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P H I L O S O P H Y F O R B U S I N E S S ISSN 2043-0736
Issue number 41
4th December 2007
I. 'Gaining an understanding of the business world through our own stories'
by Alan Byrne
II. 'Spain in Focus: report on land abuse' by Inmaculada de la Vega
III. 'The Point of Business Ethics' by Geoffrey Klempner
Issue 35 of P4B included an article by Alan Byrne on the topic of open-plan
offices, which nicely illustrated the way philosophy informs and illuminates
all aspects of life in the business arena. In his second article, Alan Byrne
makes the case for taking seriously the testimony of ordinary business people
in seeking to grasp the underlying reality, or, rather, realities of the
In P4B issue 21 there was an article by Dr Rosamund Thomas, which referred to a
motion tabled in the European Parliament on abuses by property developers in
Spain. The developers have apparently exploited loopholes in the law to seize
privately-owned land, creating ugly blots on the landscape and making huge
profits for themselves. Just over a week ago an article appeared in El Pais,
the leading worldwide Spanish newspaper which highlights this deplorable
situation, which I reproduce here.
Finally, as a further taster for the Pathways school of philosophy online
course in 'Ethical Dilemmas' I have included the text of unit 1 from the 10
unit program. If you want to jump on board, it is still not too late. For more
information email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I. 'GAINING AN UNDERSTANDING OF THE BUSINESS WORLD THROUGH OUR OWN STORIES'
BY ALAN BYRNE
The philosophical question of truth in my opinion infects what is considered by
most of the academic community to be legitimate research or not. Scientific
rigour is applied even to qualitative research to ensure that it is more
representative of a pre-existing reality. The inherent value of research is
that it will bring us closer to understanding this reality. Reason,
rationality, objectivity and proof are the cornerstones of scientific based
research as it seeks to uncover what is already there.
I tend not to pay much attention to questions related to whether physical
reality exists or not. I am more interested in the realities we create together
that make us feel good or otherwise. An emotional reality if you will, brought
into being by our relationships. It expresses itself in the language we use,
where language includes vocal, body, dress, demeanor and generally how we
present ourselves to others.
Certainly my physical surroundings will influence my emotional state, but do
those surroundings change simply because my emotional state changes? I would
argue that how I feel about them will change, but the actual physical reality
remains. Conversely my emotional realities are complex and change according to
the context. How I feel about the world I live in influences how I experience
it. You may have a very different feeling about the world than I do. What makes
sense to you may make no sense to me. At times we may think we are living in
different worlds -- despite sharing the same physical realities. However the
people we interact with and the conversations we have are likely to be
different. In my view these relationships will determine the reality we
experience. They are self-organising and therefore uncontrollable and
If the reality we experience is created by us in interaction together, then how
can you arrive at the truth if the truth is being perpetually created? I can
understand that if you think we experience reality then there is a truth out
there, but even then you have to have faith in science to try to get closer to
it, to control it. Perhaps what we really want to do is control reality; to
eliminate all uncertainties. But this is a realist proposition. It is dependent
on reality being external to us. Management predominately blindly and ignorantly
accept this proposition. Finding the truth is about establishing control. The
master/ slave dialectic is embedded in this understanding as the truth is only
known to those in control.
Reason can play its part by dampening the emotional roller-coaster of living,
but is not reason itself an emotional experience that makes us feel more in
control? Once we use reason and science to explain something we can then
control it. We can reduce or eliminate uncertainty by finding out how things
really are. Mainstream management theory seeks to gain control of resources
towards a designed end. Reason seeks to gain control over emotion to further a
truer way of being. Academic reviewers seek to control the legitimation of
research to ensure measurable outcomes.
The debate between science and religion, or to put it another way reason and
faith is often tipped to the reason side by the argument that faith is not open
to questioning or debate. However how many of us are in a position to really
question science? Ever tried arguing with your doctor or refuting the findings
of 'experts'? Few are in a position to do so. We have to accept most so called
scientific progress with blind faith, a faith commonly misplaced. More recently
we have been exposed to the commercialization of science where the 'truth' is up
for sale. Science has been infected by commerce with the result being that in
many cases scientific findings are viewed with suspicion. No longer is the
advancement of the human race at issue as ethics play second fiddle to
economics. So we all have to have faith be it in science or religion.
