What can we learn from Lent?


Easter is one of those festivals that probably makes little sense to people who don't go to church. Like Christmas, it's easiest just to thank God for the holiday and the chocolate, and take a day or so off from email. But actually Easter is an interesting festival for business people. Not just for the day itself, but for what comes before it.

Added on 31 March 2015 by Eve Poole

Jesus on Palm Sunday

In Christian tradition, Lent precedes Easter as a period of austerity, penance, and preparation. The events at the heart of Easter have inspired much of Western culture, and understanding these can help to make sense of a lot of our cultural inheritance. So strong has the influence of Christianity been for the last two thousand years, that few intellectual advances are not influenced by it. So when I smelled a rat about capitalism, delving into this milieu was a good way to find out where modern capitalism came from, and where the fault-lines first emerged.

In the popular imagination, Adam Smith invented capitalism. Of course that's not quite true, but the blueprint he spelled out in The Wealth of Nations in 1776 has had more influence on economic thought than any other. What is well known about Smith is that he wasn't an economist, but a moral philosopher, who wrote his Theory of Moral Sentiments before he wrote The Wealth of Nations. So yes, he was assuming the sort of Enlightenment consensus that we no longer have today, and that capitalism would be understood in a moral context.

Looking at the religious mindset prevalent in Smith's day, a fissure immediately appears between Enlightenment thinking and a religious world-view. One of Smith's contemporaries and friends was the philosopher David Hume, who is famous for mainstreaming scepticism, or the idea that any claim made must be supported by tangible evidence. Along with John Stuart-Mill, he ensured that the prevailing ethic that emerged from the Enlightenment was Utilitarianism. Ever wondered why we have to have a business case, or do cost-benefit analysis? Hume and Stuart-Mill are to thank for that.

But this seemingly sensible development is actually hugely problematic. It means we have long been able to claim our actions are ethical by simply managing outcomes. Over time this has allowed us to make sense of all kinds of dubious decisions on the basis that the ends justify the means, all the while knowing that this isn’t really the case.

Currently we compensate for this by fixing corporate misbehaviour with sticking-plaster regulation, but is this really enough? Increasing the risk of a negative outcome simply creates an arms race between the lawyers and those who seek to out-manoeuver them. We need to move away from this thin transactional ethic into a more virtuous one.

For those corporates struggling with this challenge, Lent is rather interesting. It has a lot of secular appeal, with the idea of 'giving up' providing an engaging challenge. And it's one of the last public traditions which is about schooling people in virtue. For 40 days you are encouraged to pick something and do it every day - give up booze, stop swearing, help grannies across roads. Yes, maybe because of the 'reward' of Easter eggs, but most people actually do it because it's good for the character. Keeping Lent reassures us that we have some will-power, and can behave well if we try hard enough. 

So I would like to propose a new discipline, a ‘Corporate Lent’. You've got a whole year to plan it, and to crowd-source ideas for virtue pilots. You could try paying all your invoices within 28 days, or maybe sourcing local. The joy of Lent is that it's only 40 days, which works out as just over 30 working days once you exclude weekends and bank holidays. Just 6 weeks to experiment in better ways of being corporately virtuous. And individuals could choose their own mini-projects. Fewer emails and more face-to-face? Less gossiping? Better listening?

Virtue ethics is all about being good for the sake of it, so that you are limber enough to be effortlessly ethical when the occasion demands it. How could you get in training to be a better you?