"Do less harm" - a challenging call for justice


David Fernandez SJ, Credit Universidad Iberoamericana
David Fernandez SJ, Credit Universidad Iberoamericana

David Fernandez SJ, Rector of the Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, gave this challenging speech to the graduating class of the School of Business Administration, on the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the Degree Programme.

We should not be content with philanthropy but respond to the call of Justice: to question and to bring about change, instead of reinforcing an unjust system or conforming to it.

"I am grateful to the organisers of this ceremony commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the Business Administration programme, career, and more broadly to the graduating class of this degree programme of the Ibero-American University, who invited me to say a few words as we confer the Xavier Sheifler SJ Awards. Given the importance of this occasion, and the many people present, I risk abusing your generosity to speak on the topic of magnanimity and philanthropy. I have been thinking over this for some time, pondering what I really wanted to say today. Meanwhile, I came across a speech by an Indian writer, Anand Giridharadas, which helped me realise what I wanted to stress in this ambiance of celebration and thanksgiving.

The involvement of our university in the most grievous injustices of our time

I want to reflect on the involvement of our university community, and of our graduates, in the most serious and grievous injustices of our time. And I will suggest that perhaps we are not always the positive leaders, or simply not always the persons, we would aspire to be.
In Mexico, and in the world as a whole, we have a very grave problem of inequality. In this time of radical changes and new social configurations, there are places where things flourish and others where they wilt and die. Elsewhere, I have called this radical inequality ‘social apartheid’.

Debates, deliberations about how to reduce poverty, are usually sponsored and implemented by the successful and prosperous. Our university community lives on the profits obtained by the functioning of this unjust system, since our activities are sponsored by Pepsi, Citibank, Liverpool, Samsung. We are deeply committed to the established system that we also call into question. At the same time, we are a community of Ignatian believers, with a social and business leadership that strives for justice. These two identities are truly difficult to reconcile.

Today I want to question the manner in which we reconcile them. I want to question the ethic that prevails among today's winners everywhere, in business, in government, and even in many civil society organisations.

We have never told them to do less harm to others

The core of this ethic and of our University’s project, is to challenge the fortunate to do good, even an ever-greater good: but we have never told them, nor do we tell them now, to do less harm to others.

Our standard way of thinking is to argue that capitalism has serious collateral excesses, injuries that must be mitigated, sharp edges that must be blunted, excessive rewards that must be shared: always, though, without challenging the underlying system.

The ethic of our philanthropic associations and of our alumni is to maintain that we must give back from what has been given to us: this impulse, of course, is noble and compassionate. But amidst the enormous poverty that surrounds us, of the violence that corrodes us, it is obvious that ‘to return what we have been given’ is to apply a mere band-aid to the system that has privileged the elites to which we belong, in the conscious or unconscious hope that this remedy will avert any need for major surgery on that system - a surgery that might threaten our privileges.

Our ethic, I believe, proposes generosity as a substitute for justice. What we are actually saying in this way is: ‘Make money the way everybody does, and then pay something back: by way of a donation, or by setting up a foundation, or through some other action with a social impact, some act that adds a kind of compassionate footnote to the main analysis’.

In short our ethical stance is to say, ‘Do more good’; but never to say, ‘Do less harm’.

Our role in the inequities of our time will not be kindly remembered

With this brief speech I want to begin a difficult conversation between us on these rules of the game. I do this because I love our university community, because we Jesuits are co-responsible for the formation of our graduates, and because I fear that we may not be as virtuous and Christian as we think we are; also, because I believe that history will be less generous to us than we hope, and that in the final analysis, our role in the inequities of our time will not be kindly remembered. That's why I do it.

I would like us to speak honestly about some of the harm that today’s winners inflict on others as they seek their own well-being, and before they try to compensate by doing good.

Many of us don’t  work in business or finance. Yet we live in a time when entrepreneurial assumptions and values are far more influential than they deserve to be. We see this in many other spheres too. Our culture has turned executives and business leaders into philosophers (‘Put a start-up in your life to give it meaning’), into revolutionaries (‘Change begins in yourself’), into social activists (‘Nowadays, the best business plan is to invest in the poor’), even into saviours of the poor (‘Don’t give people fish but teach them to fish’).

We seriously risk forgetting many other terms which denote authentic human progress: morality, democracy, solidarity, decency, justice. We often succumb to the seductive doctrine of Davos, that the business approach is the only way to change the world, in the face of massive historical evidence to the contrary.

When the winners of our time care to respond to the problems of poverty, inequality and injustice, they do it from within the same logic, the framework of business and markets. So we talk a lot about rewards, profit-sharing, ‘win-win’ strategies, social impact investment, corporate social responsibility, and so on.

We say much about giving more. But we don’t’ talk about taking less

Sometimes I wonder if these various ways of restoring what we have received are the modern equivalent of medieval papal indulgences: a cheap way of seeming to be on the side of justice, but without having to amend the basis of our lives.

These structures and systems produce victims, and we run the risk of confusing generosity towards those victims with justice for them. Generosity is win-win, but justice is often not.  The winners of our time don’t like the idea that, for justice to prevail, some of them will need to become losers, to make sacrifices. We do not hear many speeches indicating that the powerful and privileged are wrong, and that they must lower their status and position in favour of justice.

We say much about giving more. But we don’t’ talk about taking less. We talk a lot about how much we need to do. But we do not talk about how much we need to stop doing.

University Iberoamericana Mexico CityI realise that this intervention will not make me more popular with anyone. But I consider it a duty of conscience in line with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. I’m also aware that many of you agree with me: there are bonds stemming from the years of the Society of Jesus’s work in our University, and because we have shared the sense of something dysfunctional in our society.

The central problem is this: is your life - not simply your philanthropic project - on the side of justice? As our most recent Jesuit General Congregation would say: does your business, does your work, help us to be reconciled with our neighbours and with Creation, or does it deepen our distance from them and from the social and ecological crisis denounced by Pope Francis?

Are we helping to make an unjust and unacceptable system more digestible?

Does the world need more Chinese tycoons engaged in philanthropy, or fewer corrupt Chinese tycoons? Does the world need Goldman Sachs partners who mentor women or who donate money to schools for poor kids, or does it need Goldman partners who risk everything to say that the way their company does business is not right, who will fight to make Goldman a constructive social actor instead of a resource-extracting vampire, even if that challenge costs them their job?

Sometimes I ask myself if we are here to change the system, or so that the system will change us. Do we use our collective strength to challenge the powerful, or are we helping to make an unjust and unacceptable system more generally digestible?

After all, though, here we are, celebrating those becoming graduates of a Jesuit institution. Why? Because there is something marvellous in this community. And because we believe that we can be much more than we have been up to now: genuine servants of the Reign of God, and of the poorest and the excluded in this chaotic epoch that is crucial for the world.

However, if we really want to play that role, I think we have to consider making a fundamental change in how we direct our efforts as graduates of a university of  Christian inspiration: from working with the system to questioning the system honestly where it fails people; to move from the comforting idea of doing good without asking for whom, to the braver notion of doing good whilst putting at risk the very circumstances which give us the opportunity to do good.

So, excuse me! And thank you.

This speech, given on July 12th 2017, was reproduced on the Social Apostolate website of the Conference of Jesuit Provincials of Latin America, (CPAL)

The translation is by Frank Turner SJ