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Virtue ethics has made impressive inroads into the business academy. However, the prospects of the development of virtues in the actual practice of business remain in doubt. Among the most influential skeptics is Alasdair MacIntyre, who argues that business institutions must focus on “external goods” (material rewards and prestige) which threaten the development of “internal goods” (excellence, the well-being of others) necessary to form virtues. In this paper, I turn to theology to bolster the prospects of virtue ethics, focusing especially on how organizational policies and practices shape the moral and spiritual dispositions of employees. A business that one long-term employee describes as “what would happen if a monastery became a tech firm” will be discussed as an exemplar of how a business can embody the kind of “community of practice” needed to form the character of employees positively.

Extending the reach of its mid-twentieth century “revival” among philosophers, Aristotelian virtue ethics has made significant inroads into the business academy.1 Beginning in the early 1990s, scholars began to use it as a corrective against formulaic, “decisionist” ethical theories by returning internal moral qualities and practical wisdom to the center of the frame.2 Virtue ethics has also been used to try to redirect the broader aims of business from a mere pursuit of “effectiveness” to a “practice” that concerns itself with excellence in the products/services created.3 Scholars have also employed virtue ethics to counter reductionistic “situationally influenced” explanations of human behavior and moral agency,4 as an alternative grounding for stakeholder theory,5 and to reimagine sub-disciplines like marketing and management.6

As notable as these contributions are, serious doubts remain about the prospects of virtue formation in the actual practice and operations of business. The skepticism comes from the suspected nullifying effect that market-enforced institutional objectives like competitiveness and profit will have on any individual attempt to exercise and/or develop virtues. The most discussed description of this conflict comes from Alasdair MacIntyre, whose deep pessimism is reflected in his statement: “the tradition of the virtues is at variance with central features of the modern economic order and more especially its individualism, its acquisitiveness and its elevation of the values of the market to a central social place.”7

Efforts to resolve this tension and, more importantly, to attain the broader aims of applying virtue ethics to business (i.e., improved moral qualities of businesspeople and better outcomes for all stakeholders) are as varied as they are insightful. However, as it has developed, the conversation has deficiencies that need addressing. Foremost, the conversation often lacks grounding in a larger story/telos or “tradition.” This leaves virtue ethics highly vulnerable to getting co-opted into serving purely egoistic ends (e.g., “the moral perfection of the agent”) and/or instrumentalized into another corporate profit-maximization tool (e.g., “honesty pays”).

Another challenge is that the very ability to distinguish virtues from vices depends upon a larger narrative context. While evidence exists that some traits are universally admired,8 several scholars recognize that “virtues” may be subject to cultural norms (“conventionalism”).9 For example, Perry Glanzer notes that virtues are only virtues “in light of a grand narrative with a particular end.”10

David McPherson tacitly acknowledges the need for an external reference point when he insightfully describes “necessary conditions” for virtues to thrive in business, including integrity and constancy (versus exercising virtues for the sake of gain), an orientation toward the common good and reconceiving business along the lines of “vocation.” While this is a convincing direction to take, he stops short of establishing where an external anchoring for these conditions might be found.11

Much work also remains in understanding and re-directing the influence of organizations. The importance of communities in forming character has long been recognized by the likes of Aristotle himself. With respect to business, Geoff Moore calls for more attention to institutions so “they provide the kind of conducive environment within which the virtues may flourish and internal goods (goods of excellence) may be achieved.”12 While this too is an important step, efforts that do focus on organizations tend to ride on very thin accounts of char- acter formation and to limit their concerns to more overt influences. Relatedly, ideals of what “virtuous organizations” might resemble are often described, but examples of actual businesses that nurture and sustain character are rarely offered. This is especially problematic given how central “exemplars” are to virtue ethics.

In what follows, I will build on the work of scholars like McPherson and Moore by drawing upon theologically informed thought and practice. Michael Naughton points in this same direction when he argues for an understanding of virtues that “entails a tradition of wisdom, a tradition that is contemplative, that fosters wonder and awe, that is premised on a created order, that is received.”13 To be certain, critical and constructive engagement with virtue ethics through theology is neither new, nor novel.14 Joshua Hochschild argues that it is inevitable: “A closer reading of MacIntyre finds that a renewal of Aristotelean ethics, through the path of virtues turns us back inescapably to reflection about divinity.”15

Christian theology has a larger narrative and conceptual categories that can account for the ease to which something intended for good purposes can become corrupted, help direct virtues toward ends like “integrity/constancy, common good, and vocation,” and provide context so that distinctions between virtues and vices can be made. Christian theology also has a long and still developing body of reflection on the process of character formation, especially as it occurs within the context of communities. This knowledge can be drawn upon to build “conducive environments” in business organizations. In the concluding section, I will describe an exemplar in the form of a short case study of a San Francisco based company that is organized and operated in a way that seems to embody the local forms of community MacIntyre argues are necessary to sustain virtues.16 In fact, one long term employee characterizes the business as “what would hap- pen if a monastery became a tech firm.”17

My primary aim is to help strengthen the prospects of virtue ethics in business, especially its larger aims of moral excellence in participants and better outcomes for a wider group of stakeholders. In turning to theology, I also hope to offer some guidance to a fast-growing movement of people who seek to practice (or teach/research) business as a faith informed calling/vocation and who might wonder what they can learn from virtue ethics and how their convictions might align with and/or enhance it.18

Effacement of the Virtues?

Several years ago, a highly competent, morally serious, and devout student shared a story in class that illustrates the challenge of exercising virtues in business. David won a highly competitive summer internship at a “Big 4” public accounting firm between his junior and senior years. He informed the class that he felt called to public accounting because of the potential to contribute to society by ensuring the integrity of financial reporting, the field’s commitment to professional ideals, and the challenging nature of the problems to be solved.

