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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 52
23rd April 2009
I. 'Philosophy in the Business Arena' by Geoffrey Klempner
II. Review of Adela Cortina 'For an Ethic of Consumption' by Maximiliano
III. Introducing Dena Hurst, Guest Editor
There has been a longer than normal gap since the last issue of Philosophy for
Business went out at the end of January. Some readers may be aware that my
wife June Wynter-Klempner passed away in March. June was diagnosed with
metastatic liver cancer in July 2008. There is a tribute in Issue 142 of
Also in March, my article, 'Philosophy in the Business Arena' appeared in Vol.
4 No. 1 of Philosophical Practice, Journal of American Philosophical
Practitioners Association. The article is reproduced in full here, with kind
permission of the APPA. I would also like to take this opportunity to express
my gratitude to Editor Lou Marinoff, and to Guest Editor Gerald Rochelle who
offered valuable advice.
In response to my article, I received an email from Dena Hurst, from the John
Scott Dailey Florida Institute of Government, Florida State University. Dena
said that she had visited the Pathways web site: 'I was both pleased and
disappointed to find what you have created -- pleased because I have been
playing with a business plan for a similar service over the past 4 months and
disappointed to find it is already being done!'
It was agreed that Dena would act as Guest Editor for the next issue (53) of
Philosophy for Business. Below is a short statement from Dena outlining her
interests and approach. Dena has also joined the ranks of the Pathways Mentors,
and has already taken on her first Pathways student.
I have also been asked by a P4B subscriber to conduct a survey of how many
recipients of P4B are on Linkedin, as he wishes to start a discussion group on
questions around business ethics and the philosophy of business. If you are on
Linkedin, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I. 'PHILOSOPHY IN THE BUSINESS ARENA' BY GEOFFREY KLEMPNER
Writing this essay has been difficult and painful. Seeking to obey the Socratic
maxim, 'Know thyself' has inevitably led me to grapple with my own shortcomings
as a would-be practical philosopher. How did I get here? How did I come to be
doing this? Led initially by intellectual curiosity, I found myself
increasingly fascinated by the world of business, which simultaneously attracts
and repels me. I am uncomfortable in the role of 'philosopher of business'. I
would prefer the label, 'metaphysician', were not the idea of metaphysics so
I also have a case to make, although it is not one that would be very popular
in today's climate. I am not a quietist. I believe that change is needed, but I
also reject the simplistic view of the philosopher 'offering ethical advice'
which many subscribe to. The many don't appreciate the difficulties in the way
of applying philosophy to the business world. Companies seek the advice of
consultants because they want answers and solutions. They are driven mainly by
the needs of the moment, the need to compete and survive. If you tell your
clients that the ethical dilemmas they face have no answers, you will quickly
be shown the door.
This essay is therefore written against a background of what I perceive as a
deep difficulty with the very idea that decisions made by business people -- in
particular, decisions which have ethical consequences -- can be argued out and
rationalized, as if all one had to do was obey the injunction to 'think clearly'
and everything will become clear. That is one of the main faults of
philosophers when they try to be helpful and offer practical advice. Not
everything can be 'understood', not every action can be justified or explained.
For example, a piece of practical wisdom which many business people take for
granted is that you can't always do the ethical thing, when the cost is too
high. Even ethics has a price. In a good year, you can afford to budget a bit
more for ethics, in a bad year less. Before ethics comes survival. Ethics aside,
we really do not understand what drives us at the deepest level. We make
theories about our motivations and test them -- or at least we think we do --
but the result is more often than not a foregone conclusion. We love material
things for no other reason than that they are lovable.
The only certain truth is that we do business because we can. Like philosophy
itself, trade and exchange is one of the fundamental manifestations of human
freedom. Like philosophy, commerce is an activity which human beings invented.
Today, we live with the consequences -- good or bad -- of that invention. As a
consequence, we inhabit two irreconcilable worlds. We are assailed by dilemmas
which we cannot solve because we ourselves created the conditions which gave
rise to those dilemmas in the first place -- far too long ago in the past to do
anything about it now. We have no alternative but to live with ambivalence and
uncertainty. But we can do more than just make the best of it. We can
rediscover the fundamental maxim that drives philosophy; that respect for truth
is more important than the practical need for certainty; that it is better to be
ignorant and know that you are, than it is to think you have the answers when
you do not.
Philosophy for business
Five years ago I decided to branch out and discover something about the
business world. Many of my distance learning students are in business, and I
was curious to find out what makes them tick. What do business people really
want? How can someone spend their working life wheeling and dealing? Don't they
ever get bored with doing the same thing, over and over? What's the great
attraction about wearing a suit? So in November 2003 I launched the Philosophy
for Business e-journal, under the umbrella of the International Society for
Philosophers. The list of subscribers is diverse, including students and
lecturers of both philosophy and business studies, CEOs, board directors and
managers, public servants and members of the professions.
