Lessons a Philosopher Can Teach a Capitalist

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Robert C. Solomon
Austin American-Statesman, September 28, 2004

I used to admit it in casual conversation: "I am a philosopher." The response was usually a dead silence, or worse, the question "What's your philosophy?" Depending on my mood, I usually answered "a stitch in time saves nine" or "a penny saved is a penny earned."

But for the past decade or so, I say that I am in "philosophy and business." That gets the more welcome if still perplexed response: "that's an interesting combination."

Indeed it is. The ethereal and the practical in a single package. The eternal verities combined with the rough and tumble pursuit of profits. To me, it says something important about what both philosophy and business are about, and why they need one another.

First, philosophy. I do not say--although it is obviously true--that I am a philosophy professor. I do profess, and I take considerable pride in my teaching. But even in the classroom, my aim is not just to convey the wisdom of the ages but to give the students something they can use to live better lives and be better citizens.

And out of the classroom, too, being a philosopher means speaking to real people about their real quandaries. It was the model Socrates (and at the other end of the world Confucius) set up for us more than two millennia ago. They were citizen-scholars, exemplifying learned engagement, as my colleague Rick Cherwitz noted in these pages, taking to heart the ethical obligation to contribute to society, to discover and put to work knowledge that makes a difference.

Socrates and Confucius may have had some esoteric ideas, but they lived their lives out in the streets, talking to people, especially the people who were in charge, people who could make a difference and set an example for everyone else.

On to business. We are a business society. For better or (more likely) for worse, corporations rule much of our lives. Many of the people who are in charge, those who could make a difference and set an example for everyone else, are those who work for or work on the behalf of our corporations.

So, this is a job for philosophy.

But corporations function according to a simple-minded and (one could argue) pathological philosophy: the single-minded pursuit of profits.

Not included: personal and family values, religion and spiritual values, love and friendship, a sense of community, a sense of patriotism, local loyalty, a sense of non-contractual obligation to employees, managers, customers, vendors, and the environment.

Not that these values do not exist in the corporation, that is, in the lives and worldviews of the thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who work there. But they face "market forces" that are oblivious to all values but one. Paying attention to customers, treating employees well and establishing a reputation for respecting the environment may be good business insofar as it is conducive to the successful pursuit of profits. But it is only the best businesses that consider these values not just instrumental but as essential and incorporate them into their philosophy. We need to engage with them.

How about business schools, what are we teaching to our students?

The answer, according to the latest research, is disappointing. Business schools act as employment agencies not only with regard to talents and abilities but to assure employers and the public that graduates have some sense of integrity.

Some CEO's (and some business professors as well) simply assume that "they all went to Sunday School," but ordinary ethics does not make it clear what accounting procedures are honest, fair or appropriate.

There are not enough business professors who specialize in business ethics but what we need are not only more business ethics courses but the ethical framing of all business studies.

Consumers are not just innocent victims here. They, too, often adopt the same one-dimensional, one-value, pathological philosophy. The best price, the best bargain, not as a matter of need but as a matter of personal pride and policy. Does one bother to find out or care where or how a product was made, what its real costs are in terms of the abuse of workers (even children) and environmental degradation? The vicious circle, of course, is that many corporations justify their philosophy on the basis of this consumer philosophy.

It is the philosophy that we must change. That is no easy task. It does not mean an end to capitalism, an end to profits, or a lower standard of living. It means engaging in what philosophy has always been about, speaking values to power, talking seriously with the people who run our corporations and consumers and working out ways of optimizing the values we share. That is what a philosopher does in business, and that is why--as in so many other matters--we are all philosophers.

ROBERT C. (Bob) SOLOMON is Quincy Lee Centennial Professor of Business and Philosophy and Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University Texas at Austin. He is the author of more than 40 books including Ethics and Excellence and A Better Way to Think About Business.