The internship essentially amounted to a “contest.” At summer’s end, a small number of interns would be offered coveted full-time positions. One of the key metrics used to rank them was efficiency. Interns were to track time spent on tasks and were told sternly that under-reporting was grounds for dismissal. Honesty, accuracy, and diligence are all essential traits for good accountants, but working quickly is also highly prized. Profits are earned for firm partners by winning competitive bids for contracts, so labor costs must be controlled. Over the course of the summer, the interns became tightly knit and David discovered through casual conversation that he alone refused to game the system by “eating hours.” Consequently, he appeared less productive and was passed over for a full-time position. It doesn’t require much imagination to envision similar scenarios, in which virtues collide with institutional pressures, unfolding countless times each day in a near infinite number of business settings, and in ones that are not typically associated with “business” (e.g., medicine, architecture, non-profits).

David’s story is a rather straight forward illustration of why doubts about the viability of virtue ethics in business exist. The specific concern is that within a market economy, institutional pursuits of efficiency, competitiveness, and profit will simply squash efforts to exercise and develop virtues. In these situations, individuals will have to choose between “compartmentalizing” their moral identities into separate spheres of life or finding work in more hospitable (read: “non-business”) settings.

The most discussed academic rendition of this tension is Alasdair MacIntyre’s “practice-institution distinction.”19 In brief, MacIntyre argues that virtues necessary for flourishing are acquired in daily life through involvement in a “practice,” which is a cooperative activity that seeks to cultivate “internal goods.” “Internal goods” are akin to what we might associate with a “craft”: the excellence of the products made/services offered, the satisfaction and enjoyment of deploying one’s skills, intellectual stimulation, creative expression, and the well-being of others who are also engaged in the practice. In contrast, MacIntyre associates “external goods” with material rewards and what they offer (e.g., security, prestige, etc.). He writes, they are “always some individuals property or possessions. . . . External goods are characteristically objects of competition in which there be losers as well as winners.”20 While business could be a “practice,” a conflict is created with virtues because it resides within an institution, which, by necessity, must focus on acquiring external goods for survival. MacIntyre states:

. . . possession of the virtues may perfectly well hinder us achieving external goods. We should therefore expect that if in a particular society the pursuit of external goods were to become dominant, the concept of the virtues might suffer at first attrition and perhaps something near total effacement, although simulacra may abound.21

He makes the same point although more sharply in his claim that “financial managers can become corrupted by developing precisely those capabilities which make them excellent financial managers.”22

Direct responses to MacIntyre comprise a significant thread of the academic virtue ethics in business conversation. Among these responses are efforts to relax the tension he describes by refuting his pessimistic view of business,23 by demonstrating that the market actually rewards virtues monetarily,24 or by clarifying that the nature of the relationship between internal and external goods is dependent (and therefore “a balancing act”) rather than oppositional.25 Others create distinctions within “practices” (i.e., “domain-relative” ones) so that parts of business (e.g., management and finance) can be understood to require and develop virtues such as practical wisdom.26

It makes much sense why so much attention has been devoted to addressing MacIntyre’s arguments. He is regarded as a pivotal figure in the revival of virtue ethics and he has made other highly provocative statements about business. For example, he has described bureaucratic managers as technicians who are “totally detached from any social particularity”27 and the finance profession as a “school of bad character.”28 Moreover, if the conflict in David’s story is common, the tension between practices and institutions is real and needs to be addressed.

Narrowing the Gap

To improve the prospects of virtue ethics in business, however, there may be wisdom in shifting the focus from debates about the size and nature of the divide and moving forward on the premise that one exists. Then, try to find ways to try to narrow that gap. Toward this end, a promising resource can be found in theology, which can offer wisdom to help strengthen character/virtues so that individuals can become more resistant to corrupting influences and toward developing institutional practices and policies that are more hospitable to moral formation.

Theology can provide external grounding for virtues in the form of a larger narrative/ telos. This would be beneficial in several ways. First, philosophers have long critiqued virtue ethics in general as being egoistic/self-serving or at least highly susceptible to it. For example, John Hare argues that virtue ethics “makes all obligations derivative from an agent’s own happiness.”29 Attempts to apply virtue ethics to business settings would only seem to magnify this risk. Given the volume and popularity of books, seminars, executive “coaches,” and organizational interventions dedicated to “self-improvement,” it’s not difficult to envision it getting co-opted into another tool to “be the best version of my- self,” especially in the service of greater efficiency and career advancement. The ways that “internal goods” are often defined certainly appear individualistic and self-serving (e.g., “personal satisfaction,” “perfection of the moral agent,” “fulfillment of one’s narrative quest”).

A closely related risk is that virtues will get instrumentalized into a profit maximization tool by organizations, similar to what has occurred with many other well intended initiatives. Stakeholder theory, ESG investing, sustainability, and DEI are just a few recent examples of programs or movements that have been partially co-opted (through non-standard definitions and metrics, voluntary reporting and significant marketing efforts) as means to convince the public that corporations have abandoned the profit maximization imperative.30 With respect to virtue ethics, organizations might enthusiastically support the cultivation of honesty, loyalty, and diligence in employees, because doing so will result directly in greater monetary gains. In fact, arguments in support of virtue ethics on the grounds that organizations adopting it will become more competitive (“internal goods are beneficial to external ones”) are not difficult to find in the academic literature.31 This is somewhat understandable (and perhaps the relationship is partially truthful), however, selling virtue ethics on the promise of prosperity risks undermining some of its primary objectives and places it at even greater vulnerability for being subsumed by pecuniary pursuits.