The week before I started this essay, the Sheffield University list server sent
out issue 47 of Philosophy for Business with articles, 'The Business Virtues',
'Homosexuality and Business' and 'Permission to Steal'. No subject is taboo, so
long as it treats issues in business from a broadly philosophical perspective.
Considering that the last time I taught at the University of Sheffield was over
a decade ago, I am fortunate to get this extra support. I don't need the
university's approval for what I publish.
For the last dozen or so years I have been running my own e-learning business
in competition with the universities: the Pathways School of Philosophy. On the
Internet search engines, Pathways is neck and neck with the Open University and
the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education. Our courses are good
value for money, considering that Pathways does not receive any grant funding
or money from the taxpayer's purse. Google is a great leveller.
In my piece for Practical Philosophy, 'Pathways to Philosophy Seven Years On'
(Geoffrey Klempner 2004a) I go so far as to describe myself as a businessman.
But the truth is I am not, and never will be. I realize that now, having had
the chance to go out into the world and engage with the genuine article. I have
met business people who are dedicated and talented. They could have excelled in
any number of fields, but they chose business. I've met many more who were good
enough -- the indispensable small part players who know their place in the
scheme of things. Either way, I don't measure up. So I am writing as an
anthropologist of the business world, rather than as a native interpreter; what
I say has to be treated with the same scepticism and caution that one treats any
foray into anthropology, especially when it is done by a philosopher.
My father Paul Klempner, a mining engineer who wrote a column on gold shares
for the Financial Times, acquired a small company manufacturing spares for
earth moving equipment in his middle years which became our main source of
income. In his youth in Austria he had dreamed of training as an architect, but
Adolf Hitler put paid to that plan. In 1936 he emigrated to South Africa where
he completed his apprenticeship in the gold mines, then set up his consultancy
in Johannesburg. Finally he left South Africa in 1949 when the National Party
won the general election.
Though I perceive my father as having been a somewhat reluctant businessman, as
a result of his efforts our family lived comfortably. We rode around in a red
Jaguar and enjoyed holidays in San Tropez. I learned my first lessons in
business from my dad; the most important lesson of all is that work is hard.
This said to his adolescent son who entertained absurd notions about making a
living as a creative photographer taking photos of clouds and trees; then,
later, equally unrealistic ideas about being a philosopher pondering the
meaning of life.
I also learned from my dad the value of being meticulous and keeping a good
filing system -- advice which has stood me in very good stead. Academics can be
notoriously messy and disorganized. It's a waste of effort if you're always
losing stuff. You need to conserve your energy for the important things.
Wittgenstein used to tell his students that 'philosophy is hard'. It takes an
effort to go deep, just as it takes an effort to swim under water. I imagine
that most of those reading this article would agree. But then again,
philosophers would, wouldn't they? What do they know about the real world?
Philosophy isn't work, something you do in order to live and make a decent life
for yourself and your family. 'Wittgenstein gave all his wealth away. He never
had to pay private school fees,' my father would have said.
The inverted world
I want to talk about practical matters. But I also need to say something about
the crazy philosophy of money; because we are so brainwashed, we have lost the
capacity to see its craziness. In its various incarnations, the market place
seems to me an elaborate fairy tale, facades behind facades, the opposite of
reality. Yet that is the world that one meets up with every day. It is in your
face, there's no escape. For all practical purposes, a dream from which you
never wake up is no different from reality. Or is it?
Money not only talks, it philosophizes. Money makes ugliness beautiful and the
giftless talented. Marx said that, in his essay on Money in 1844 Manuscripts
(Marx, 1964). It doesn't matter how stupid you are; with enough money, you can
have the IQ of a genius. Money is a genius. Money is the genie let out of the
bottle. Money is the first and last explanation, the ultimate justification for
every action. Nothing is as rational as money. Nothing is rational except money.
In line after searing line, the young Marx pours out his anger and scorn on the
institution of money and all that it stands for. In the world of money, every
value is reversed. Not since Diogenes philosophized from a barrel has
materialism been subjected to such withering critique.
To the more cynical observer, Marx's essay reeks of envy and ressentiment. Yet,
allowing for the hyperbole, I believe he saw something real and terrifying: a
vision of what the world is, or could yet become. Grant the institution of
money and you grant everything. You grant all this. The world of money is a
world turned upside down. But if everything is 'down' then there is no
difference between down and up. To us today, a world without money is simply --
Economic thinking is one of the primary manifestations of the philosophy of
money; even charities can't escape it. No director of a national charity would
dare stand up and defend wasting hard won donations on projects that are not
fully worth the money spent on them. There's no room for hurt feelings.
