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The Relational Firm: A Buddhist and Feminist Analysis

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Looking at the world we live in with any degree of wisdom and compassion, one can not help but notice the severe problems of poverty, oppression, and environmental deterioration that are occurring in our current economic systems, which are characterized by increasing globalization and dominance of large corporations. Not surprisingly, many have made a story of strong causality from these observations: for-profit business firms, especially large ones, are placed in the role of villain in discussions of ethics and economics. Commercial interests, it is argued, are directly opposed to human interests. Competitive market pressures – it is asserted as a fact of social science – force firms to maximize profits, at whatever cost to human and other life. Another kind of economics – perhaps a ‘small is beautiful’ or ‘Buddhist’ economics à la E.F. Schumacher (1973), of small scale technologies and cooperative, egalitarian, and small scale enterprises – is thus often prescribed as the only way of bringing compassion and justice to this sorry world.

While such logic is plausible – there are certainly enough true stories of corporate irresponsibility to keep grist in the mill – the purpose of this essay is to argue that this way of thinking is at its base misleading and unhelpful. The logical structure of this story dictates that the phenomena of experience be split dualistically into categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and that substantive entities we call ‘for-profi t fi rms’ be placed in the ‘bad’ category. Such a way of thinking, I will argue, contrasts sharply with some very basic tenets of Buddhist philosophy.

The purpose of the ancient Buddhist text quoted above is to demonstrate the interdependent, relational, non-substantive nature of things we commonly consider to be objects. A chariot is not the solid, mechanical entity we perceive with our senses, nor is it identical with its axle or its wheels. We must release our too-easy conception of the chariot if we are to understand the interdependent nature of reality. Can the idea of a substantive ‘firm,’ identical with the interests of its shareholders, be similarly released? I will argue that firms can be better understood relationally, and that the space for wise and compassionate social action on economic problems is considerably widened by such an understanding. Feminist analysis forms part of the argument, because many of the obstacles to achieving a truly relational understanding of anything are very vividly illustrated by – and perhaps very strongly historically, psychologically, and spiritually rooted in – problems in gender relations.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

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