relationship with the person I’m doing business with, they just happened to be the one I had to interact with to get something I need or want. Shouldn’t relationships be a matter of choice? Why, then, can’t a business interaction be impersonal, especially if members of a society agree that it’s impersonal?’
To begin with, all human interactions ultimately belong in the category of unchosen relationships. We stumble upon interactions with people all the time, and it’s a fact of life that all relationships occur because of chance circumstances, at least at first. We don’t choose for ourselves who we pass by on the street, who the open seat on the subway is next to, who our classmates, colleagues, or the new neighbors will be, who the people we already know will introduce us to, or who our parents, siblings, and relatives are. They become part of our world via circumstances out of our control. Since all human interactions belong in the same category. I argue, the same basic obligation to be just, polite, and respectful applies equally in all human interactions.
Secondly: one can no more give away or sell one’s own moral worth than they can choose to negate or buy another’s. That’s because human worth, mutual obligations of respect and duty and mutual dependence, are not merely a part of some unspoken contract. They are a feature of human nature by virtue of the fact that we are social and rational, and therefore, moral beings. ‘X cannot buy or sell away the moral with of Y‘ is equally true, if we are indeed rational, social beings, whether the variables X and Y are replaced in that statement by ‘you’ or ‘I’. (1)
It’s a fundamental part of the human condition that we are all bound together in a mutual web of obligation and dependency. Without one another, we would not get very far in life, and all we achieve, all we do, are the result of the combination of our own efforts with the contributions of others. One needs the ingenuity and knowledge of physics of the inventor and the architect when one needs a car, a bridge, a home, and owes a debt of gratitude for the resulting vast improvement in the ease and comfort of life. The inventor and the architect, in turn, needs the labor of the miner, the smelter, and the carpenter, and owes not only money, but respect and gratitude for supplying the raw material, without which their designs could not be realized, and for being among their clients, without which their wealth could not be earned and their work would not be needed. One needs the knowledge and skill and of the physician when health fails, and owes to her gratitude, admiration, and respect for the services she provides, and the hard work and intelligence it required to attain her abilities to heal. The physician needs the fruit of the work of the laborer in the field to sustain her life, and owes the laborer gratitude, admiration, and respect for the difficulty of the work performed and the fact that her life is sustained through his labor. The exchange of money is simply the means by which the exchange is organized; the basic fact that we all depend on each other, and have moral obligations to each other, is not altered by its usage.
(1) Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011, Viking Penguin, New York. pp 647-648