Professional philosophers are so-called because they practice their vocation --
Despite my own personal reservations about entering into the fray, I would like
this article to serve as a guide for the would-be philosophical practitioner who
is looking to find gainful employment in the business arena. There are rich
pickings to be had, for the philosopher who has the right attitude and
temperament. (I am not being ironic or tongue in cheek when I say this.) If you
are one of the lucky few with the right combination of talents, you can indeed
have your soul and sell it.
Importance of praxis
I am not writing this out of any mere desire to be useful -- as if philosophers
need to apply their intellects once in a while to practical matters in order to
justify their existence. Most business readers will not 'get' this, but these
words are not for them. I am assuming a reader somewhat like myself, curious to
know, to understand -- as I was, when I started out on this strange trek. Nor
indeed do I feel any particularly strong urge to actively go out and help
people. My experiences have confirmed what I always suspected: that I would not
make a very good philosophical counsellor. As I remark in my 2004 article, I
engage my students in vigorous philosophical dialogue; I am not there to listen
to their personal problems.
What I have come to believe in my bones, and despite my diffidence, is that
philosophical understanding does not occur in a vacuum. It has a point, a
purpose. Philosophical inquiry whose primary focus is not in its very core and
essence practical is not merely an idle game or waste of time: it fails by its
own rigorous criterion of truth. In other words, truth is praxis, or it is
You may think you've heard this before. Marx said something similar in his 11th
Thesis on Feuerbach (Marx 1969). And before Marx, Epicurus. Unlike both these
worthy philosophers, however, my primary focus is not altruistic. I believe
that the lives of business people could be better than they are in lots of ways,
but that's something they will have to discover for themselves -- or not, as
the case may be. At least most of them are not suffering desperate living
conditions or going hungry.
Perhaps closer than Marx is the British philosopher John Macmurray, in his
philosophy of 'the self as agent', expounded in his Gifford Lectures 1952-53
(Macmurray 1957, 1961). According to Macmurray, understanding the grand concepts
of metaphysics -- space, time, causality, substance -- depends on grasping the
fundamental truth that the standpoint of the self is primarily that of an agent,
and only secondarily that of a subject of experience. What is most
significant about Macmurray's approach is what he avoids: the Neo-Marxist idea
that you have to act before you can understand, in order to 'change your state
of consciousness', or the Hegelian notion of the self as related to society as
an organ is to the body, which receives poignant expression in Bradley's 'My
Station and Its Duties' (Bradley, 1927).
My primary motive is to advance my own understanding. I am a seeker rather than
a helper. But I also accept Macmurray's dictum, in the Introduction to The Self
as Agent: 'All meaningful knowledge is for the sake of action, and all
meaningful action for the sake of friendship' (Macmurray, 1957, p.15).
Metaphysics of business
Human beings are world creators. One of the worlds that
human beings have created is the world of money,
commodities, trade, exchange. To me, it's a world full of
beauty and ugliness in equal proportions, messy, flashy,
exotic, scary. No-one who has made their home in this world
would see this the way an outsider -- and being a
philosopher makes me by definition an outsider -- can see
I regard the business arena -- the world of buyers and
sellers, bosses and workers, producers and consumers, the
world of money -- as nothing less than an ontological
category, a way of Being. It is not accidental to who we
are. It defines the way we relate to each other and to the
world around us. But it is not the only way of Being. There
are other ways, and the most fundamental of these is ethics.
I suspect that not a few practical philosophers harbour a natural hostility
towards metaphysics. That is understandable. The metaphysician doesn't aim for
practical consequences. Metaphysical theories are not evaluated in terms of
their utility. Despite that, I would strongly endorse Iris Murdoch's view that
ethics needs to be rooted in metaphysics (Murdoch, 1970, 1992). This, for the
sake of understanding which is for the sake of action. In Naive Metaphysics
(Klempner 1994) I offer a defence of an objective view of moral judgement. My
argument for the necessity of a defence would be the same as the one Plato
gives in Meno: beliefs which lack rational grounding have a treacherous
tendency to 'run away' (Plato, 97e-98a).
