Special Report on Business Ethics: Business for Peace

At the turn of the 20th century, Indian laborers in South Africa led what American philosopher Henry David Thoreau might have called lives of quiet desperation. Deprived of political rights and forced to work under inhumane economic conditions, they might have been excused for taking up arms to fight for better lives. In a twist that made history, they chose not to do so. Instead, many followed a virtually unknown Indian lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, who advocated confronting injustice through non-violence. In 1906, Gandhi coined a term to describe this approach to dealing with conflict: Satyagraha, or truthful, polite insistence.

Once Gandhi had shown how effective satyagraha could be as a strategy for winning results in South Africa, he moved to India and demonstrated that the approach worked equally well on that sub-continent. When textile mill workers in Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat agitated for higher wages, Gandhi deployed satyagraha to lead them. He urged the same approach when indigo growers in Bihar in eastern India demanded higher prices for their crops. Whenever hostile economic circumstances threatened to ignite conflict, Gandhi gently pointed out that the solution lay not in violence but in peace.

Louis Fischer, an American journalist who wrote Gandhi’s biography in 1950, described satyagraha in these words: “Satyagraha is peaceful. If words fail to convince the adversary, perhaps purity, humility and honesty will. The opponent must be ‘weaned from error by patience and sympathy,’ weaned, not crushed; converted, not annihilated. Satyagraha is the exact opposite of the policy of an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye which ends in making everybody blind. You cannot inject new ideas into a man’s head by chopping it off; neither will you infuse a new spirit into his heart by piercing it with a dagger.”

Today the world faces similar challenges that Gandhi and his generation did. Globalization, technological change, immigration, competition for resources … all these still impel adversaries to tear at one another’s throats. At such times, what role does and should business play? Does corporate involvement help reduce conflict, or does it further inflame violence and make things worse? Under what conditions do the actions of companies escalate conflict and when do they promote peace?

This report on Business for Peace attempts to answer these questions and more. Based on interviews with experts in academia as well as practitioners in business and non-governmental organizations, this is the third in a series of reports on business ethics that Knowledge@Wharton has produced in collaboration with AKO Foundation. The report tries to show — as Gandhi did more than a century ago — that violence begets violence, which begets more violence. For people to co-exist and thrive in harmony, business can and must be a force for peace.

Knowledge@Wharton thanks AKO Foundation for its support in publishing this series. Founded by Nicolai Tangen in 2013, the AKO Foundation is funded in part by the profit from AKO Capital, one of the leading European investment funds. Since its inception, the AKO Foundation has been funded with more than $50 million to support projects that improve education or promote the arts.

Knowledge@Wharton Partners


Get Knowledge@Wharton delivered to your inbox every week.