03/26/2014 03:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2014

Can Capitalism Afford a Conscience?

At first glance, capitalism circa 2014 looks like a pretty soulless endeavor: massive piles of fast money, no wider context of conscience involved. Just look at how Hollywood's depictions of finance guys have evolved. In 1946, in It's a Wonderful Life, the softhearted banker wins out. In 1987, we got Wall Street, in which the heartless Gordon "Greed Is Good" Gekko ends up losing a stack of money and getting prosecuted for insider trading. And at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014, one of the most discussed movies was The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese's fizzy glamorization of ruthless Jordan Belfort (played by the beloved Leonardo DiCaprio), who dishonestly made millions in boiler-room swindles in the 1990s and got off essentially scot-free.

And for the past few years, it has seemed like there was one clear alternative to all that, a 180-degree turn from that dog-eat-dog moneymaking mentality, in which business leaders and corporations are willing to do whatever it takes to lower expenses and increase revenues. Under pressure from the media and certain sectors of public opinion, the new hot catchphrases became "corporate social responsibility" and "triple bottom line."

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) was a good start down the right road. It opened companies' eyes to factors beyond their P&Ls and did an unquestionable amount of good in the world. (Just ask any African who received a pair of TOMS shoes or Warby Parker glasses.) But CSR all too quickly became just another set of items on a checklist, a series of hoops for brands to jump through on the way to making a buck (which, world-saving pronouncements aside, is really what we're all here to do). And it became a marketing gimmick, often not backed up with anything substantive -- corporate Botox, spray tanning and teeth whitening; superficial and soulless.

Marketing materials and company websites may have gone on and on about their commitment to profit, people and planet, but it wasn't long before savvy consumers saw through it. They suspected that the company leaders who so loudly pledged their commitment to that triple bottom line in public were making cynical comments about it all in private. CSR became just more mechanical accounting.

What's arising in its place is more nuanced and authentic -- and it flies in the face of Jordan Belfort and Martin Scorsese. Checklist CSR may be fading out, but now there's a rise in conscientious capitalism, which is not just a different mindset but a different heart-set and soul-set. It's about doing what's right simply because it is the right thing to do -- setting up a community kitchen not just for the photo op and press release and branding opportunity, but also to actually give people food and care.

Conscientious capitalism is mindful of other realities of the corporate world today, which is driven by ruthless efficiencies. And with offshoring, outsourcing and new technologies, companies can goose their profits by having as many free employees as possible. (Prime example: Facebook recently paid $19 billion for WhatsApp, a company with just 55 people on its payroll.) If you project that forward, it's easy to imagine a hollowed-out country where we're lamenting the loss of not only the middle class but also the creative class, with the majority of people unemployed or earning minimum wage manning cash registers.

And as the middle class gets hollowed out, blue state consumers -- latte drinkers, Volvo drivers, Warby Parker wearers -- become more important. They have money. And only money talks. Business might do the right things, but few will do it for the right reasons.

Conscientious capitalism recognizes and acknowledges this world, in which the less people earn, the less they have to spend. And unlike many past CSR efforts, in which well-meaning people (many of them time rich but cash poor) attempted to bring about a change, the new conscientious capitalism takes a more pragmatic approach. It's still capitalism; there's an imperative to make a profit. But there's also an awareness of ways to do that that also benefit a few other people along the way.

With the scale of the problems this country is facing, we need more of these conscientious capitalists, who can combine profit and conscience powerfully. They don't have to be perfect; they don't have to be angels. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, this is about being touched by the better angels of our nature.

Taking this path isn't as easy as going for profit above all else. Adding conscience to the mix makes business harder, especially now, when the U.S. is so polarized about everything from the federal deficit to gay marriage to gun control.

But there's a big difference between politically divisive issues and what really riles ordinary consumers. As a Consumer Federation of America report found, they're more concerned about everyday annoyances: getting ripped off, misleading advertising, faulty products and shoddy repairs. More broadly, they're concerned about things that might affect them personally and painfully: unemployment and the ever-rising costs of education and healthcare. Climate change is a turnoff because people just feel helpless. Data privacy is another nonstarter, because the technology is awfully convenient and going off the grid really isn't an option.

Conscientious capitalism makes room for imperfection. Everyone may hate Microsoft's clunky, buggy systems, but while Apple's Steve Jobs was the business legend and glamorous master of the media (if widely considered a tyrant to work for), it was Microsoft's Bill Gates who has dedicated his billions to tackling global human problems, something far more substantial than creating a seamless user experience. At the D Conference in 2007, with Gates and Jobs on the same stage for the first time in 20 years, Jobs was asked if he was jealous of Gates' philanthropy. He said, "I live to come into the office every day." Gates was asked if his legacy was Microsoft or his world-changing foundation. He said, "I dream in code."

Other icons of conscientious capitalism include Bono, Bob Geldof and Richard Branson. They command respect and attention. We know who they are and we know their business track record, so when they talk about matters of conscience, we listen. But for anyone under age 35, they're historical figures -- so 20th century and on the far side of the digital divide. Millennials need their own conscience leaders.

So what stirs the conscience of millennials? A Brookings Institution report found that they admire companies that are cool and part of their life, such as Apple and Google, but not because of those companies' good works. On the other hand, millennials generally give low ratings to companies in the financial and energy sectors, which don't square well with their moral compass.

Maybe millennials are just spoiled brats who want a cool, easy life, lots of shiny toys and an "X Factor" mentality. Maybe they don't care whether companies have a real conscience; maybe they see Mark Zuckerberg as their poster boy, and who knows what's in his soul? Or maybe they just haven't yet seen a company that does capitalism in a way that expresses their conscience.