Metaphysics is the science of truth. If truth is praxis then metaphysics is the
science of praxis. But no-one is saying that it is necessary to understand in
order to do. You don't learn to ride a bicycle by studying the physics and
mechanics of bicycles. If there is, as I believe, a metaphysics of the business
world it doesn't follow that business people need to be taught metaphysics in
order to do business, or in order to do it better. Yet, all the same,
metaphysics is necessary -- for those, like myself, who discover that they
Philosophers are the experts in unmasking, at revealing the reality behind
deceptive appearances. Generally speaking, however -- at least, from my
experience -- people like to keep at least some of their illusions. After all,
believing that it is worthwhile getting out of bed is itself a kind of illusion.
(A somewhat irreverent aside: I am reminded that Descartes did his most
productive thinking snuggled up in bed. That would be a difficult way to run an
office.) Clinically depressed people are not wrong in their conviction that they
see the bare truth about things. The world is various shades of grey before we
human beings actively go out and paint it in the colours of our desires. It is
cruel, one of the less attractive manifestations of the philosopher's will to
power, to want to force people's eyelids open, so they see our actual world as
it really is.
What I have come to realize is that grasping the nature of the business arena
-- something which is very far from being apparent despite the fact that we live
and breathe it -- is fundamental to understanding what we human beings
essentially are, our very existence. The business arena is the a priori
possibility of a certain kind of being which stands in stark contrast to our
ethical being. But more of that later.
Prospects for a philosophical consultancy
In my travels, I was lucky enough to have my own informant, a business person
with whom I was originally hoping to set up a philosophical consultancy. We had
many discussions about what it was that business people 'really need', without
ever coming to a definite conclusion. It is difficult to tell someone that they
need to change while they continue to insist that they are perfectly happy as
they are. Tell a business person that they are 'in denial' or protecting
themselves behind a shield of self-deception and they will laugh in your face.
In the end, it comes down to the power of money and the illusion that you must
be doing well, if you make a good income from what you do.
The most important lesson I learned concerns confidentiality. In the business
world, anything resembling personal information about a business person is
potential dynamite. Knowledge is power, and as a business person any slip that
you make, any information you intentionally or unintentionally let out, is
ammunition for your competitors. When information is released -- and you will
find plenty in the business magazines or business sections of newspapers -- you
can be assured that it is carefully vetted PR. Even so, it is evidence of a kind,
if you know how to read it: testimony to the ideology and often distorted
self-image of business people.
The worry about confidentiality is a source of very considerable resistance
that any philosophical practitioner will encounter in taking on business people
as clients. As a rule, the higher you go, the more resistance you will encounter
and the greater effort you will have to make to establish trust. If you follow
the practice of some philosophical practitioners and liberally season your
published articles with case histories, you will quickly find yourself out in
the cold. Discretion is paramount.
Yet business people are prepared to seek help, and at various meetings and
conferences I talked to a number of individuals who showed a genuine interest
in the idea of dialogue with a philosopher. As I learned, the business person's
weakest spot is the fear that they will fall off their horse; that they will
make a bad judgement call and lose their job or their business will go bankrupt.
Hand in hand with success in the business world goes a nagging doubt: in
order to succeed, you have to dream of failure. You have to remind yourself
over and over again of all the different ways in which things could still go
wrong despite all your careful preparations, and yet find the courage to go
forward and face whatever comes.
As you might expect, many business people project an image of toughness and you
will have to persuade them to put down the mask. When they do, you will find
there is much to admire. All the intellectual skills that we value in the
sciences or the arts -- analytical ability, the ability to communicate face to
face or in writing, resourcefulness and creativity -- are sharpened and honed
to perfection. This wouldn't need saying, were it not for the considerable
prejudice within the academic world against the world of business.
In the end, our optimistic plans for a consultancy didn't work out. In
retrospect, I think I was temperamentally unsuited to getting down in the
trenches and dodging the missiles and bullets. Yet I am grateful for the chance
to get an insider's view of the business world and the opportunity to try out
all my well-rehearsed philosophical gambits on the most challenging subjects I
am ever likely to meet.
Without a doubt, the biggest hurdle for any would be philosophical consultant
is grasping how the world appears from the business perspective. I would say
that it is harder for a philosopher than for any other professional. I have
tried to give some indication of the reasons why. It has to do with the issue
of money and the intensive focus on profit; the world as a market place. Once
you are in the market place, the money game takes over. You are no longer in
Yet there are philosophical practitioners today working with business people.
At a conference in Amsterdam, I got to know one redoubtable woman in her 60s
who offers intensive coaching to CEOs. This particular lady is highly regarded
amongst those in the know, but you won't find her on the Internet or in the
Yellow Pages. At this level -- and indeed to a significant extent in business
generally -- personal recommendation and reputation are the only things that
are taken seriously. Web pages and publicity handouts are for the hoi polloi.