While barely scratching the surface of relevant theological concepts, two particular ones—“Sin” and the “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration” historical-eschatological understanding of scripture—seem particularly relevant and helpful for discussions of virtue ethics in business. Sin, especially the concept of “original sin” and its effects on the human condition, appears throughout church history, with Augustine often credited as its key exponent.32 Agnus Brook offers a succinct description of its existential consequences:

The effects of original sin . . . encompass a broad range of phenomena intrinsic to features of our experience of being human, particularly our experiences of a propensity for moral failure, our inability to live and act as we think we ought to, and the presence of what appears to be real moral evil in human actions and lives that can’t otherwise be explained by ordinary kinds of good willed ignorance, weakness of the will, or bad habits.33

Rienhold Niebuhr called sin “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian Faith.”34 Sin offers a compelling explanation for why we humans can twist about anything into a self-serving endeavor. Christian sub-traditions may disagree about the extent and depth to which our existence is stained/altered by sin, but nonetheless are in basic agreement that the world is imperfect and imperfectible, because of it.

With respect to virtue ethics, the concept reminds us that moral perfection is an illusory goal. William Spohn argues:

Philosophical accounts of the moral life do not consider human sinfulness, which compromises moral agency and necessitates radical transformation. . . . In some canonical works, great emphasis is placed on the inability of human beings to move from who they are to who they should be. This gulf is attributed to sin, which generates self-absorption and moral impotence. Aristotle’s development model stresses continuities not reversals. . . . Moral weakness is discussed but not human evil.35

Sin also helps us see that a direct attempt to “acquire” virtues is a somewhat self-defeating enterprise. Aiming head-on for moral improvement can become a form of “striving” that puts us in severe danger of focusing on what Iris Mur- doch calls the enemy of the moral life, “the fat, relentless ego.”36 As C. S. Lewis conveys in The Screwtape Letters, moral accomplishment has the ironic effect of leaving one vulnerable to the vices of pride and/or vanity.37 Scholars in the field of spiritual theology are emphatic that formation occurs indirectly as a by-product of practices, habits, and postures that are done for their own sake and that serve ends that are greater than our own interests. For example, Spohn observes, “Virtues are acquired indirectly, when one is concerned with values greater than the virtue itself. Analogously, spiritual practices affect the practitioner indirectly; in fact they are distorted when used as tools for developing the self.”38

While “sin” is helpful in acknowledging some of the vulnerabilities of virtue ethics, it is insufficient to direct it toward proper ends. This is where the Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration schema of understanding scripture is helpful. This framework has been highly influential in Protestant “vocational theology,” especially in re-envisioning work that had been devalued as “secular” as equal in value to that of ministers, monks, and missionaries. By implication, all kinds of work can join in, advance, or participate in God’s ultimate mission of redeeming/reconciling all things.

The framework not only affirms the value of labor that was once seen as inferior but carries implications for the “why” and “how” behind work. As Steven Garber puts it, an eschatological view of work means being “implicated in the way the world ought to be.”39 Along these lines, the framework has been employed to point to a telos for business that moves well beyond the conventional objectives of shareholder and/or stakeholder value. Instead, business is redirected toward the purpose of “the common good” or “flourishing,” especially as informed by biblical conceptions of “shalom,” which Nicholas Wolterstorff defines as “enjoyment of right relationships” with God, ourselves, others, and with nature.40

In addition to re-ordering the aims of both character formation and business, the Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration story also helps provide context to help draw distinctions between virtues and vices. Spohn states, “Moral philosophers who are willing to describe the structure of the good life usually shy away from describing its content . . . that is, what this way of life should be.”41 Only with content established by a larger narrative/telos, can traits (e.g., avariciousness) that might be embraced as virtues under the profit maximization story of business be regarded as undesirable.


The role of institutions in character formation cannot be over-emphasized. As Dan Finn argues, “a long series of reluctant decisions to do wrong (whether in response to restrictions or opportunities) inures us to the evil and shapes us over time. Similarly, we can become more virtuous persons due to the structures within which we work.”42 Given the amount of time the average person spends in paid labor (estimated at more than 90,000 hours over a lifetime), it seems undeniable that workplaces play critical roles in shaping employees into particular types of people. The hours engaged in church or civic and/or volunteer activities, which are commonly thought to be most central to formation, pale by comparison.

To date, efforts that focus on institutions tend to utilize underdeveloped accounts of character formation and to focus on more apparent influences. Namely, they emphasize matters related to “corporate culture,” instead of operational practices and policies. For example, among Moore’s primary hallmarks of a “virtuous corporation” are “a supportive culture” that enables employees to raise concerns and a power balanced structure “to ensure that the views and desires of particular communities are not privileged over those of others.”43 While these characteristics are necessary, they are far from sufficient to make an organization hospitable to virtues.

Virtue formation (and especially malformation) is also presumed to take place under conditions of dramatic role conflict. For example, when employees are faced with the choice of either “wearing two hats” or finding other employment. These types of situations (like the earlier story about David, the accounting intern) are indeed real to life, so it’s important to address them. However, character is not only, nor perhaps even primarily, shaped in relatively rare “defining moments” of heightened tension (i.e., the stuff that makes for provocative business ethics case studies), but in the many seemingly inconsequential moments of a workday. Neither are character traits influenced only by an organization’s culture, but by many daily operational decisions, practices, and policies.

For example, an employee who is asked to devote significant portions of her day figuring out ways to collect and analyze data to “persuade” (possibly, manipulate) customers to buy something they may not need, not only potentially harms the customer, but herself in the process. In contrast, an employee who is encouraged to adopt a posture of truly serving customers, including being trained to listen well and to carefully match a need with an offering and not being docked for a “no sale” when appropriate, will be nudged into becoming a different type of person. The same can be said of many other conditions that are heavily influenced by an employer (e.g., devoting too much time and/or energy to work and/or to meaningless or morally questionable tasks or objectives). Thus, a richer account of the process by which character/virtue is formed (or malformed) in mundane and seemingly innocuous work duties is needed, so that appropriate measures (both individual and corporate) can be taken.