Given the degree of uncertainty then who is to say what is valid and what is
not, what is legitimate and what is not? You can't dismiss or be sure of
anything. Each person has to decide what makes sense to them. Each person has
something to contribute in that context, namely their own experience which may
resonate and inform the actions of others. From their local interactions can
come universal changes, hence the power of one in effecting large scale changes.
I want to inform understanding not establish a truth. I want to have my say
about the business world and how I think it could be made better. I want to
enable conversation and dialogue, not prescribe a way to be. If we begin to
talk differently then we will think differently, after all what is thought but
merely language running through our heads. Through conversation and dialogue we
can increase our vocabulary which may change the way we talk. If we think
differently we may then act differently and our emotional reality may change.
We may start to see things in a new way. Of course nothing may change. This is
the self-organising nature of cooperative interaction, which cannot be directed
towards an end.
The necessity to provide scientific evidence to attain acceptance of one's
research, whilst admirable in many endeavours has, in my opinion, limited our
growth in understanding the world inhabited by those of us in business.
Continual exposure to scientifically proven management theories, each promising
to be the panacea of what ills us -- for why else would we entertain them? --
has diminished our willingness to entertain other forms of research. Research
seems to get tied up with hormones with little credence being given to 'airy
fairy touchy feely' more feminist type research.
Is there a universal conspiracy to deny the voice of ordinary working people in
shaping their own and others lives in the business world? Do the constraints
imposed by the requirements of academic rigour strangle at birth those stories
which just might change the way we do things at work?
We have learned to be apathetic. We, the silent majority, must wake up and
expose our underlying hypocrisy as we bury our heads in the sand whilst the
storms rage around us. We must bring to consciousness how things really are --
not how they are imagined to be. Those interested in having their voice heard
should be able to do so without the necessity of evaluation aligned to
scientific rigour. Others will decide on the legitimation of what is being
related. What right has any of us to dictate to anybody how they should write?
Do we not limit the potential contribution of most people by defining how they
are expected to contribute?
Of course you could bypass the academic route completely and print what you
have to say in the newspapers. However I believe that real change will only
come about by changing how our future educators think and teach. Universities
should be the breeding ground for dissension and difference; the questioning of
the status quo. Their commercialisation has diminished questioning in favour of
economic expediency. How will anything change if we continually accept
everything we are told; if we are never exposed to different ways of thinking?
Nobody has the answer, so how can anything be dismissed. If we are moving
closer to understanding a pre-given reality, then what good is it doing us? Do
we blindly ignore the significance of the insignificant while privileging the
scientific method as the only path to truth? Are my experiences at work of no
value unless I can prove they have occurred elsewhere with a degree of
We need to hear the stories never told; our stories.
(c) Alan Byrne 2007
II. 'SPAIN IN FOCUS: REPORT ON LAND ABUSE' BY INMACULADA DE LA VEGA
On 23rd of November, the newspaper 'El Pais' published an article by Inmaculada
de la Vega, which Ciudadanos Europeos has translated for its members and for
Abusos Urbanisticos NO.
Complaints to the Parliament and European Commission on urban planning abuse by
Spanish citizens, the cases of corruption where Marbella has become a synonym,
as well as the crisis of Astroc on the stock exchange, have attracted attention
outside Spain. During this year the figures for economical growth and especially
the indicators from the property sector, have brought the attention of the OECD,
the IMF and others, to our country.
At the beginning of March a third visit by Euro deputies, sent by the Petitions
Committee of the European Parliament, came to investigate complaints that have
been submitted since 2003 by the Association Abusos Urbanisticos NO, initially
in connection with the Town Planning Department in Valencia and apparent abuses
committed against individual owners as well as over exploitation of the land.
The difference of this visit, compared with the two previous visits in 2004 and
2005, according to Enrique Climent, President of this Association with 30,000
members, is that 'in addition to the Valencia Region, Almeria and the Community
of Madrid received visits for the first time.' The visits have resulted in
negative reports and calls for the attention of the Spanish Government, because
this time it is a question of the urban activity in the whole of Spain, not only
the Valencia Region.
There have also been complaints of breaches of legal requirements of European
laws for public contracts. This complaint has ended up in the Court of Justice
of the European Communities, who will impose a sentence, and if the pertinent
legal modifications are not made, a legal penalty. This will create a legal
precedent, applicable to other private individuals who will be able to present
their claims and ask for compensation in relation to similar actions by the
Planning Departments in other Regions.