How to get inside the mind of a business person? The first thing that needs to
be said, by the philosopher, or the historian, looking at human conflict over
the centuries, is that men like war. Business is exciting because it takes on
the aspect of war. Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 film Wall
Street (Stone 1987) tells his wide-eyed protege: 'I don't throw darts at a board.
I bet on sure things. Read Sun Tzu, The Art of War. Every battle is won
before it is ever fought.' Whether you are selling, negotiating or directing
you are engaged in a battle of wits, you are looking for an edge. That is the
essence of contest.
Calling contest in the business arena 'war' also highlights the fact that
no-one has agreed what the rules are: for example, what counts as hitting below
the belt. Trying to make others respect your rules is just one more aspect of
the contest, just another stratagem. The worst thing for a philosophical
practitioner to be -- the thing that no-one wants, even if they say they do --
is to be the one who comes in from the outside and tries to be a rule maker (a
warning to would-be 'business ethicists').
But things are changing. As the big corporations increasingly realize the value
of co-operation -- even while they compete to sell their goods side by side in
the market place -- the proponents of the traditional warlike virtues are
beginning to look more and more out of touch with reality. Tactics and strategy
of today's global marketplace dictate a more subtle approach, one where the
traditionally feminine virtues of empathy and conciliation come into their own.
All business people are motivated by the desire to compete and excel; but when
all is said and done the final arbiter of success or failure is money. Greed is
the fundamental guiding principle. You want to maximize profit. This isn't about
survival, or having as much as you can use, or even getting what you want. The
principle of greed is excess and abundance -- much like the principle of life
itself. We are shocked when Gordon Gekko in Wall Street shouts to his audience
of excited shareholders, 'Greed is good! Greed works! Greed is right!' because
we were always taught that greed is a sin. But that is precisely the
proposition that Gekko is denying.
Human beings have an urge to rationalize their actions after the event; and
no-one more so than business people. And for sound practical reasons. Every
decision has to be justified and defended in the boardroom or to your superiors.
In any well-run company today, performance of managers, executives and sales
staff is continually monitored and put under the microscope. The dead wood is
thrown overboard, the high performers rewarded. The focus on results -- the
bottom line -- is unremitting.
However, there is a big difference between coming to a philosophical counsellor
as a business person seeking to improve the way they live through rational
reflection, or as someone merely seeking to improve their performance in the
business arena. It no more follows that you will live better if you succeed in
the business arena, than it follows that you will improve the quality of your
life if you become a champion on the sporting field or a pop star.
The urgent question a philosophical counsellor will ask you is why you want to
succeed, why indeed, are you prepared to sacrifice so much for the sake of
success. It is worth reminding ourselves that this is a vice (if one can
presume to call it that) from which professional philosophers themselves are
not immune; witness reports of the growing use by academics of all disciplines
of medications developed for patients with neurological disease or impaired
brain functions, in order to improve their intellectual sharpness and
performance in the publishing race or in the seminar room (Academy of Medical
We admire the Olympic athlete for their single-minded pursuit of arete, because
we value outstanding performance in any field of human endeavour. Surely, we
ought, consistently, to adopt the same attitude to the talented business person
who overcomes every obstacle in order to get to the top? But then again, what is
the big deal if in the end it is all about money? What is so admirable about
In striving to answer these questions, the philosophical practitioner is
entering into a moral miasma, where nothing is what it seems. What is it that
the ambitious business executive really wants? What is the primary motivation?
Is it excellence? Fame? Power? Wealth? Do they know? It might be all of these
things and more. A heady cocktail indeed.
The business arena
I hope that the reader is beginning to feel a sense of confusion and
disorientation similar to my own when I first set out. We admire what business
people are able to do yet at the same time feel repelled by their narrow world.
We accept that there is something worth striving for -- in striving to be good
at business -- yet recoil at the blinkered materialism of the market place.
The breakthrough for me came when I formulated the theory of the business arena
(Klempner 2004b). I realized that attempting to adapt ethics to business is
futile. Ethics -- I mean real ethics, the ethics of I and Thou -- in a sense
breaks down in the business arena. The ethical obligations of players in the
business arena are not non-existent but they are limited, in order to allow for
competition and the possibility of winning and losing.
The metaphor I used was that of a boxing ring. If you see that your competitor
is on the ropes, you don't bend forward and stretch out your hand. That is the
time to move in for the kill:
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
It would be possible -- and this was the young Marx's
vision of a communist society where everyone lives by the
rule of brotherly and sisterly love, just as Christ
preached -- to abolish business, trade and money altogether.