Emerging work in what is referred to as “spiritual theology” is particularly helpful. Among the field’s primary concerns is “spiritual formation,” which has many parallels with virtue ethics. Dallas Willard states, “Spiritual formation is character formation. Everyone gets a spiritual formation. It’s like education. Everyone gets an education; it’s just a matter of which one you get.”44

With respect to the workplace, James K. A. Smith’s theory of “cultural for- mation” is an insightful framework to illuminate how employees are directed, often unconsciously, toward becoming certain types of people. The core of Smith’s argument is that we are constantly being formed by forces that do not seek to appeal to our rational faculties. Rather, they aim at our affective dimension (“hearts”), which is the real driver of our dispositions and behaviors.45 Smith’s theory aligns with and/or expands upon the biblical focus on the heart (“cardia”) as the seat of behavior (“a good tree bears good fruit”) and a long tradition of theological reflection on the subject, including Augustine’s conception of “rightly ordered love,” Charles Taylor’s “social imaginaries,” and Craig Dykstra’s understanding of character development as “imaginal transformation.”46

According to Smith, these influences happen, often unwittingly, through “cultural liturgies.”47 While “liturgies” are typically associated with spiritual activities like prayer, scripture reading, and communion/the eucharist, Smith describes them as “meaning-laden, identity forming practices that subtly shape us because they grab hold of our love—they are automating our desire and action without our conscious recognition.”48 Cultural liturgies conscript us into “a way of life” by directing our affections toward specific visions of the ”good life” or larger narratives about what human flourishing means. Smith argues:

Liturgies, whether sacred or secular . . . shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, every liturgy constitutes a pedagogy that teaches us in all sorts of precognitive ways, to be a certain kind of person.49

Even a seemingly innocuous visit to a mall has a formative (or more accurately, mal-formative) effect, without ever presenting us with conscious ideas, arguments, or propositions. Smith states:

The mall isn’t a neutral or benign space. It is religious in the sense that they are trying to shape you with the Story (with a capital S) that proclaims, Stuff will make you happy. There are icons of the good life that line the corridors. There are colors for the seasons as the church has colors for its seasons. They recruit your imaginations so that they make you want a vision of the good life . . . the liturgies of the mall and market co-opt our love by capturing our imagination.50

Smith argues that we have little choice in the matter of formation. There are few, if any, “neutral spaces” or activities. The only matter to settle is: to what end? Neglecting to attune our own sensitivities to these influences leaves us more vulnerable to malformation. In other words, using Augustinian language, are our “desires being ordered” toward virtues or vices? Robert Mulholland states:

Everyone is in the process of spiritual formation! Every thought we hold, every decision we make, every emotion we allow to shape our behavior . . . every relationship we enter into . . . all of these things, little by little, are shaping us into some kind of being.51

In order to help identify the “communal, embodied rhythms, rituals and routines that over time quietly and unconsciously prime and shape our desires and most fundamental longings,” Smith suggests asking a series of “ethnographic” questions like the following: What vision of the kingdom is implicit within it? What story is imbedded in its practices? What does it envision as the good life? What kind of people does it want us to become? What does it want us to love?52

Applying these questions to business settings can help identify forces that can subtly, but surely, capture and shape the imaginations of employees. For example, under the conventional telos of maximizing shareholder value, employees are likely trained to see everything, including people and nature, as “resources” to be instrumentalized for profit. Every policy, process, and/or procedure then becomes a cultural liturgy that reinforces an instrumentalizing orientation toward the world and shapes employees accordingly.53

Avoiding malformation and moving in the right direction requires intentionality in the form of what Smith calls “counter-formational” activities (spiritual disciplines, practices, and postures) that take place within ecclesial communities and that indirectly reorder our desires. Richard Foster describes spiritual disciplines as the narrow “path to inner transformation” that lies between moral bankruptcy through human striving (“moralism”) and the way of moral bankruptcy through the absence of moral striving (“anti-nomianism”).54

Many authors have written eloquently about spiritual practices (i.e., acknowledging the presence of God, Sabbath observation, etc.) in daily life and at the workplace, so I will not belabor the point here.55 However, it would be a serious mistake to assume that individuals acting alone and/or with the support of faith communities can successfully implement Flannery O’Connor’s advice to a friend and “push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.”56 The influence of work related organizations cannot be ignored. Eugene Peterson states, “I’m prepared to contend that the primary location for spiritual formation is in the workplace.”57 Given the amount of time, mental, physical, and spiritual energy devoted to working, the comparative power of the shopping mall (Smith’s example) to form us, seems insignificant.

Exemplars are indispensable to virtue formation. They stir “moral imagination,” which James Mackey defines as “the ability to simultaneously see what is and what yet can be for the best, to engage at the same time the most creative of human passions and consequently to lure into action and to sustain commitment.”58 Without exemplars, virtue ethics and its aims will likely remain locked away in the academic tower and will not be translated into the daily practices of business. Spohn states, “since virtues are skills, they need examples to show what they mean practically. They have to be displayed concretely to convey their tactical meaning.”59 However, exemplars that come in the form of actual organizations are hardly abundant in the academic and practice literatures. It’s somewhat perplexing to know where to find them.

