Connecting Capitalism, Profit-Making and Ethical Behavior: Examples from Three HDS Alums

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Lest the public views Harvard Divinity School (HDS) as inherently liberal politically and anti-capitalist, a recent article illuminates the many ways in which Harvard faculty, courses, and community have greatly influenced high-powered leaders in the for-profit sector in very meaningful and life-altering ways.

The online article by Paul Massari in November 2017 featured the work and values of three HDS graduates with Master of Theological Studies (MTS) degrees: Karim A. Hutson MTS ’08, founder and managing member of Genesis; Katherine Collins MTS ’11, head of sustainable investing at Boston-based Putnam Investments; and James Hackett MTS ’16, Executive Chairman and Chief Operating Officer – Midstream – of Alta Mesa Resources. (Full disclosure: I too hold the MTS degree from HDS; I’m not personally acquainted with any of these three individuals or their organizations.)

In addition to having in common their HDS degrees, Hutson, Collins and Hackett share other traits. All came to HDS from the for-profit sector, are firm believers in the benefits of capitalism for the common good, and gained a great deal of information and insight from HDS faculty and courses.

Hutson credits HDS Professor Cheryl Giles, at least in part, for teaching him several practical skills that guide his leadership of Genesis, “a full-service development and construction firm enhancing communities in New York and New Jersey.” From Giles’ course on pastoral care and counseling, Hutson “learned to listen and communicate in a way that has become the hallmark of Genesis’ reputation and its brand.” In the complex, multi-faceted projects undertaken by Genesis, which leverage the positives of urban communities, understanding, listening, and talking to people “in a way that makes them feel heard and respected” are foundational and crucial to the for-profit’s success.

For Katherine Collins, ethics are paramount. In her work, environmental, social, and governance factors are at the center of investing strategy. For Collins, it was Professor Francis Fiorenza who most influenced her thinking as a corporate executive. In Fiorenza’s course on power, Collins was able to hone her own approaches. She came to understand that, rather than having a rules-based regulatory framework, businesses of the 21st century need to be principles-based; this emphasis “puts a greater burden on responsibility, as opposed to liability, and is more adaptive over time. . . . [To] really transform the industry you need investors who are motivated by purpose, and service, and loyalty.”

Ethics is also paramount for James Hackett. For him, it was Professors Michelle Sanchez, Frank Clooney, SJ, Catherine BrekusHealan Gaston, and Associate Dean Emily Click who taught him “about the intersection of capitalism and moral precepts.” A devout Roman Catholic who is steeped in other religious traditions, Hackett says that his HDS experience gave him “confidence to include moral precepts for economic systems from the lens of four different religious traditions.” He now interacts regularly with undergraduates on issues around ethics and economics as he teaches a course called “Moral Leadership in Economics” at both Rice University and the University of Texas.

As Hackett stated in an interview with Forbes in August 2017, “God didn’t put us here to be good. He put us here to do good. And do it in a morally proper manner.” Viewing capitalism as inherently evil, as many progressives do, is, in my opinion, a fruitless exercise. Countering the excesses of capitalism, and making capitalism truly work for the vast majority of the people, are morally acceptable goals – if not moral imperatives. We can learn a great deal from the examples of the graduates of HDS and other divinity schools who successfully and ethically blend the for-profit ethos with values and practices that benefit the common good.


2 thoughts on “Connecting Capitalism, Profit-Making and Ethical Behavior: Examples from Three HDS Alums”

  1. Bookworm says:

    I know it’s difficult to impossible to imagine the United States without capitalism at its core, but I just finished a rather remarkable book called People Get Ready: the Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols who argue that capitalism without a very strong democracy (i.e., not what we have now) will leave vast swathes of Americans un- or underemployed in increasing numbers with no power to do anything about it. This is due to the enormous advances in automation and AI which will enable our corporate overloads to replace us with machines. I know, it sounds alarmist but it’s already happening. Machines are cheaper than people and they never want time off or rights or any of the rest.

    The authors of this book outline in detail the gains people made — due to their own agitating — in the last couple centuries, as well as the way in which all those gains have been eroded in recent years, to the point where most people don’t even think of them as rights anymore. These include the 8 hour day, a living wage, an education focused on educating citizens (not “readiness for the global workforce”), and the like.

    The function of capitalism is to maximize profits — period. I’m afraid I don’t agree that capitalists such as Zuckerberg and Bezos (etc etc) will ever choose to put people into their equations except as sources for further profits for themselves. Then again, I’m old school and have little faith in businessmen who, in my view, have given me very little reason to trust them!

  2. Wisdom Words says:

    Yes, very good and important points. (I keep trying to be an optimist – sigh…) Thanks for your comment!

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