Profit Fetishism: no place in the triple bottom line?

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The thought that maximising profit is the ultimate aim of business, popularised most famously by Milton Friedman in the 1970s, is not merely perverse, but it is also founded on triumphalist simple-mindedness informed by a deeply naive psychology of greed.

I think it is safe to say that there is general consensus that Friedman’s conception of the ultimate function of business is deeply flawed.

The spectacular fiascoes brought about by corporate greed illustrate the failures of the bottom line approach, as do the obscene levels of inequality across the globe.

But what there is less consensus on — judging from the movement in the aims-of-business debate from bottom line thinking to triple bottom line thinking — is on the view that the very idea that an ultimate aim of business is profit maximisation is deeply misguided for reasons that are akin to the standard criticisms of the monistic bottom line approach.

This suggests that a very important problem with bottom line thinking has not been properly understood. Were this the case, people would not be so quick to embrace triple bottom line thinking.

The problem is that profit is simply not an ultimate aim. Hence, it has no place on a list of ultimate aims.

As illustrated by Aesop’s fable “The Miser”, a pile of money locked up in a room is literally good for nothing. You may as well have a pile of rocks. Whether a pile of money is good or not depends in the end on how it is used.

So its goodness is entirely derivative, that is, relative to what use it is put to.

Similarly. just because food is necessary for human life, does not mean that eating is one of life’s ultimate aims.

Eating is for the sake of life and its goodness is parasitical on the role that it plays in sustaining human life. A life dedicated ultimately to eating would be a very odd life indeed (even if this ultimate aim was shared with other such aims). Not even Jamie Oliver would defend this view. And yet the mainstream contemporary corporation is smitten with an isomorphic absurdity.

So profit cannot be a defining aim of business. What defines a given business, good or bad, is at least in part what use they are putting profit to. Consequently its aim cannot be just to make shareholders or executives rich, or something like this, for the question still remains regarding what the point of wealth is.

To understand what that point is, we need to have a conception of how profits are put to use or, better, how the profits ought to be put to use.

Roughly speaking, this is a question that advocates of triple bottom line thinking ask themselves, but the fundamental confusion informing their views does not allow them properly to defend the sort of transformation in the corporate sector that is so desperately required.

  • Pedro Tabensky is Director of the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics at Rhodes University. This article was published on