Just because an activity is natural, inevitable does not
mean that human cultural creativity and ingenuity cannot
find a way to eliminate it. Should we wish to? To me,
that's a meaningless question. Because (contrary to what
the older Marx of Capital thought and generations of
Socialist governments have taken on trust) we have not the
slightest clue how that end state would be achieved. We
have no conception of the price that would have to be paid
in permanently altering human culture and behaviour in
order to reach that idyllic end state. (Klempner, 2004b)
Reading these words now, written when I was just starting out on my adventure
into the business world, I get a strong sense that I was trying too hard. There
is a name for this kind of discourse: apologetics. I was defending a belief,
held by a large class of people with the same ferocity and determination as any
religion: the religion of money.
What I would do now -- what a philosophical counsellor offering guidance to
business people can do -- is challenge in every way and at every opportunity
the ideological belief that the business arena is the world. That was the
terrifying vision that the young Marx saw. It is not. It is an artificial
creation intended to serve our purposes which human beings have become
That is all well and good. But there is a down side to the arena metaphor.
Psychologists have a name for the tendency to take something which has good and
bad aspects and artificially separate out the two sides, in order that we can
fantasize about a good which is unpolluted by anything bad. The term is
'splitting'. The seminal work derives from Melanie Klein and her theory of 'part
objects' -- the 'good breast' and the 'bad breast' -- but it is not necessary
to embrace Kleinianism or the idea of depth psychology in order to perceive the
point. It is all-too apparent.
You can see it, for example, in the traditional view of business and money
taken by Christianity, in its peculiar reading of the 4th Commandment handed
down to the children of Israel, 'Remember the Sabbath to keep it Holy'. The
Sabbath day is the day of purity; the rest of the week we scrabble down in the
dirt. You earn your filthy lucre six days of the week, and on the seventh you
repent. From my experience, there are many business people who have little or
no religious convictions who still carry the sense of guilt that this splitting
implies. Defiantly asserting that the business arena is the world -- there is no
'seventh day' -- is merely one way to deny the guilt. That is the gospel of the
Gordon Gekkos of this world. Ultimately, it doesn't succeed.
What I would offer as an alternative is a positive celebration of the business
arena alongside recognition that we are not merely players in the business
arena but ethical beings at one and the same time. In order to play the game,
we mutually agree to the principle, 'To the winner the spoils, and the best of
luck to you!' The evils of materialism are not the responsibility of money or
big business or consumerism. That's just another attempt at denying our own
responsibility, our own guilt. We can be better than we are, if we recognize
that money is after all just a tool -- like the wheel -- and, as we have always
been taught, there are many things, like friendship, which money cannot buy.
What does this mean in practice? It would be too facile to say that business
people must become philosophers. And also arrogant. It is the height of
arrogance for the philosopher to think that a business person will be improved
by becoming more like they are; why not the other way round? Wouldn't
philosophers too be improved by the exchange? It is also facile, because many
business people are philosophers already; that is the source of their sense of
guilt. They see through themselves all too clearly. Giving your millions away
when you retire doesn't make up for all the ethically dubious things you had to
do to make your millions in the first place.
If we are players in the business arena and ethical beings at one and the same
time, then that is a conviction which cannot be adequately expressed in words
but can only be shown. Pursuit of profit is what the game requires, but we are
more than just 'players of the game'. In that case, show it. Don't promote a
corporate culture where loyalty to the company is the number one ethical rule.
Loyalty is a virtue, to be sure; but it is only one consideration amongst
others. Take practical steps to foster ethical debate at every level of the
company, from the boardroom down to the shop floor. Recognize your finely
crafted 'ethical codes' for what they are: a mere PR fig-leaf.
Despite everything I have said, I would love, just once, to be employed as a
philosophical consultant-on my terms. I would tell my clients all that I have
said here. I would refuse to offer advice, do my best to make everyone
thoroughly upset, and thoroughly enjoy every minute while I feigned my
'dissatisfaction'. That is the Socratic way. Once the debate is started, things
can only get better. There will be no sacred cows. The sanctity of the
environment, racial and gender equality, disability provision, third world
exploitation are all up for grabs. As J.S. Mill would have observed, there's no
point in believing these fine things if you don't have arguments to defend your
beliefs. Unlike Mill, however, I don't put my faith in rational argument alone
leading to the best outcome. My faith is in our human capacity to relate to one
another as ethical beings, in every situation and wherever we may find ourselves;
at work and at play.
Academy of Medical Sciences (2008) 'Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs'
Bradley, F.H. (1927) 'My Station and Its Duties' in Ethical Studies, 2nd. edn.,
Essay V (Oxford University Press).
Klempner, G. (1994) Naive Metaphysics: a theory of subjective and objective
worlds (Aldershot, Ashgate).