There are other associations of European citizens who have directly recommended
people not to invest in Spain, due to the legal insecurity, corruption and the
bad implementation of town planning regulations. All promoters have fallen
under a cloud of suspicion, politically encouraged from Brussels.
But Spain is not only the focus of attention of the institutions of the
European Union and citizens platforms. The weekly magazine The Economist has
for several years paid attention to the Spanish boom. Even in 2003 it
considered Spain at the greatest risk of a 'bursting property bubble' that few
The economic analysts from the Financial Times also closely scrutinized the
situation and painted a rather dark picture and spoke of a landing that may be
anything but soft. In January of this year OECD warned of the over valuation in
the price of dwellings and the risks involved, and the International Monetary
Fund alerted Spain to its economic situation. Jose Maria Morillo of Espassion,
consultants in marketing and international investments, explained the interest
in Spain due to its growth above the average for EU: 'If you land in Heathrow
you meet Ferrovial, if you go to the centre you will do so on a Spanish train
and the same in the metro. The Londoners buy their cloths at Zara and take out
money in Abbey National, owned by Santander. We have gone from being net
recipients of investments to exporters of capital.'
On the other hand, for Britons and Germans, Spain has been the leading
destination for a second residence. Certain reports have appeared in the
British press, sometimes in a sensationalist manner, and less frequently in the
German media, according to Morillo.
If the bubble and the indebtedness have called the attention of the press and
the television, scandals such as Marbella have made us famous. The BBC, The
Times, Le Monde, Le Figaro, Liberation are only some of those that have
associated corruption and abusive practices by the town halls, together with
the high indebtedness, the over valuation in the price of a dwellings and over
exploitation of the land, as symbols of the Spanish identity.
We will pay for the corruption
What happens with Marbella? Will the illegal buildings be demolished? Is it
illegal or not what 'El Pocero' did, which was announced with such profusion?
The promoters are lamenting the millions lost, due to both the visit of the
Euro deputies, investigating the accusations of abuse and over exploitation of
the land, and also the reduction in the demand from British and German buyers.
When the lack of confidence, caused by the abuses, is added to the inflated
Spanish prices, it is no wonder buyers are going to other markets: Italian,
Greek, Cypriot or Croatian. A good example is that the price per square meter
in the second richest city of Europe, Hamburg, is much cheaper than in Almeria.
If the economic damage to the promotion sector, caused by the accusations of
urban planning irregularities, is serious, it is no less serious in the social
sense. The information Urbanism and democracy produced by the Fundacion
Alternativas, talks about 'An urban sector converted into a source of economic
power that has made many rich, but which has also undermined the confidence of
Professor in Political Science at the University King Juan Carlos, Manuel
Villoria, says it is clear that corruption is a dead weight in the economy,
hindering growth. 'The image of Spain has deteriorated due to the corruption.
In the three last studies by Transparencia Internacional we have lost points
and image for this reason and will continue to do so this year.' In his
judgment, the corruption 'threatens democracy and the national economy. The
information from the World Bank is clear: more corruption, less investments:
The foreigners encounter greater difficulties and additional costs.'
Another thing is public opinion. Citizens have a very negative opinion of
politicians and public employees, although only 3% includes corruption as one
of the three most important problems: 'They are not aware of the close
connection between the economy and corruption', concludes the professor.
Web sites: Abusos Urbanisticos http://www.abusos-no.org
Ciudadanos Europeos http://www.c-euro.org
III. 'THE POINT OF BUSINESS ETHICS' BY GEOFFREY KLEMPNER
There is something deep, in a sense, metaphysical -- and at the same time
immediately practical -- about the question I want to consider here: what is it
to be a wise judge in matters of business ethics?
'Wisdom' is a rather old-fashioned word. Modesty seems to forbid referring to
oneself as 'wise', yet the opposite 'unwise' is clearly a term of criticism.
What one strives to be is 'not unwise', while recognizing that genuine wisdom
is reserved for the few. I think this view is incorrect. We should all desire
to be wise. However, if you feel unhappy with the term 'wisdom' then you can
rephrase the original question: what is it to judge well on matters of business
What does not seem to me to be a matter of debate is that being a good judge of
business ethics is an essential accomplishment of a business person. If ethical
questions leave you cold, or if you would like to be ethical but become
flustered and reduced to inaction by your first encounter with an ethical
dilemma, then you lack something that is required for being good in business --
no matter how successful you may be in making money for yourself, or your
If you disagree with that statement, there is no point in reading any further.
