Princeton's WordNet defines "moral" as "concerned with principles of right and wrong or conforming to standards of behavior and character based on those principles." In other words, we're talking about good and bad, righteous and evil, Rebel and Imperial. The age-old showdown.
But how do morals fit into the world of business and commerce? It's at the heart of a fiery debate I ignited a couple of weeks ago with an article titled "Why Are Homeowners Idiots?" and stoked last week with a follow-up piece.
While the debate began about whether homeowners should be able to voluntarily walk away from their mortgages, the larger theme that has developed is whether there is a code of conduct over and above rules, regulations, and laws that all economic participants should adhere to.
Sure doesn't look like it
You don't have to venture far in the business world to find companies that could be put in the hot seat when it comes to questions of following a higher moral code.
An easy one to start with is tobacco merchant Altria
From there we could move on to some of the major U.S. oil companies for more easy pickings. Chevron, for example, has found itself in the sights of Amnesty International for shady practices and trashing the environment in areas like Nigeria and Ecuador. Fellow big-oil player ExxonMobil
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart Stores
Heck, even the revered Berkshire Hathaway
In most cases, these companies aren't doing anything illegal -- they're simply operating within the rules of our system. However, it would stand to reason that if there was a "higher order" of rules that should be followed in the economy, they may be sorely underperforming.
Just because everyone else is doing it ...
But there are some great counterexamples to the bleak list above. The Motley Fool, for example, organizes an annual Foolanthropy campaign to raise money for charitable organizations. The company also goes over-and-above when it comes to its employees. Which is probably why it shows up in "Best Places to Work" lists in local publications.
Privately held burger chain In-N-Out, meanwhile, voluntarily pays its employees well above minimum wage. Whole Foods
Certainly, many companies take actions specifically to polish up their corporate image, but it would probably be considered a bit cynical to suggest that every supposedly good and moral action taken by a company is for public relations.
But who cares?
No, really, who cares? Do you? Does any of this good and bad matter at all to you as an investor? Or do you simply look for companies that seek to make the most money possible while operating within the rules of the legal system?
Log your vote in the Motley Poll below and then head down to the comments section to explain why it does or doesn't matter whether companies go over and above to be good and moral.
Berkshire Hathaway and Wal-Mart Stores are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers choice. Berkshire Hathaway and Whole Foods Market are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and Oracle. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.
Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, and Eli Lilly, but does not own shares of any of the other companies mentioned. You can check out what Matt is keeping an eye on by visiting his CAPS portfolio, or you can follow Matt on Twitter @KoppTheFool. The Fool's disclosure policy has never once been caught with its pants down. Of course, it doesn't actually wear pants ...