______ (2004a) 'Pathways to Philosophy: Seven Years On', Practical Philosophy,
______ (2004b) 'The Business Arena', Philosophy for Business, 5.
______ (2006) 'Ethics and Advertising' in Gunning, J. and Holm, S. (eds.)
Ethics, Law and Society Volume 2 pp. 219-224 (Aldershot, Ashgate).
Macmurray, J. (1957) The Self as Agent (London, Faber).
______ (1961) Persons in Relation (London, Faber).
Marx, K. (1964) 'The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society', in D.J. Struick (ed.)
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (New York, International
Marx, K. (1969) 'Theses on Feuerbach', in Marx/ Engels Selected Works Vol. I,
pp.13-15 (Moscow, Progress Publishers).
Murdoch, I. (1970) The Sovereignty of Good (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul).
______ (1992) Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (London, Chatto and Windus).
Stone, O. (1987) Wall Street (20th Century Fox film).
Plato Meno (any edition).
(c) Philosophical Practice 2009
Journal of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association
II. REVIEW OF ADELA CORTINA 'FOR AN ETHIC OF CONSUMPTION' BY MAXIMILIANO
Cortina, Adela For an Ethic of Consumption
Montevideo, Taurus Press 2003
ISBN 9974-671-75-2. pp. 349
In the wake of a new millennium, not only has consumption transcended the
limits of utility and economic profitability but it has also been transformed
into a life style. Serious problems associated with the environment such as
global warming, pollution or contamination in rivers, need to be discussed
along the lines of an ethic for consumption.
This book, authored initially in Spanish by Adela Cortina, introduces the
debate emphasizing the need to think about an ethic of consumption for modern
times. Almost all we have been taught follows the paradigm that economic
production, consumption and transaction are instrumental in developing the
economy of nations and redistributing wealth. Popular wisdom is rooted in the
classical prejudice that more consumption entails more jobs, money and less
poverty; but what is the role played by ethics in this process? Is possible to
refer to an ethic of consumption?
In the introductory chapter, Cortina acknowledges that consumption works as a
form of communication wherein people transmit the own successes to their
neighbors. In a material and globalized world, ethics should ask why it is that
whereas many people survive with minimal material resources and on the poverty
line, others live in an outright opulence. In order to answer that question,
Cortina structures her work in five sections. In the first chapter, she
examines how justice, freedom and happiness can contribute for an ethic of
consumption. In the second, the author seeks to discover the psychological
motivations which intervene in the logic of consuming. In third and fourth
chapters, she focuses on the imbalances between the so-called developed
countries, and developing countries where social and basic needs still remain
unsatisfied. Finally, Cortina proposes a moral reform to reconsider what are
the limits of dissatisfaction that a person can bear, dialoguing between the
different theories in ethics and philosophy.
Consumption is part of social life. We all consume -- even animals and plants
as Aristotle said -- air, food, water and other resources from the planet.
However, humankind shows the ability to assign value to the things depending on
their habits or customs. Whether a bunch of tomatoes is worth less than one gram
of gold, depends on how people organize their perception following symbolic and
abstract reasons. Humans are the unique animals capable of considering things
symbolically and splitting the world into past, present and future.
On the other hand, the 'era of accessibility' opens the possibility of
experiencing improvement in the quality of life at the same time as deprivation,
conflict and frustration. In this way, ambiguity is present in everything
humans do and wherever they go. To give an example, the genetic revolution may
help to cure some diseases, improving life style and lengthening life
expectancy, but at the same time, it may contribute to altering the nature of
humanity increasing the risk of greater inequality.
From Cortina's point of view, free will is an essential component in
understanding consumption in modern times. The principle of freedom is
associated with the character that a society has. Like humans, societies are
characterized by certain features based on many aspects such as language,
history, heritage and tradition. All these combined values shape an 'ethos'
which determines which goods are consumable and which are not, which are
valuable and which are not. Personal choices are not only are influenced in the
market by 'social personality' but also explain consumers' behavior and their
passion for trade marks.
For better or worse, all consumers have rights and duties that they should
always observe. In recent years, the responsibility of consumers has been
studied under the paradigm of sustainability while at the same time
disregarding all the previous literature in regard to ethics and professional
codes. As a result of this, abundant specialized studies have emphasized the
role of material profitability as a vehicle towards development and
sustainability leaving behind the deeper philosophical questions. In
recognition to this, Cortina proposes to invert the order and reconstruct the
basis for an ethic of consumption.
Traditionally, the 'leisured classes' had enough time to spend in science,
priesthood, and other aristocratic duties. They found in the control of time a
sign of distinction and social acceptance. The birth of industrial society as
well as urban life displaced leisure as conspicuous consumption gained ground.