You've made a mistake. You shouldn't be here. (Of course, that won't stop such
persons listening in at the door: it is the nature of business that all
information is regarded as potentially 'of use', for example, as a way of
predicting how others will behave.)
On the other hand, if you agree with the statement that being a good judge of
business ethics is necessary for being good in business, but fear that it
applies to you in a negative sense, then all hope is not lost. The deficiency
can be corrected, if you are prepared to work at it. That is what this course
is all about.
These pages are also motivated by the feeling -- harder to express in a simple
slogan -- that the finely articulated functionality of the business world must
somehow make room for the awareness that we belong to a wider order of things,
where our work and our toil have an ethically justified place, in order that we
may see ourselves as being engaged in a meaningful activity and not merely as
wheels in the vast consumer satisfaction machine.
For it takes only a modest degree of wisdom to recognize the following fact:
irrespective of any material or financial rewards that you may gain, if all you
can think about is the 'bottom line', then, ultimately, you are just a slave.
The consumer is your lord and master.
However, merely recognizing this as a 'truth' or 'wise observation' is not
enough. We have to discover -- or rediscover -- a sense of virtue or nobility
in the vocation to enter the business arena, an existential grasp of what it is
to be, as a person who freely chooses to engage in business activity. Due care
for questions of business ethics is a part of this but not the whole. What more
there may be, is a question I will be pursuing in the margins, while I grapple
with questions of ethical practice and theory. My response to the larger
question might be seen as remarks towards a philosophy of business.
Nature of ethics
What is ethics? It has often been observed that when philosophers encounter
something they do not understand the first thing they do is try to make a
theory about it. The theories can be highly ingenious but they typically take
the form of identifying one aspect of the thing in question as the essence or
paradigm, then forcing the phenomena that don't quite fit into the Procrustean
bed that they themselves have constructed. This is the main ground of my
complaint against moral philosophy.
One of the most important lessons from Ludwig Wittgenstein's later writings is
that, far more often than not, the concepts that deeply interest and concern us
are impervious to definition, impervious to 'theory', and that what we are
really looking for is to find our way about in territory that has become
strange and unfamiliar only because we have given in to the urge -- albeit an
inevitable part of human nature -- to philosophize.
If you look at a standard text book on business ethics, what you will learn is
that there are different rival 'theories of ethics': consequentialism,
deontology, virtue theory. The more adventurous authors might add two or three
more to that list. An examination of the problems of business then takes the
form, 'What would a consequentialist say?', 'What would a deontologist say?',
'What would a virtue ethicist say?' And so on.
That is not the approach that will be taken here. Evaluating consequences,
identifying principles, promoting virtues are all deeply interconnected parts
of a whole which cannot be reduced further, or forced into a particular shape
depending on one's theoretical predilections.
Thus, a careful examination of the situations in which ethical questions arise,
and in particular ethical dilemmas, reveals that recognizing and promoting
'goods' -- such as wealth, job satisfaction, the environment -- is one
ingredient in the decision-making process. Another ingredient is the necessity
of principles: identifying the things you stand for, the duties and rights that
you will go to great lengths to defend. Ethical virtues also have a vital role
to play, but they neither trump, nor are trumped by other considerations.
What, then, is ethics about? In the widest sense, ethics makes a human
community possible. To take an example from Immanuel Kant, if there were no
ethical prohibition against lying, then we could not rely on any means of
communication, linguistic or otherwise, as a source of information about the
world. It would be each person for themself. (Because of this, the very idea of
an 'acceptable lie', in Kant's eyes, involves a kind of self-contradiction.)
Ethics describes minimum standards of behaviour towards others, such as not
telling lies, not breaking promises, not stealing. We do the right thing,
because it is right and not for some further, non-ethical end.
However, if we look at the phenomena without prior assumptions or theoretical
encumbrances, what is apparent is that the ethics of the human world is also
the ethics of altruism. We care, we are expected to care for the good or well
being of others -- beyond what we merely owe them or what they have a right to.
