Wednesday, October 26, 2022
“Human beings are far more complicated and enigmatic and ambiguous than languages or mathematical concepts.” – Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts (88)
During lunch yesterday, I attended a panel on “Measuring the S in ESG” at Belmont University's Hope Summit. The presenters made plenty of thoughtful comments, but I did not leave with much hope that we will be able to accurately measure social good. (The panel also seemed to confirm that most institutional investors view ESG data primarily as a tool to assist in achieving excellent financial performance, and most are not very interested in sacrificing profits, at least not for more than a few years.)
Later that afternoon, at a celebration for our neighborhood bus driver, I began to realize why I had so little hope for numerical scores of social good. Glendra Chapman Thompson has been driving the same bus route in our neighborhood for 32 years; she is only retiring now due to serious health issues. To say she is beloved is an understatement. Her joy emanates. She is patient, kind, and always smiling. She knows the name of every child, and you can sense that she cares deeply for each one. As Iris Murdoch writes in the opening quote, languages or mathematical concepts cannot capture Mrs. Thompson's essence.
Organizations are made up of human beings like Mrs. Thompson. While I think we could agree that Mrs. Thomson has created a massive amount of social good, we can’t capture her goodness in a number. Her love is irreducible.
Attempting to measure social good is not only practically impossible, but the attempted measurement may also do harm. By attempting to reduce the impact of someone like Mrs. Thompson to a number, you would miss nuance and beauty. Further, by measuring and marketing social good you can cut against humility, which is often considered a cornerstone virtue.
In the corporate context, there may be some ESG data that is helpful. (Wage data, for example, can be telling). But I think we should be honest about the many things we cannot measure. Stories and interviews may be needed, and the most significant social good may be the least flashy.
Watch the video our school system did for Mrs. Thompson here. We often walk our children to school, but we would let them ride the bus the 800m to school on occasion simply to be in her caring presence. We will miss you Mrs. Thompson.