03/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Do Good People Form Bad Corporations?

Reinhold Niebuhr was one of Martin Luther King's favorite theologians. Niebuhr is President Obama's favorite theologian, too. It's too bad the Supreme Court doesn't read theology. If they did, their decision to grant organizations carte blanche in political contributions might have been different.

But no matter that, what's done is done. The question is: Where do we go from here? I'd suggest we all bone up on Niebuhr's work. If we did, we'd begin to understand why good organizations go bad. And who knows? We might even come up with some thoughtful, workable alternatives to Business As Usual. Rather than just demonizing and vilifying corporations, let's try to understand them. We can't change what we don't understand.

So, here is a quick crash course on German theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: He was the author of one of the most beloved prayers in the Western World, second only to the Lord's Prayer in popularity. Niebuhr's prayer is commonly known as The Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

It's easy to see how this prayer serves as a guiding principle for President Obama, who demonstrates ample courage in changing the things - and wisdom as he struggles to discern between the things he cannot change and those he can. If he errs, it is on the side of courage - perhaps he tackles too much. But we shouldn't be surprised or dismayed. After all, remember, Obama was the candidate whose mantra is "Change."

And don't we want a visionary President who sees what's possible and tries to enroll us in a vision of our own greatness? Isn't that better than a President who errs on the side of the Serenity Prayer's "acceptance"? Would we want someone who simply accepts Business As Usual?

As powerful and wonderful as the Serenity Prayer is, Reinhold Niebuhr made an equally important contribution to pubic life in his book, MORAL MAN AND IMMORAL SOCIETY: A Study in Ethics and Politics. Here's the central thesis: Good people decide to come together to address a problem or accomplish a goal. These are basically moral people - not saints, of course, but good people. They organize themselves to form the Red Cross, the United Way, the US Congress, or a church, a hospital, a labor union, a civil rights group, an animal rescue group, etc. You name the group, it was started by good people with noble purpose in their hearts.

But something happens when these people come together. The whole becomes greater than just the sum of its parts. The group takes on a life of its own and becomes like a living organism ... and this organism, this group, somehow evolves from its initial moral purpose into immoral self-interest. That is, over time, the group's number one goal becomes self-preservation - at all costs. Ego, pride, greed, and power all creep into the group and pervert its noble purpose and moral character. Thus, ultimately, ALL groups of people become immoral, simply by virtue of the inherent nature of groups.

These groups never willingly go out of business - even if their initial cause is accomplished. They find a reason to continue to exist, because remember: Their number one goal is survival - self-perpetuation.

This is how a church, initially dedicated to a noble purpose, becomes an immoral organization that harbors and protects child molesters - the church has become corrupted by self-interest. Niebuhr would say it's the same with all religious and/or philanthropic groups - as well as civil rights organizations, first aid rescue groups, disease-focused organizations. Any and all groups ultimately lose their morality simply because the group is no longer a collection of moral people - it has taken on a life of its own, and that life is inherently immoral, corrupted in spite of their good intentions.

We can see this even more clearly in labor unions, political parties, citizen action groups, and others who initially organized themselves for very good reasons. Over time, they all turn immoral to a greater or lesser degree, as their top priority becomes self-interest.

So, what's the answer to this problem? Reinhold Niebuhr says, "Other groups." It sounds paradoxical, I know. But the only thing that can hold an immoral group in check is other immoral groups! Call it checks and balances. Call it the politics of special interest groups. Call it what you will, it's the only solution Niebuhr saw for the inherent immorality of groups.

In other words, these groups of moral people, whose organizations have become immoral, are held in check by other groups who are watching out for their self-interest, too!

You can see how Niebuhr's ideas and concepts would appeal to President Obama and to Martin Luther King, too - both clear-eyed pragmatists - realists who understood human nature and the ethics of group dynamics.

Now, about that Supreme Court ...