At the conclusion of After Virtue, MacIntyre argues that an answer lies in monastic-like communities, like those that withstood “darkness and barbarism” during the decline of the Roman Empire. With reference to the present day, he states that the “construction of local forms of community” are necessary to sustain virtues “through the new dark ages which are already upon us . . . we are not waiting for Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”60

Through a “rule of life,” regular (and highly counter-cultural) rhythms, rituals, and practices, monasteries reorient and form the lives of monks toward an alternative telos. Thomas Merton describes monasticism as “a protest against the organized and dehumanizing routines of a worldly life built around gain for its own sake.”61 But, can a monastery serve as any sort of model for a business organization? Many monasteries operate revenue generating enterprises (brewing, baking, book binding), yet it seems to risk sacrilege to suggest that a business can resemble one. A monastery is also far from a perfect example, especially for those who live and work outside of a cloistered community. Arguing from a Reformed (Calvinistic) theological lens, Matthew Myers Boulton states:

The goal of monasticism is too narrow. We shouldn’t aim for . . . a special spiritual precinct, class of experts or set of operations, but rather an integral world, in all its variety and ruin, divinely called to both holiness and wholeness. . . . In short, the whole city was sacred, so too was each disciple’s whole life.62

What would happen if a monastery became a tech firm?63

One organization that seems to successfully combine Merton’s “protest” with Boulton’s concern for “the whole city” is San Francisco-based Dayspring Partners. As described by long-term employee, Chi-En Yu:

Dayspring is probably what would happen if you turned a monastery into a tech business. If you imagine a monastery, the kind that brews beer and has every-day community people who are involved, not just the monks. It’s a faith organization, but it is involved with everyday people in the community. Dayspring is kind of like that, but it’s a technology business in the 21st century.

Dayspring is highly intentional about how the Christian faith of its founders (and many current employees) is translated not only into the company’s culture, but into operational policies, practices, and even its products.

Dayspring Partners (founded as Dayspring Technologies) was started in San Francisco in the late 1990’s by graduates of University of California Berkeley and Stanford University who met through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and continued their affiliation through a church based in the city’s Mission District. From the outset, the larger aim was to participate, as a business, in God’s work of “reconciling all things” through starting a professional services organization. The vision was to perform high quality technology consulting work at market-based rates, but employees would voluntarily accept below market salaries. Moved by a theological (especially the book of Amos) understanding of justice, the difference between billing rates and compensation would be used to fund community service/ministry initiatives, the first of which was providing job training (tech skills) for at risk youth. From the beginning, the founders had concerns about how technology could accentuate divisions between rich and poor so they also hoped to “bear witness to” something different in the midst of rapidly widening economic disparities.

Members of their church, Grace Fellowship, provided low-interest loans and a tremendous amount of generosity and freedom to get the business launched. According to co-founder (and one of two current Principals), Chi-Ming Chien, Dayspring’s founders were told, “we like your vision, go start this thing. If we lose all our money, then we will learn how to do church together.” “This actually gave us a lot of freedom to innovate and try different things,” Chien observes. Today, Dayspring sees its mission as “embodying and bearing witness to God’s redeeming work in the world.” This following is a statement from Dayspring’s website that unpacks what this means:

The form of untrammeled, competitive capitalism that is frequently taken as a given in the United States creates staggering material gains for many. But it comes at a dehumanizing cost. It costs relationships within a company when we see ourselves in a zero-sum struggle with our coworkers. It costs relationships with clients, customers, and vendors when we’re mutually suspicious that each party has only its own interests in mind. And it costs relationships with neighbors when corporations pursue the narrow financial interests of shareholders while disregarding the impacts that has on the communities in which we operate.

For over two decades, Dayspring has been making (stumbling) attempts to explore better ways to do business: ways that embody and point to new possibilities for relationships in the workplace, in the marketplace, and with the community.

Dayspring employes a staff of roughly 25–27 individuals and is involved in software development (web and mobile apps, E-Commerce, and Salesforce consulting), web design, and brand design. John Greenhill, who joined the firm in 2001 and now serves as the firm’s other Co-Principal states, “Dayspring was established with a core set of values: justice, generosity, integrity, mercy, dependence upon God, and partnership in the Gospel. Those core values were set out front. Even if these lose us money, even if they cause us to go under, we’re going to hold to them.” Unlike other companies who seem to proudly display social initiatives and/or messages as promotional tools, Dayspring’s mission and values are genuine commitments. Several years ago, the company became registered in California as a Social Purpose Corporation, which formally solid- ifies the firm’s mission and core values and gives it the legal backing to make decisions that de-prioritize profit.

One of Dayspring’s most radical (and perhaps risky) acts was moving its offices from San Francisco’s downtown financial district to Bayview/Hunter’s Point, an underserved neighborhood with higher rates of poverty and unemployment, where neither technology firms nor visitors to the city typically venture. Co-founder Danny Fong says of Bayview, “it’s literally not on any tourist maps of San Francisco. And, as someone growing up here, you were likely told not to go there because it was dangerous.”

To avoid the harmful presumption that they were moving to Bayview to “save it,” Dayspring’s founders and employees were clear from the beginning that their intent was to join in what God had already been doing there and to participate in the life of the community. Several of the organization’s leaders and employees subsequently moved into Bayview and other adjacent neighborhoods to deepen relationships with the people who reside there.

According to Chien, “in order to love a place, you have to know it.” During a sabbatical, he spent several days a week walking the streets to meet other “people of peace” and become acquainted with the existing assets and needs of the community. From conversations that occurred during these walks sprung Neighbor Fund, a lending initiative that makes small ($3,000–$10,000) collateral free loans to small businesses in Bayview. Yu calls lending a “practice of peace,” . . . a way to participate in the life of the community. Loans are extended in ways that “builds the community up,” with an emphasis upon personal relationships. One stated hope is that lenders and borrowers will “become friends.” Loan amounts and interest rates are determined through conversation, preferably over a shared meal. Qualification is not determined by credit scores but through letters of reference and a review of financials. The ability to repay is taken into consideration in setting interest rates (usually 3–7%). Borrowers are asked to serve on a loan committee to help determine if/when other loans should be extended to others.

