Adela Cortina: “If companies are immoral, our world is insufferable”

Adela Cortina, Professor of Ethics, at the Étnor headquarters in Valencia.Monica Torres

Adela Cortina began to speak of ethics in the business world when in Spain it was a barely explored field. Just 30 years ago, what was going to be a conference became a seminar, the germ of the unique Étnor Foundation for Business and Organization Ethics, directed by this professor of Ethics at the University of Valencia. Cortina, who coined the neologism of aporophobia (phobia of poor or disadvantaged people), admitted by the RAE, has since brought together businessmen and academics. “Values ​​and ethics sell”, assures the also collaborator of EL PAÍS.

Question. How does it arise Ethnic and because?

Answer. When the former CEO of Bancaja, Emilio Tortosa, of whom today [por este miércoles] we presented a book, he wanted a conference to be given on what was being talked about in Europe. I asked him to organize a seminar with businessmen and academics on the new business ethics that emerged in the United States in the 1970s and spread throughout Europe in the 1980s. So there was an open debate about what Milton Friedman said that the sole responsibility of the company was to create shareholder value, period.

P. And why do they contact you?

R. We had been Jesús Conill [su marido, filósofo] and me in Germany. We had a relationship with [Karl-Otto] Apel, with [Jürgen] Habermas, who worked on the ethics of dialogue and began to work on applied ethics, such as that of the company, in bioethics … I started in metaphysics and moved on to ethics. In Spain the Transition was taking place and there were people concerned about having a civic ethic for all Spaniards, a moral pluralism. There was only one ethic of National Catholicism.

P. How has business ethics evolved in these 30 years?

R. Ethics have largely been internalized. When we started, ethics and business seemed like oil and water, but it has developed around the world, with concepts such as corporate social responsibility. And more now. Every company has a triple bottom line: economic, social and environmental. The income statement is important, of course, but the social dimension, too.

P. A responsibility that can be used as a mere hook, right?

R. Like everything in this world. But even if it works like a hook, it is because ethics sells. And that already seems positive to me from the start, that the securities sell. When you enter into that dynamic, things change inside.

P. Right now, the responsibility of three large pharmaceutical companies in the opioid health crisis in the United States is being resolved.

R. The opioid thing is embarrassing. Ethics and law are two sides of the coin of justice. Not everything can be regulated. The important thing is that the company builds character from within and its greatest success is creating an ethical climate.

P. Cases like this abound in that idea that business and ethics are different things.

R. It is a gross error. All companies are not the same. We all play it in the gradations. It is one of the reasons why Étnor was born. The company is the fundamental institution in the modern world. Like it or not. If companies are immoral, our world is insufferable. Some try to create jobs, make them permanent, offer childcare, help with family conciliation … Today there is a greater sensitivity towards this issue. Young people take more into account these aspects to stay in a company.

P. You mentioned Friedman, in some way a disciple of Adam Smith’s liberalism, who, while speaking of the invisible hand of the market, also attached importance to feelings.

R. Let’s see, Friedman is in neoliberalism, which arises as a reaction to the welfare state. It is reactive, reactionary, it is not the same as the liberals who are creating the world of exchange, of freedom. Poor Smith has been greatly misunderstood. You have to read it. He says that a society that does not care for the poor and vulnerable cannot be happy. He thinks that there must be a state that takes care of setting the frames, although not as much as the welfare state has been afterwards. It speaks of the corruption of our societies that we admire only the rich and powerful and we despise the poor no matter how wise they are. Amartya sen [premio Nobel de Economía] picks up that way of thinking of Smith when he talks about the functioning of the economy with the feelings of selfishness, sympathy and commitment.

P. Are all these matters dealt with in Étnor?

R. Sure, and we are changing topics in the seminars. Now a key issue is artificial intelligence and business. Entrepreneurs tell us about their experience, the ethical perspectives in their company. We talk a lot now about sustainable development goals. Ethics attract people and talent. There is an increasing demand to work with ethical companies.

P. A part of the academic world continues to reject the business world, right?

R. In Spain, yes; in the US it is different. There is a certain rejection of companies, as if they were ruthless organizations that only seek to maximize profit, whoever falls. I think it is a big mistake. Apart from the fact that there are companies of all kinds, let’s not forget that a horchatería or a bookstore are also companies. Businesses create wealth. We had a hard time overcoming that rejection. There is a position on the left that is very opposed to the business world, although there are many left-wing businessmen. There is that rejection, although it is becoming less and less.

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Adela Cortina: “If companies are immoral, our world is insufferable”