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Ethical quandaries

Authors tackle business cultures, Christian music, and tortured lives

Stuart Cahill

Ethical quandaries
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At commencement, Harvard University graduates carry symbols that represent the degrees they've achieved. The MBAs usually wave $100 bills, and the audience boos. But last graduation, two-thirds of Harvard Business School graduates carried instead a blue card printed with the "MBA Oath"-a promise they took to hold themselves to a higher ethical standard of business.

In The MBA Oath: Setting a Higher Standard for Business Leaders (Portfolio Hardcover, 2010), Harvard Business School graduates and Oath founders, Max Anderson and Peter Escher, expand the oath's ideas. The authors argue that if doctors take oaths to "do no harm," business graduates should, too.

The book is honest about the limitations of the oath and the difficulty of changing an entire business culture. It is most valuable not when it delves into pop psychology (as it often does) but when it makes specific proposals that incentivize ethics. For instance, what if an MBA was more like a lawyer or a doctor degree, with a board that enforced certain professional standards and censured people who transgressed them? What if businesses stopped giving bonuses that rewarded short-term profits over long-term sustainability? These are big "ifs," but Anderson and Escher make a strong case for a world in which business ethics aren't, as one person scoffs at them, an oxymoron.

An international bestseller translated from the French, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions, 2008) by Muriel Barbery tells two stories side by side. Renee Michel is the middle-aged concierge of an elegant Parisian apartment building. She conceals her intelligence, love of beauty, and voracious reading with the dullard facade her rich employers expect. Paloma Josse, a devastatingly logical 12-year-old whose rich family lives in Renee's building, has decided "life is a farce" and she will kill herself on her 13th birthday instead of continuing the charade. But then a new tenant moves into the building and draws both Renee and Paloma out of their isolation and loneliness. Renee's secret past strains against her desire for the beauty and tenderness this new friend offers.

Barbery is a professor of philosophy and the book shows it, interspersing Paloma's "Profound Thoughts" and Renee's analysis of phenomenology with discourses on aesthetics and the beauty of everyday life-the ritual of drinking a cup of tea and the look of a camellia on moss. American readers may become impatient with the book's theme of class stratification, but The Elegance of the Hedgehog is more than a discourse on class. It is about "the hungry soul" and "the contemplation of eternity within the very movement of life."

As a 15-year-old Baptist, Matthew Paul Turner bought Amy Grant's secular pop CD against his mother's wishes, threw it away when she caught him, bought it again, tossed it when he felt "particularly close to God," fished it out of the trash can a few hours later, broke it in a spasm of conscience, bought it again in a moment of weakness, and hurled it out his car window in a twinge of guilt. He bought the album five times.

This is Turner's conflict looped on repeat in Hear No Evil: My Story of Innocence, Music, and the Holy Ghost (WaterBrook Press, 2010). The young Turner believes that God is calling him to be a famous Christian musician. God isn't, but Turner does branch out in his musical tastes and even meets Amy Grant-under awkward circumstances. Turner's rendering of evangelical dialect is pitch-perfect (for example, "My friend Shawn was incredibly sensitive to onions, dairy, and the Holy Spirit") but the fun is nearly always directed at himself, and affection lends warmth to his satire.

Christians who enjoy his writing likely already believe his argument that Christians should lighten up about music. Turner won't shatter anyone's deeply-held convictions about Amy Grant, but his pangs of conscience and fits of rebellion make for an eminently entertaining Christian inside joke.

On Aug. 6, 1974, tightrope walker Philippe Petit strung a cable between New York City's World Trade Center towers and walked, ran, danced, and bounced between the two. Colum McCann's novel, Let the Great World Spin (Random House, 2009), captures the moment and the lives of the New Yorkers who witness it. We find a priest, tortured by his own doubts but finding "a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same." We meet his brother, who follows him to New York with just an Afghan coat and a copy of Howl. An artist couple try to purge their lives of alcohol and drugs but make a terrible mistake the moment they slip. An Upper East Side socialite bonds with a poor black woman over the loss of their sons in Vietnam.

McCann, who can show the humanity in both a prostitute and a saintly priest, interweaves the characters' stories with the common thread of Petit's walk, telling a tale at once redemptive and sad. McCann says the book was his way of writing about 9/11. In 1974, all eyes were on the towers, but people shared a moment that was not hellish but celestial. "The watchers below pulled in their breath all at once," McCann writes of the moment when Petit stepped onto the cable between the towers. "The air felt suddenly shared."

Alisa Harris Alisa is a WORLD Journalism Institute graduate and former WORLD reporter.


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