Dayspring has regularly donated time and resources to many community initiatives, committing 5% of staff time and 10% of profits to them. One notable commitment is the role of company employees in helping to start and sustain Rise University Prep, a high school that meets on its premises and aims to bring high quality education to Bayview. In 2022, Dayspring staff donated a majority of its over 2,700 hours of volunteer time to the school, which includes funding one full-time school staff position.

In addition to its dedication to being a good neighbor, Dayspring also has internal policies that are far different from its peers in the Bay Area technology industry. For example, the company employs what it calls its “Isaiah 40 Curve” (“Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level.” Isaiah 40:4–5). To enable its lowest paid employees to afford the exorbitant cost of living in San Francisco, the company has a roughly 3 to 1 highest to lowest paid employee ratio. This included the janitor when the company directly employed one. Given what technology professionals can command in the Bay Area, this compressed scale jeopardizes the ability to recruit candidates for open positions. With much higher wages (and stock options) available at other area firms, Dayspring needs to appeal to applicants who are attracted to the organization’s mission. The vision must be compelling because many of the company’s employees have degrees and qualifications that could easily lead to startup, early retirement wealth, yet they choose to remain at well below market salaries. Chien suspects that the resulting stability is an asset to the firm. Unlike a lot of other companies in the technology industry, many employees have stayed long-term (10.8 years is the average tenure for Dayspring employees), which may also give them an advantage with clients (stability). While many of the company’s initial employees came from their church, over time, they joined from other churches and more recently, even outside of the Christian faith entirely. Chien asks, “We are a company with Christian convictions, but how do you invite folks from other kinds of convictional places to share in a common good work together?”

To combat the disembodying and depersonalizing effects of technology (ironically, as a technology-oriented company), the company has long encouraged (before the post-pandemic “return to the office” movement) face to face work three in-office days per week. Friday walks around the neighborhood with a colleague, to get to know each other and the community better, have been part of the company’s regular rhythms.

Dayspring also tries to support a sabbath lifestyle and discourage over-identification with work on the part of employees. The company has a maximum 40-hour work week, something that is modelled by the executive team. Client work is sold and delivery dates promised on the assumption that staff are not available after hours and on weekends. If necessary, Dayspring will decline work if it would require violating this commitment.

Putting hard boundaries on work hours is one way company leadership practices dependence upon God (for an adequate inflow of business). Another practice of active faith is the policy of keeping only three months of cash flow on hand (many would consider this perilous to do so by choice) to avoid over accumulation and to trust in divine provision. Chien refers to the biblical concepts of manna and “a soldier’s ration” to illustrate God promises to provide us with “just enough.” Consistent with this theme, Dayspring increased its giving from 10% of net income to 5% of revenue for five months during COVID shutdowns despite business setbacks of their own. The company saw the pandemic as a key moment to affirm its purpose. This is their description (from spring 2020) of how they arrived at this decision:

In March, as Dayspring quickly moved our staff to work remotely, we also anticipated that, with our economy entering a potentially protracted recession, Dayspring would not escape unscathed. Sure enough, some current projects were put on immediate hold, planned projects were postponed, and our pipeline of prospective work looked more uncertain. We pondered how to respond as a company.

At the same time, we recognized that we were privileged to keep working while sheltering in place. Many local businesses had to completely shut down or scale back operations. We had growing concern over whether these businesses—and our neighbors whose livelihoods depended on them—would survive this pandemic.

These twin challenges pushed us to reflect on our company’s core values and purpose. Core to our company has been a three-pillared purpose: to embody an ethic of love in our workplace, with the clients and vendors that constitute our marketplace relationships, and toward our community. We concluded that in a time of pandemic it’s even more important for this purpose to define our company.

In addition to its policies, Dayspring tries to translate its mission and core values into its products and services. For example, one of the company’s products is the popular personal finance app, Goodbudget. The product is based upon the classic “envelope system” of budgeting and was developed with the intent of improving people’s lives through helping them align their finances with their core values. One of the features of what makes it unique is its encouragement of transparency between couples, which helps break secrecy and the taboo (a key effect of “mammon”) on discussing money. Recently, the company has focused on helping those experiencing financial difficulty through online courses, and by adding app features that support debt tracking and payoff and help people create priorities when cash flow is uneven or insufficient.

While Dayspring has integrated its values throughout the business, “practical wisdom” still prevails. Chien is clear that some policies are held and practiced more loosely (e.g., the 3- day in-person work week) than others (40-hour work week) and he is clear that he does not see the company as “a definitive model,” only a “faithful expression.”

Dayspring’s mission and operational strategies constitute the kind of thick practices that recruit the imaginations of employees and form their dispositions. To be certain, however, not a single person interviewed said that the company’s practices were chosen or implemented for the sake of their own “moral perfection.” They were adopted as ways to express some of the implications of living into the story of God’s ongoing work of redemption. However, it’s clear that at least some employees are aware of the formative effects of working in business and the need for alternative practices. Yu states:

The notion that business is primarily there for folks to earn as much money as possible, in parenthesis at whatever cost, and then for the Christian thing to do is to take all that cash and give it to some other mission, some other ministry, I think is malforming. I think it’s bad for our souls . . . in the sense that in my workday life, what I primarily do is earn money . . . at whatever cost, to myself to other people, to the well-being of a place, of a community. That’s going to form me into a certain kind of character, a certain kind of person, a certain way of understanding the world.

Dayspring is an outstanding example of a business that operates in ways that are not only hospitable to virtues but help form them. It is guided by a far different story/telos than its peers and its practices and policies are adopted for the sake of others, and as a by-product, have formational effects on employees.

