Niggling question lies at heart of moral snobbery

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 December, 2011, 12:00am


Government funding support should favour entrepreneurs who aspire to do good and do well.

Rachel Chan, convenor, Make a Difference award.

Letters to the editor, December 13

We are back to this business of social enterprise again. I seem to have stirred things up a bit with a recent column accusing social enterprise boosters of moral snobbery. None of them liked it (I make no apologies). I also think few, if any, of them understood it.

Ms Chan tried to clear the air a little in her letter to the editor, but her attempts to define social enterprise left things as murky as before. It's contextual, she said, which leaves you only with enough relativity to mystify even Albert Einstein. I have yet to come across a commonly accepted definition.

All that we can say in very general terms is that social enterprise is about companies that set public good before private profit. Invariably, they then say they should be given the key to the public purse for these intended good deeds. Give us money because we don't care about money. Yes, I have problems with the logic of that, too.

But let us consider a reverse approach to this matter of 'entrepreneurs who aspire to do good'. Instead of including those who do good, let us exclude those who do evil and let us select an obvious example of an enterprise that does evil. We shall pick a manufacturer of bombs.

We are not talking here of an amateur kitchen operation run by a group of insurgents. We are talking of the kind of hi-tech effort that makes the sort of bombs dropped from remotely-controlled drones on wedding parties in Afghanistan. We are talking of a big company with listed shares. Surely there is no redeeming quality, no doing of good, in such a company. Surely it could never be thought a social enterprise.

But stop. A different view says that every responsible nation state should maintain a military presence to protect its borders from invaders. Bomb-making is an essential part of maintaining a military. You can't expect your soldiers to defend you if you don't give them weapons. Arms manufacturers thus provide a valuable service to society.

Personally, I don't buy it. I am of the view that guns use people rather than the other way round and that weapons are always a curse. But it's a minority view and I know it. Take any sufficiently wide poll of the general population and you will find majority support for maintaining a formal military defence.

By what authority is anyone then to say on behalf of society that arms manufacturing is an evil enterprise? Say it for yourself by all means. Say it for me. But you cannot say it on behalf of everyone. In fact, you probably cannot say it on behalf of the majority.

And this is the crucial point about social enterprises that say they should be given public money. They ask for support from the general population based on their own special definitions of good and bad enterprises, when the general population may not agree with them on these definitions. Take note that we specifically exclude criminal enterprises here. Our bomb maker complies with every law of its land.

This leads to a simple conclusion. All commercial enterprises must be considered socially beneficial enterprises unless prohibited by law. They all provide goods and services that people want. We know this is so because people pay money for those goods and services.

And hence my point about moral snobbery: it is elitist vanity for any one segment of society to claim that it has special insights and can decide for all others, without further reference to them, which specific enterprises or industries are good for us and which are bad. The old philosopher's question always intrudes: how do you know?

I'm not saying that you cannot take a personal moral view. I take one. Bomb makers are evil enterprises. But neither you nor I have a right to impose this view on others. I am quite happy to see social enterprises stake their moral high ground but not with money taken from the public purse.

In fact, I shall go further than this. I think my view is the democratic one and that the alternative - that self-defined social enterprises should have the right to public money - smacks of fascism.

But let's just call it moral snobbery for the moment.

That will do.