Equally apparent is that self-interest has a rightful claim alongside --
neither above or below -- altruistic concern. The 19th century British moral
philosopher Henry Sidgwick, at the end of his book Methods of Ethics recognized
this fact, as undermining any attempt to develop a coherent moral theory:
I do not mean that if we gave up the hope of attaining a
practical solution of this fundamental contradiction,
through any legitimately obtained conclusion or postulate
as to the moral order of the world, it would become
reasonable for us to abandon morality altogether: but it
would seem necessary to abandon the idea of rationalising
it completely. We should doubtless still, not only from
self-interest, but also through sympathy and sentiments
protective of social well being, imparted by education and
sustained by communication with other men, feel a desire
for the general observance of rules conducive to general
happiness; and practical reason would still impel us
decisively to the performance of duty in the more ordinary
cases in which what is recognised as duty is in harmony
with self-interest properly understood. But in the rarer
cases of a recognised conflict between self-interest and
duty, practical reason, being divided against itself, would
cease to be a motive on either side; the conflict would have
to be decided by the comparative preponderance of one or
other of two groups of non-rational impulses.
Henry Sidgwick Methods of Ethics Book IV, Ch VI, 5
I am arguing that the only conclusion to draw from the contradiction between
altruism and self-interest is that we have to recognize there is such a thing
as ethical judgement, which takes considerations of altruism and self-interest,
together with the minimum required standards of behaviour, and makes a balanced
decision: 'all things considered'. The only thing that commands in ethics is
your judgement of what is -- after taking every aspect of the circumstances
into consideration -- the right thing to do.
The rational basis for ethical judgement -- that in virtue of which ethical
judgement is 'correct' or 'incorrect', 'right' or 'wrong' -- is a question for
the foundations of ethics. For our purposes, it is enough to say that from the
point of view of the phenomenology of ethics -- or what it is like to come to
an ethical decision -- our response to an ethical challenge does not appear to
be an expression of mere subjective preference. Our judgement represents our
appreciation of, is dictated by something out there which gives our judgement
its sense of urgency and necessity.
The business arena
The activities of business people are responsible, to a large extent, for
creating the world that we live in today. There is hardly a corner of human
life where business has not made an impact. Yet, as I will argue, business
activity also constitutes a world in itself -- a world within the human world
-- which I term, 'the business arena'.
Metaphysics has traditionally been the study of what it is for things to
constitute the world, or reality: according to Aristotle, the study of 'being
qua being'. In order to make a 'world', things have to come together in an
order or structure that is in some sense, self-contained and self-explanatory.
The principles and rules that apply within a world do not necessarily apply
outside it. However, the business arena is more than just a system defined by
rules. It is the Matrix, the foundation of your reality, all that you see and
feel and know -- but only for so long as you choose to play the game.
As a professional metaphysician, I am fascinated by the
idea that human beings can belong to more than one world,
or move between worlds. Anthropologists who 'go native' in
order to study their subjects more closely have an inkling
of what I am talking about. We live in the marketplace and
also outside it. We can play the various roles assigned to
us in the game, or we can stand outside our economic
personae and observe ourselves from an ethical point of
view. The only difference between us and the anthropologist
is that, most of the time, we don't realize that we are
Geoffrey Klempner 'Ethics and Advertising', P4B Issue 9
The 'rules' in question are the rules of ethics. As I have stated, the human
world is governed by the ethics of altruism. That does not mean that we are
required to be altruistic in everything that we do; rather, the interests of
others are a factor to balance against the claims of self-interest. We have a
right to take ourselves into account. But we also have a duty to consider the
interests of others -- for their sake and not for merely self-interested
In the business arena, the ethics of altruism are, in an important sense,
suspended. We are not merely co-operating or living together; we are competing.
When human beings compete, there will be those who do better and those that do
worse. If you win the contract, someone else has to lose. If you gain the job
offer, then someone else fails to gain it. That is the magic formula that Adam
Smith first enunciated in his Wealth of Nations: we all benefit from free
competition of players in the business arena, each aiming for his or her own
self-interest and the well being of those he or she cares for, while at the
same time respecting the rules of property, honesty and fair play.
One way to understand the business arena is by analogy with sport or
The boxer in the ring has one objective: to win. Not at any
price. If as a result of sloppy refereeing, a fight is not
stopped and you are presented with the opportunity to kill
your opponent, the responsible fighter does the minimum
required to win, not the maximum. Unless you are a
merciless sadist, you don't actively seek to inflict
permanent brain damage. But suppose that your opponent
needs to win much more than you do. Perhaps it's his last
fight, or he has a large gambling debt to pay off. It
wouldn't be an act of moral compassion. It would be a
betrayal of the sport to allow your opponent to beat you.