The company seems to meet MacIntyre’s qualifications to serve as a “community of practice” for virtue formation as described in his famous example of two fishing crews (one organized to pursue profit, the other devoted to internal goods).64 Greg Beabout expounds on this distinction by describing MacIntyre’s critique of the modern bureaucratic manager:

. . . the managerial type he has in mind tends to make decisions by abstracting each situation and treating it as atemporal problem considered primarily in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. However, the claim that one can methodically identify and solve problems by solely attending to abstract concerns directs attention away from other features of a particular context that may be crucial: the particularities of place or tradition, the intentions and dispositions of those involved in the situation, or the impact of the decision on various stakeholders such as workers, the suppliers, the consumers, the natural environment and the broader society.65

From this description, it seems clear that Dayspring is operated in a way that is consistent with MacIntyre’s second fishing crew. Focusing on external goods is necessary for viability but is de-emphasized which allows for the cultivation of internal goods through employee participation in a community of practice, in meaningful work, self-sacrifice, concern for the well-being of a particular place and through the exercise of practical wisdom.

Since Dayspring is small (25–27 employees) and has adopted the legal status of a Social Purpose Corporation, it seems fair to wonder if large, publicly owned corporations can also nurture and sustain virtues. I don’t have a clear answer to this. It sure seems less likely given pressures to pursue external goods in the form of profits for dispersed owners, many of which are institutional investors. That said, corporations are incredibly varied, and much may depend on the size, industry, leadership, one’s specific role, supervisor, work team, etc. There may be pockets within larger organizations that are more hospitable to virtues than others.

Virtue ethics has influenced the business academy in myriad and noble ways. However, its prospects for influencing the aims, ethos, and operations of business practice are still in doubt. The outlook can be brightened by turning to theological informed thought and practice, especially a larger telos/story to ground and direct virtues, a richer account of institutional influences on character formation, and for exemplars that help stir the moral imagination.

Cite this article
Kenman Wong, “Brightening the Prospects of Virtue Ethics in Business: Reflections from Theology”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 53:3 , 65-84