The prominence of economic visibility is related to a hierarchal order wherein
the 'rich' spend their money on superfluous merchandise, while people who buy
basic goods are catalogued as 'poor'. This modern idea, as Tom Veblen has
remarked, is copied or emulated by all classes that comprise the social pyramid;
in other words this is the key factor that sustains mass consumption. But
this is merely a surface manifestation of a much deep-seated issue.
It is debatable that if the limit of ethics is freedom and responsibility,
beyond those boundaries modern consumption is characterized by decadence in the
'right of choice'. Today in the industrialized market, quite aside from the
nature or quality of commercial products, patterns of consumption oblige buyers
to follow socially accepted guidelines. Observing this, Cortina suggests that
customers should return to the authenticity re-discovering what they really
want for themselves, rather than their alienated alter egos. For that reason,
new forms of social identification are strongly needed in a world aimed at
standardization and the impersonal.
In England, tea time transcends the boundaries of class membership. Like the
Saturnalias in the Roman Empire, for a couple of minutes this ritual unites men
from high or low classes in an ethos dignifying the fact that hunger is a shared
value in all them, thus creating a bondage of reciprocity. Although in other
countries tea is replaced by coffee -- or other beverages -- a similar function
remains. This is because highly-stratified societies (like industrialist
countries) need a moment and space to adjust certain incongruences. Broadly
speaking, rituals of this nature have a double aim: on the one hand, it gives
hope to the poor that a better situation is possible if they imitate the
wealthier classes; it also reinforces the synergy in a common identity and
Repeatedly throughout her excellent book, Cortina emphasizes the difference
between style and form of life. In general, a style of life refers to choices
in the consumption process; in fact, there are a variety of styles coexisting
in the heart of a class. In the social world, what today is accepted as a sign
of honor and status may be rejected at a later date and vice-versa. For that
reason life style may be seen as a search for exclusivity. By contrast, the
form of life is characterized by stability and order rooted in culture.
Heritage and shared values not only are part of an ethos which governs this
form but also use a common language. In brief, styles of life grant a
superficial identification whereas forms of life provide societies steady norms
enabling them to avoid fragmentation, making them inclusive.
Life on this planet is characterized by a variety of cultures and language;
France and England vary in the ways of consuming (style) even if both are equal
in essence (form) as European civilizations. As has been already explained, the
ethic of consumption should return to the basis of form instead of focusing on
style. The value of goods and merchandise in the market is just instrumental
and should be placed at the service of social well-being, individual
enhancement and self-development. In that way, justice and redistribution of
wealth are urgently needed in order to reconstruct a fairer society.
Taking her cue from Sen, Rawls and Streeten, Cortina emphasizes that freedom
and responsibility in buying goods is based on the belief that consumers are
not passive actors. They have control of their situation and are able to alter
the current imbalances and other negative effects caused by an unsustainable
economy. Happiness is only feasible in the emancipation of consumption. For an
Ethic of Consumption not only calls for a cross-national understanding beyond
the economics of capitalism but also emphasizes the importance of psychological
components involved in consumption. A work of this nature is highly recommended
for all those concerned with ethics and philosophical issues.
(c) Maximiliano Korstanje 2008
Department of Economics
University of Palermo, Argentina
III. INTRODUCING DENA HURST, GUEST EDITOR
As announced in my Editor's Note, Dena Hurst will be Guest Editor for Issue 53
of Philosophy for Business. If you have an article or an idea for one, please
write directly to Dena Hurst at email@example.com.
Dena Hurst writes:
'For the past fifteen years I have worked with leaders from
all walks of life -- government, non-governmental
organizations, and businesses. During this time my interest
in leadership and innovation has become a continual thread
in my academic work. What I have learned through study,
observation, and experience is that leaders almost
uniformly struggle with being able to frame their work in
conceptual terms. They often fall into a routine of seeing
the proverbial trees that are daily busy-ness and lose
sight of the forest that is the whole of their work.
'I believe we as philosophers can help organizations become
more efficient and effective, and help individuals become
better leaders, in two ways. First, we can share
methodologies and techniques that will grow the skills
needed for clear and multi-perspective thinking. And second,
there needs to be a restructuring of the approach to
running a business (or a community of people) that
emphasizes interconnectedness and interdependency across
academic disciplines and between research and practical
As mentioned above, Dena Hurst is also serving as a Pathways Mentor. You can
find Dena's personal profile and photo on the Pathways web site at:
I am sure that all the readers of Philosophy for Business will join with me in
wishing Dena the best of luck in her new assignments. I look forward to a
stimulating and thought provoking next issue of Philosophy for Business.