More than that. It would be an out-and-out absurdity.
I have chosen boxing because of the pungency of the
metaphor of the boxing ring. It is not an accident that
sport takes place in an arena. The architecture of the
boxing ring or the sporting arena is not merely
utilitarian, but is symbolic of the frame which we choose
to place around this area of human endeavour.
Sport would not be sport, were it not for that frame. Sport
was an invention, like the wheel. It is possible that there
is a planet somewhere whose inhabitants have never competed
in athletics, or a game, or a martial art. It seems to me
far less likely that in our future interstellar travels we
shall ever find a planet where trade or quid pro quo had
not been invented. The very first act of deliberate trade
created the frame within which business activity takes
Geoffrey Klempner 'The Business Arena', P4B Issue 5
Yet even though normal ethics is suspended, that doesn't mean that we can take
a holiday from thinking about ethical questions. The business arena is governed
by its own ethical rules, which we will be exploring in this program. Beyond
that, every player recognizes that to be a 'business person' is, after all,
just a role that we freely take on. To be nothing but a player in the business
arena, with no interests or commitments outside that arena, is to be a travesty
of a human being.
Our main concern is with ethical dilemmas, as they arise within the business
arena, as well as in the potential conflict between the business arena and
society at large. I have no theory or formula to offer for solving the dilemmas
that business people face. But I will be saying a lot about what constitutes a
good or wise judge of ethical questions, as well as how to think about
different kinds of ethical dilemma.
The first thing we need to examine is the very claim that there is 'no theory
or formula'. Who is to say? Let's suppose that someone writes a book on
business ethics which argues that there is no decision procedure for ethical
questions. Then a rival business ethicist writes a book claiming to have found
an effective decision procedure which can be reliably applied in every case. --
How does the first author know that the second author is wrong?
It is not enough to have a decision procedure: the results which it issues have
to be believable. A good case can be made for astrology, as a way of prompting
people to make decisions, rather than remain paralyzed by indecision. The
problem is that you have to believe the claims of astrology in order to accept
that ethical decisions based on astrology are reliable. If you don't then you
might as well spin a coin. (Either way, at least you can be sure of being right
fifty per cent of the time.)
Consider the case of a marketing team who are trying to determine the optimum
price for a particular perfume. If the item is priced too highly, the product
will be uncompetitive in the particular sector of the market place that they
are aiming for; if too low, then the target consumers will be put off by the
fear that the item is too cheap to be of good quality. No amount of market
research will guarantee that the decision made is the correct one, in the face
of the fickleness of the market, or fashion, or your ultimate lack of knowledge
of what your business competitors are planning. However, actual sales figures
provide a kind of acid test. In this way, the marketer's judgement is refined
through experience, without ever yielding a mechanical formula that substitutes
This observation is consistent with the fact that formulae are often used as
rules of thumb for guiding these kinds of decision. The point, however, is that
we judge the efficacy of the formula by its practical results, and are not
afraid to make a judgement call which contradicts the result obtained from the
formula when the circumstances seem to warrant it.
How much harder must it be, if there is no acid test of an ethical decision?
You can't judge the correctness of an ethical decision by sales figures, or
indeed popularity. If you weren't sure at the time whether or not you had done
the right thing, subsequent events can only show that you got your facts wrong.
However, what you will learn is what other people think of your decision, people
whose judgement you respect.
No-one is an island. We make our ethical evaluations against a background of
common knowledge and understanding of what is acceptable or unacceptable
behaviour. It is the task of ethics to articulate this rich repository of human
knowledge. The result can be informative, and indeed helpful as a guide to
action. What a knowledge of the principles of ethics cannot do is substitute
for your own good sense and judgement.
The requirement of consistency
The futile search for a formula for deciding ethical questions is one way in
which theories of ethics or theories of business ethics come unstuck, as we
shall observe when we look in detail at different kinds of ethical dilemma.
However, there is another assumption which seems at first harder to question,
the assumption that howsoever we judge, we ought at the very least to be
consistent. If you made the judgement ABC in the past, and the circumstances
appear relevantly similar, then you are duty bound to judge ABC again.
Without doubt, thinking about ethical questions is a search for consistency,
and much of ethics is concerned with developing an overview which will help us
be more consistent in the judgements that we make.
