People are miscalculating. The current miscalculation is that business practices and maxims of prior generations are operant today. I think we have turned a corner, and virtue – not the consumer or sales or the bottom line – rules the decisions that corporations make.
Throughout my work on my PhD, I had what I think was a fun and ongoing give and take with my committee chair in which she argued for the importance of incentives, and I argued for the importance of religion in motivating non-state actors. I jokingly called her emphasis on material incentives Marxist, and I think she thought I was something of a religious zealot. What I didn’t articulate well in those light-hearted exchanges was what I am now articulating as the importance of virtue as an incentive.
I am using the twenty-first century interpretation of the word virtue which is related much more to how someone feels about what they do than about the actual value of a person’s actions. In this sense I am still connecting it to religious or quasi-religious motivations in that this expression of virtue is connected much more to belief, emotion, and morality than to hard- or numbers-driven data.
The Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz stated that war is “thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” He also stated that “force … is thus the means of war; to impose our will on the enemy is its object.” Earlier on the same page, he stated that in war both sides seek to compel the other to their will. Clausewitz refers to will a lot. It is important in both having a strong will and in weakening the will of the enemy. What is will? Or, more important to this discussion, what makes will?
Will is that thing which allows you to continue when you are physically weak. It is the internal drive, conviction, and certainty. Will is derived from virtue.
Will matters in war. It may be one of the most important elements of war as Clausewitz said. If will does come from virtue, then the source, conception, or interpretation of virtue matters. One might argue that national will was formerly derived from a belief in the capability of the nation to do things. In a world where most people don’t produce things through their actions and where most actions are focused on the service economy, what is the source of national will? National will would then be derived from beliefs and the strengths of emotions surrounding those beliefs.
Such a definition could describe something regularly labeled virtue signaling where a person demonstrates their virtue through signs, social media posts, bumper stickers. The belief is stated and probably believed, though possibly not demonstrated through action.
I have previously described the Western European and U.S. responses to the war in Ukraine (2022 to present) as the world’s first virtue-signaling war as it has been conducted in a way such that the actual results on the battlefield matter far less than the perceptions of rightness invoked by the actions and stories of the two nations involved in the conflict. While battlefield results are tangible and not actually related to the virtue-signaling of non-fighters, what matters to those expressing themselves on social media or on cable news channels is the feelings that come from the virtue so expressed.
Similar virtue driven decisions have been demonstrated in the corporate actions and media expressions of Bud-Light, Target, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and other companies leading up to Pride Month in 2023. The belief of my youth was that companies valued their bottom line more than any other single issue and would avoid confrontation or scandal that might threaten that bottom line. In that sense, the bottom line was more powerful with regard to corporate decision making than virtue. It was okay for a company to be focused on profits and earnings – that is what a company was supposed to do as people believed then. Reflect on how corporations, especially large ones, were (and to a degree still are) portrayed in film. The corporation was typically the source of evil. They paid people to do bad things, threatened those who would not comply, and hired hitmen to threaten, harm, or kill those who got out of line. This is still often the case, but since 2001, it seems the primary villain is a national government, most often the government of the United States of America. In film, as portrayed in the twenty-first century, virtue exists in the person of the protestor, the rebel, the individual.
Corporations no longer seem to place the bottom line as their single most important objective. They demonstrate virtue, and they seemingly welcome losses to their bottom line in the pursuit of virtue. Bud-Light as of the time of writing (August 2023) has taken a significant hit to their profits yet there has been no direct admission of error. Anheuser-Busch did produce what could be called conservative advertisements in a seeming attempt to stop the losses, but there has been no acknowledgement of a mistake on their part. Some voices on the conservative right believe that the losses for Bud-Light might cause other companies to think more about their corporate marketing decisions. Others have claimed that this isn’t about virtue (not their word of choice), but more about a business decision related to ESG (environmental, social, governance) scores or where the company ranks on the Corporate Equality Index. Some think that Anheuser-Busch is making a movement back to the center but doing so quietly.
Simply put, I don’t know which element is the driving force behind what seems to be an unusual business practice – making decisions that offend the primary consumer of the product such that sales are negatively impacted. I think those who believe the business practices of old are what is governing business decisions in the present are mistaken and are underestimating the power of virtue. I believe that Anheuser-Busch will take quarters of loss to protect their position of virtue. Note the losses that Disney Corporation has sustained in pursuit of its virtue agenda. It hit its monthly high-water mark with the announcement of Disney+ streaming service in February 2021 with a price per share at $189.04. Since then, there has been a decline to the August 2023 price per share at $86.30. I believe this is because the standard Disney customer does not appreciate the content. I know there are other interpretations, but I would suggest that in listening to those interpretations one will hear reference to virtue-related explanations.
My specialty is not business. My specialty is understanding how and why non-state actors maintain commitment against larger and more powerful state actors in narrative war. What I am describing with respect to contemporary business practices and decisions is a sea-change in corporate behavior that is reflective of a narrative war in which companies have rejected the basic 1980s Econ 101 sorts of statements: the customer is always right, buy low-sell high, and focus on your bottom line – in favor of signaling what are perceived to be virtuous beliefs. I predict that few companies will change their virtue-signaling regardless of losses. Even when Nordstrom announced its departure from downtown San Francisco in May 2023, it didn’t say that it was because of the crime. It said that the market “has changed dramatically over the past several years, impacting customer foot traffic to our stores and our ability to operate successfully.”
Businesses in the twentieth century demanded safety for patrons. Cities responded to those demands. Citizens and patrons made demands of the municipalities where they lived and the businesses they frequented. Certainly, crime victims today speak out, but non-victims seem to tolerate levels of behavior previously unacceptable of public spaces in major urban centers. This was challenged in Oakland, California in July 2023 by the NAACP, and that challenge may represent a broader change, but major cities regularly tolerate homeless shelters in public areas and high crime rates while continuing to tout the importance of virtue related policies.
The previous five paragraphs are not an anti-woke or right-wing expression. They are observations. American liberals do not have a monopoly on the use of virtue as a motivator. Donald Trump’s attacks on the conduct of the 2020 elections and the prosecutorial conduct since then taps into a current conservative virtue that is opposition to a perceived deep state. The conservative news site, The Daily Wire, strives to take business from so-called woke companies by pointing out to conservative consumers that they shouldn't give money to people who hate you. The five preceding paragraphs are intended to be an observation of what is changing and how narrative war is occurring in business as well as between countries. Some readers may think the environment that I described in the preceding paragraphs are a net positive. If that is so, then that is my point. That virtue is what matters.
What is perceived as virtue is important and has power for people, businesses, and corporations today. No one should be surprised going forward when old forms of motivational power, emotional power, or willpower lack the same force they possessed in the past. Perceived virtue is the power that motivates people, businesses, and corporations to endure hardship. This has always been true. In the days of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire virtue was directly linked to manliness and masculinity. During the Cold War virtue was linked to freedom, individual rights, and liberty. Virtue is what empowers the world to act. One must understand how the definition and expression of virtue changes by country, by culture, and over time to understand what is motivating, or will motivate, populations now and in the future.
 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 75.
Brian L. Steed is an applied historian,