Trinidad and Tobago is a morally unhealthy society with unsustainable business practices, Professor of Business and Professional Ethics at The University of the West Indies Surendra Arjoon has said.
Speaking at the Professorial Inaugural Lecture on the topic "What went wrong with the world: The ethical challenge for business in the 21st century" at the Noor Hassanali Lecture Room at UWI, St Augustine last Thursday evening Arjoon said there was a need to examine what business was doing for society.
"For the last 200 years there has really been a moral decay and it is just headed in one direction. It is reflected in the mental and moral disorders in society. Business and society used to be intimately and intrinsically related. That connection has been broken.
I think we have forgotten what is important and many of us are just interested in the short term, that is filling our pockets but the deeper things that affect the society are not being addressed. The current business practices are not sustainable and if there is a foreign exchange crisis a lot of us will go under and again."
He believed it was the leadership of the business that had to understand it was up to them to set an agenda.
But, "with the shareholder's view that they want a high return in a short time it is a model that is killing businesses and it is not sustainable," he added.
Arjoon said the idea of a moral responsibility rather than corporate social responsibility ought to be brought into the fray because the world was getting worse, not just in the business world but in totality, and people were not realising it.
"I think what is going on with the world, all this Arab Spring (protests in the Middle East) is a reaction to the lack of respect for human dignity. The major factor that impacts on behaviour is socialisation, and it has been proven as evidenced in a study done locally by criminologist Professor Ramesh Deosaran, that the people who commit crimes come from broken homes yet nothing is being done to address the issue of broken homes.
Many of us have forgotten that evil, meaning wrong doing is not a thing, it is the absence of something. So to address the issues in business you need to put good back into the society, but to recognise it is the first thing," he said.
Arjoon said it was the focus on goods and efficiency that tended to corrupt business practices and men were unable to define their environments but were defined by the environments they operated in.
"And here it is a reflection on the weakness at the level of the leadership."
The University, he said, realised this problem at the leadership level and looked at the organisational concept then targeted the leadership.
However, the difficulty was that if someone did not know what they were doing was wrong, it was difficult for them to move away from the behaviour.
"The materialistic view of who the person is and what is called the good of efficiency; what we can touch, what we can see and we compromise our happiness for it because the distinction is between having and being."
He said the goods of excellence have been neglected as well which was why some employees saw chief executive officers as not being interested in workers' interests.
"That is a dissonance in organisations and until that is remedied we would not get the type of productivity needed," he said.
Corporate governance is supposed to be a collective thing but from his experience on the boards on which he sits there is a culture of silence because directors don't have the courage to speak, he added.
Arjoon said he listened attentively because he was a student of human behaviour, and the language that is used in this society is a language of denial.
Arjoon, who said he liked to focus on how to positively impact situations, said focus needed to be placed on those leaders who are enlightened and have the disposition to change.
The burden of responsibility was at all levels but there was need to focus at the level of the individual.
Virtuous leaders who won't sell their souls for a plate of lentils are needed, he said, but the traditional code of ethics is not effective.
"So the ethics that are being taught in business schools, they are reaching people's heads but not their hearts and the issue is how do you reach both," he said.