Review of The Logic of Gift by Michael Naughton

In 1981, Karol Wojtyla (aka Pope John Paul II) published an encyclical on work, entitled Laborem exercens, in which he called for the Roman Catholic Church to form a “spirituality of work.” It’s in response to this call that Michael Naughton has written The Logic of Gift: Rethinking Business as a Community of Persons.

Picking up on a major theme of the late Pope, Naughton argues that a business ought to see itself as a community of persons, not a society of individuals. For it is only as such that it can fulfill its good purpose – actually three, good purposes:

  1. Creating wealth through sustainable capital
  2. Producing goods and services which bring people into relation with one another
  3. Designing work which develops people socially and spiritually

The outlook for business, however, isn’t entirely optimistic. If the business operates as a collection of individuals, looking out primarily for its own interests, it will do more harm than good. This becomes clear in the classic shareholder model of business which incentivizes a business to overlook the concerns of some for the benefit of others. Quoting Upton Sinclair, he writes:

It is hard to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on them not understanding it.

In contrast to such a model, Naughton looks to family and religion for insight. There he sees a “logic of gift,” whereby persons exercise their gifts in service to one another. When the household was the center of economic activity, Naughton argues, this logic of gift was natural to work. In the wake of the industrial revolution, however, businesses will need to endeavor to learn from the family (household) to give, and more importantly to receive, the gift of service.

While The Logic of Gift raises several good points along the way, the little book says very little. Scoped almost exclusively to papal interest, readers will be hard pressed to find any direct reference to Scripture. This is important because, even for Catholic readers, it will be hard to uphold such lofty concepts as the “community of persons” and the “logic of gift” without rooting them in the normative speech of the church.

Nevertheless, Naughton does not always stay conceptual, and, particularly toward the end, he does touch the ground with a meaningful example of how a business may begin to look like a community of persons. In particular, his critique of the stakeholder business model challenges, however briefly, the generally accepted alternative to the older shareholder model. Such a criticism has the potential of really addressing some of the major issues in the current trend of B-corporations.

In the final analysis, the book makes its greatest contribution in its movement from a broad theological vision (i.e. perichoresis of the Godhead) toward the crucible of contemporary Christian life: the workplace. While much literature has undertaken the critique of market systems and social ideologies, few find their way into the day-to-day experience of the average Christian. The Logic of Gift does just that.

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