There are two reasons for this. First, to accept that it is all right to make
inconsistent judgements seems tantamount to accepting that we are not aiming to
make judgements which are correct, or warranted by the circumstances. If I make
the judgement ABC and also the judgement BCD, and it is impossible for ABC and
BCD to be both correct at the same time, then one of my judgements must be
A no less telling reason is that we rely on each other to act consistently, in
order that we may base our decisions and actions on reliable information about
what the other person will do. Team effort is wrecked if members of the team
cannot be sure that other team members are striving for the same objectives and
will not fall out of line for some trivial reason. A well-intentioned but
inconsistent leader can promote chaos and disillusionment, subverting any good
purposes that he or she might originally have set of to achieve.
Yet there is such a thing as taking consistency too far. Human beings learn by
their errors and mistakes. We are permitted to change our minds, when we gain a
view of things that we did not have before. Equally, when circumstances arise
where two seemingly inconsistent judgements seem forced on us, and we cannot
resolve the inconsistency however hard we may try, that is still better than
trampling roughshod over principles we deeply believe in just in order to
The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski expresses the same thought, but more
The race of those who vacillate and are soft, the
inconsistent people, precisely those who happily eat steak
for dinner but are totally incapable of slaughtering a
chicken; those who do not wish to contravene the laws of
the land yet do not denounce others to the secret police;
those who go to war but in a hopeless situation surrender
as prisoners rather than die in a last-ditch fight; those
who prize frankness but cannot bring themselves to tell a
famous painter that his work is terrible, nervously
uttering words of praise which they do not mean -- in
short, the race of inconsistent people -- continues to be
one of the greatest sources of hope that possibly the human
species will somehow manage to survive. For this is the race
of which part believes in God and the superiority of eternal
salvation over temporal well-being, yet does not demand that
heretics be converted at the stake; while the other part,
not believing in God, espouses revolutionary changes in
social conditions yet rejects methods purporting to bring
about these changes which openly contradict a certain moral
tradition in which these people were raised.
Leszek Kolakowski 'In Praise of Inconsistency'
Toward a Marxist Humanism New York: Grove Press 1968, p.213
Disinterestedness and detachment
What we have learned so far is that ethics is a practical affair. You can't
rely on theories or formulae or even logical consistency. For all that, we
strive to make the right judgement, based on rational reflection on the
circumstances in which we find ourselves, and do not see this as merely the
expression of a subjective preference, or a means to some other non-ethical end.
What lies behind the very idea of ethics is the notion that it is possible to
see the world from a point of view which is, to some degree, detached from the
one which we ourselves occupy. To take another person into account when you
make a decision implies that you put some value on the way they see things, on
what is important in their eyes, on what benefits or harms them.
The ultimate expression of this idea is the notion of the disinterested view,
where the fact that I have a particular interest or desire is merely one datum
to be taken into account along with the interests and desires of everyone else
whom my decision affects. In its starkest terms, this assumption appears as the
idea that in making the utilitarian calculation of 'the greatest happiness for
the greatest number', my happiness counts for one, and no more than one --
amongst the hundreds, thousands or even millions whose happiness might
conceivably be effected by my decision.
When Henry Sidgwick confessed that the project of constructing a rational moral
theory ran aground on the question of the claims of self-interest, he recognized
that this is not a credible account of ethical decision making. Ethics is for
ordinary people. It is plain common sense that we have a right to look after
ourselves, and those we care for. The virtuosos of self-sacrifice -- the Mother
Theresas of this world -- have their reasons, which are undoubtedly ethical
reasons but they don't have to be our reasons. Sainthood is optional.
Equally optional, I have argued, is the decision to put altruism aside in order
to enter the business arena and compete, on the understanding that you can only
win if your competitor loses. I do not wish to underestimate the fact that this
is a momentous decision to make. Nevertheless, even as we compete we remain part
of the human ethical world, sensitive to the effect that our activity has on
those on the sidelines. As we shall see, this has important consequences for
issues around social responsibility and corporate citizenship.
It is also true -- and this is part of the sublimity of ethics -- that there is
no limit to ethical obligation, once you start looking for it, as the example of
Mother Theresa indeed demonstrates. The answer is not a reason for not looking
but a plain matter of fact: we do not look. This is what the ethics of the
human world is like. At that point, the philosopher has nothing more to
(c) Geoffrey Klempner 2007