  1. The revival of virtue ethics is attributed to philosophers such as Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Julia Annas, and Alasdair MacIntyre.
  2. Robert C. Solomon, “Corporate Roles, Personal Virtues: An Aristotelean Approach to Business Ethics,” Business Ethics Quarterly 2, no. 3 (July 1992): 317–39; Edwin M. Hartman, “The Role of Character in Business Ethics,” Business Ethics Quarterly 8, no. 3 (July 1998): 547–59; Daryl Koehn, “A Role for Virtue Ethics in the Analysis of Business,” Business Ethics Quarterly 5, no. 3 (July 1995): 533–39.
  3. Robert C. Solomon, Ethics and Excellence: Cooperation and Integrity in Business (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993); Charles Horvath, “MacIntyre’s Critique of Business,” Business Ethics Quarterly 5, no. 3 (July 1995): 499–532.
  4. Daryl Koehn, “A Virtue Ethics Critique of Ethical Dimensions of Behavioral Economics,” Business & Society Review 125, no. 2 (June 2020): 241–260.
  5. David McPherson, “Vocational Virtue Ethics: Prospects for a Virtue Ethic Approach to Business,” Journal of Business Ethics 116, no. 2 (August 2013): 283–296.
  6. Bruno Dyck and Rob Kleysen, “Aristotle’s Virtues and Management Thought: An Empirical Exploration of an Integrative Pedagogy,” Business Ethics Quarterly 11, no. 4 (October 2001): 561–74; Oliver F. Williams, OF, and Patrick F. Murphy, “The Ethics of Virtue: A Moral Theory for Marketing,” Journal of Macro Marketing, 10, no. 1 (June 1990): 19–29.
  7. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), 254–55.
  8. Jan Pieter van Oudenhoven, Boele de Raad, Marieke E Timmerman, et al., “Are Virtues National, Supranational or Universal?,” Springerplus 3, no. 1 (May 2014): 1–12.
  9. See Daryl Koehn, “Virtue Ethics, the Firm, and Moral Psychology,” Business Ethics Quarterly 8, no. 3 (July 1998): 510; Dennis Holllinger, Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 58–60.
  10. Perry Glanzer, “The Surprising Trouble with Harry,” Touchstone 16, no. 9 (November 2003).
  11. McPherson, “Vocational Virtue Ethics,” 283–296.
  12. Geoff Moore, “Corporate Character: Modern Virtue Ethics and the Virtuous Corporation,” Business Ethics Quarterly 15, no. 4 (October 2005): 661. Also see Geoff Moore, “On the Implications of the Practice–Institution Distinction,” Business Ethics Quarterly 12, no. 1 (January 2002): 29–30.
  13. Michael Naughton, “The Loss of Wisdom in the University and the Perils of Business Education: Recovering Practical Wisdom Through the Integration of Liberal and Professional Education,” Christian Scholar’s Review 53, no. 3 (Spring 2024): 23–39.
  14. Thomas Aquinas, Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches, Samuel Wells, and William Spohn are just a few examples of those who have “synthesized” virtue ethics or critiqued it through a theological lens.
  15. Joshua Hochschild, “Alasdair MacIntyre’s Service to Theology,” Church- Life Journal, September 25, 2023, alasdair-macintyre-philosophical-ethics-as-a-service-to-theology/.
  16. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed., 263.
  17. Chi-En Yu (product manager, Dayspring Partners), in personal interview with author, May 16, 2017.
  18. During the past several decades (roughly overlapping with the burgeoning interest in virtue ethics), there has been tremendous growth in avenues that allow people to explore and express their work in business as a vocation/calling, including: scholarly and popular writing, regional (e.g., Denver Institute for Faith and Work), national with local chapters (e.g., C12, Faith Driven Entrepreneur), and even global organizations (Business as Mission) that plan regular meetings and events. Furthermore, to ensure that reflection and dialogue gets translated into action, investment funds (e.g., Sovereign’s Capital) and Silicon Valley style “incubators” (e.g., Praxis, Ocean) with mentorship and seed capital for start-ups that incorporate faith-informed objectives and practices have sprouted up.
  19. See Moore, “On the Implications of the Practice–Institution Distinction,” 19–32.
  20. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed., 190–91.
  21. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed., 196.
  22. Alasdair MacIntyre, “Kinesis Interview with Alasdair MacIntyre, Interviewed by Thomas D. Pearson,” Kinesis 20, no. 2 (1994): 34–47.
  23. John Dobson, “Alasdair MacIntyre’s Aristotelian Business Ethics: A Critique,” Journal of Business Ethics 86, no. 1 (April 2009): 43–50.
  24. Ian Maitland, “Virtuous Markets: The Market as School for the Virtues,” Business Ethics Quarterly 7, no.1 (January 1997): 17–31.
  25. Moore, “On the Implications of the Practice–Institution Distinction,” 19–32.
  26. Gregory Beabout, “Management as a Domain-Relative Practice that Requires and Develops Practical Wisdom,” Business Ethics Quarterly 22, no. 2 (April 2012), 405–432; Martha Rocchi, Ignacio Ferrero, and Ron Beadle, “Can Finance Be a Virtuous Practice? A MacIntyrean Account,” Business Ethics Quarterly 31, No. 1 (January 2021): 75–105.
  27. See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 27–32.
  28. See Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Irrelevance of Ethics,” in Andrius Bielskis and Kelvin Knight, eds., Virtue and Economy: Essays on Morality and Markets (Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2015), 12.
  29. John Hare, “Scotus on Morality and Nature,” Medieval Philosophy and Theology 9, no. 1 (March 2000): 34. For a more comprehensive treatment of the critique, see Christopher Toner, “The Self-Centeredness Objection to Virtue Ethics,” Philosophy 81, no. 4 (November 2006): 595–617.
  30. For some concerns about the actual (versus proclaimed) impact of some of these initiatives, see Peter Goodman, “Stakeholder Capitalism Gets a Report Card. It’s not Good,” New York Times, September 22, 2020; Hans Taparia, “The World May be Better off Without ESG Investing,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, July 14, 2021.
  31. See Moore, “On the Implications of the Practice–Institution Distinction,” 30; McPherson, “Vocational Virtue Ethics: Prospects for a Virtue Ethic Approach to Business,” 295.
  32. Tatha Wiley, Original Sin: Origins, Developments, Contemporary Meanings (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002), 37–55.
  33. Angus Brook, “Thomas Aquinas on the Effects of Original Sin: A Philosophical Analysis,” The Heythrop Journal 59, no. 4 (July 2018): 721–32.
  34. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 1 and 2 (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1996 [1943]): 228–31.
  35. William Spohn, Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (New York, NY: Continuum, 2007), 29.
  36. Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (New York, NY: Shocken, 1970), 52.
  37. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London, UK: Centenary Press, 1942).
  38. Spohn, Go and Do Likewise, 13–14.
  39. Steven Garber, “Vocation Needs No Justification,” Comment, September 1, 2010,
  40. See Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 69–72. For applications to business, see Jeff Van Duzer, Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to be Fixed) (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010); Kenman Wong and Scott B. Rae, Business for the Common Good (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic 2011).
  41. Spohn, Go and Do Likewise, 13.
  42. Daniel K. Finn, “Virtue, Trust, and Moral Agency in Business,” Christian Scholar’s Review 53, no. 3 (Spring 2024): 5–22.
  43. See Moore, “Corporate Character,” 671–673.
  44. Aznieszka Tennant, “The Making of the Christian: Dallas Willard and Richard Foster on the Difference between Discipleship and Christian Formation,” Christianity Today, September 2005,
  45. James A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013).
  46. Augustine, City of God, XV:23, cited in Brian Hedges, “Augustine on Rightly Ordered Love,”, September 2013, saint-augustine-on-rightly-ordered-love.html; Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); Craig Dykstra, Vision and Character (New York, NY: Paulist Press 1981).
  47. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom.
  48. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 83.
  49. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 83.
  50. Heather Walker Petersen, “A Conversation with James K. A. Smith,” Humane Pursuits, April 27, 2016,
  51. Robert Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 27–8.
  52. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 95, 134.
  53. See Kenman Wong, Bruce Baker, and Randal Franz, “Business Education as Character Formation,” Christian Scholar’s Review 45, no. 1 (Fall 2015): 5–24.
  54. Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (San Fran- cisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1978).
  55. See for example, the work of authors like Brother Lawrence, Kathleen Norris, Dorothy Bass, Tish Harrison Warren, Denise Daniels, and Shannon Vandewarker.
  56. Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 229.
  57. Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).
  58. James Mackey, ed., Religious Imagination (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press 1986), cited in Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004), 76.
  59. Spohn, Go and Do Likewise, 33.
  60. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed., 263.
  61. Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1971), 9.
  62. Matthew Myer Boulton, Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation and the Future of Protestant Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 48.
  63. This case study was developed from a series of interviews conducted in March and May of 2017. Additional facts and quotes (where noted) were retrieved from Day- spring’s website,, and through personal correspondence with Chi-Ming Chien (principal, Dayspring Partners), December 7, 2023.
  64. Alasdair MacIntyre, “A Partial Response to my Critics,” in John Horton and Susan Mendus, eds., After MacIntyre: Critical Perspectives on the Work of Alasdair MacIntyre (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1984), 283–330.
  65. Beabout, “Management as a Domain-Relative Practice that Requires and Develops Practical Wisdom,” 417.

Kenman Wong

Seattle Pacific University
Kenman Wong, Ph.D. is a Professor of Business Ethics at Seattle Pacific University From 2016-19, he was the founding Creator and Producer of Faith & Co.