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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 72
27th March 2012
I. 'Screen Age Man and the Terror of Silence' by Stephen Farthing
II. Tim E. Taylor 'Knowing What is Good For You' reviewed by Rachel
III. Machiavelli and Business Ethics: Three recent answers
As someone who spends a great deal of time working at a computer
screen, in a household where not a few times all the occupants can be
found stuck in front of some screen or other -- watching movies,
playing games, checking on Facebook, bidding on eBay -- I can fully
endorse the feeling that things have just gone too far. In his latest
article, Stephen Farthing lays out a devastating indictment of 'screen
age man' (and woman), warning of the irreversible and corrosive
effects that our life in computers is having on the human psyche. We
have lost the ability to listen to silence, to stretch our
imaginations. The world is becoming an increasingly small place where
thought of anything beyond the present moment no longer seems
The quality of human life and how we assess it is the central concern
of Tim E. Taylor's new book, Knowing What is Good For You: A Theory
of Prudential Value and Well Being reviewed by Rachel Browne. The
book is somewhat unusual in concentrating on a question which many
philosophers tend to neglect in favour of more centrally ethical
concerns, but is in a very real sense necessary and prior to the
study of ethics proper. Tim did his PhD at my old College, Birkbeck,
which runs the University of London International Programme leading
to Diploma and BA (Hons) in Philosophy for which Pathways has
provided tutorial support since 2003.
Last year, the Pathways 'Ask a Philosopher' service, originally
started in 1999, was relaunched in a new format with a much quicker
turnaround of questions and answers. The latest answers are now
posted on Wordpress at askaphilosopher.org. In the past, I
have occasionally reproduced my own answers relating to business
ethics. Here are three new answers, this time by 'Ask a Philosopher'
panelists, Peter Jones, Jurgen Lawrenz and Caterina Pangallo. We can
do with some more challenging questions on the philosophy of
business. Why not give it a try?
I. 'SCREEN AGE MAN AND THE TERROR OF SILENCE' BY STEPHEN FARTHING
Some thirty years there was much anticipation of the leisure
revolution. We were all going to be working many less hours, and have
a great deal of time for leisure pursuits. This was going to be
brought about by the advent of something that was being called the
information highway, which would give us so much time we would not
know what we were going to do with it.
Humanity has passed through the Stone Age, Iron and Bronze Age, Dark
Ages and Middle Ages. We have passed through the agricultural and
industrial revolutions, but what ever happened to the leisure
revolution? We now live in what I want to refer to as the Screen Age,
as increasingly we have become a screen dependent society. Such
dependence is illustrated by the times the bank cashier informed me
that only limited business can be carried out because the system is
down. It is 4.00 pm, and one by one the twenty plus tills all go
'down' around me in the supermarket. They are 'off-line,' leaving the
store at a stand still with queues of disgruntled shoppers. Staff
gazing at frozen screens are told to guess how much they think each
trolley and basket full of shopping would have cost, estimate down
and charge the customer whatever they think would be the total.
Our children hop from the television set, Play Station, Wii and
X-Box, to the DS-lite, to the laptop and mobile phone screen,
absorbing their minds hour after hour. It is nearly midnight, and
there is a growing queue outside Sainsbury's waiting for the door to
open on this special night; the next edition of 'Call of Duty' will
be available in five minutes, and the supermarket is re-opening just
to sell this single item.
Screen Age Britain has spent 5 billion in the high street on screen
base games, with 4.6 million copies of Batman being sold in the UK
within six days of it going on the shelves. In total just fewer than
30 million of us play computer games in Britain. In 2009 Mind Candy
launched the Internet game Moshi Monsters where children create and
look after their own creature. In Britain a staggering one in three
children aged six to twelve have a Moshi Monster account.
Last year, a group of 228 experts wrote to The Daily Telegraph
warning that childhood in Britain was being put at significant risk,
and amongst other concerns, the Government should warn parents about
the dangers of screen-based entertainment. In addition, a United
Nations report published in September last year, warned British
parents that their children were being caught in a 'compulsive
consumerism,' and that our children spend ever increasing time at
home on screen based activities rather than outdoor activities and
play. The childhood experts voiced their view that British children
have the 'lowest level of well-being in the developed world,' and
that Britain is more often than not 'at or near the top of
International league tables on almost all indicators of teenage
distress and disaffection.' The group expressed concern about
children developing a 'consumerist, screen based lifestyle.'
In 2009, the Internet contributed 100 billion to the British economy.
This represents 7.2% of the UK's GDP, with 60% of this generated by
consumerism. In 2010, 62% of British adults bought either goods or
services on-line. Nineteen million of Britain's twenty-six million
households now have an Internet connection, with the average user
spending 22 hours and 15 minutes on-line a month.
A poll carried out by the Sleep Council found that 58% of boys aged
12 to 14 had a telephone, an audio player, a television plus a games
console in their bedroom, and 25% of these admitted falling asleep
with the television switched on. This also opens up children's access
to Internet pornography and indecent television channels available on
Freeview such as Babestation. The largest user group of Internet
pornography being boys aged 11 to 15. A recent UNICEF survey found
that two thirds of adolescent children in Northern Ireland get their
sexual knowledge from Internet pornography.
In the United States over 75% of prime time television contains
sexual content, with the amount of sexual activity on American
television doubling between 1997 and 2001. Seven out of nine
longitudinal studies showed children's exposure to sex on television
lead to sexual activity at an early age, and doubled the risk of
The Screen Age has brought about a trend with teenagers where they
are not only accessing pornography on the Internet and Freeview
channels, they are also creating it. A survey in 2011 suggests that
40% of children aged 11 to 14 are sending or receiving naked pictures
of themselves by using mobile telephones or computers. What is also
disturbing is that four in ten of the 11,000 children surveyed
believed it was acceptable to forward images that they had received
to friends. The Screen Age trend of sexting reveals an open attitude
to pornography among children where these types of images become
Sally Goddard Blythe, director of the Institute for
Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester noted that children were
failing to develop motor skills in the way they did twenty years ago,
and that British children are spending increased time in front of
screen based games and 'electronic media.' Professor of Pharmacology
Susan Greenford, who holds a Chair at Oxford University, has raised
concern about the long-term effects of children with screen dependent
Information is not knowledge, and information processing is not
the same as understanding...
Professor Greenford suggests the possibility that children's brains
will become locked into the 'literal present' with computer generated
images that mean nothing beyond the surface. Greenford point out that
when a book is read,
... it is because you care about the characters, and their
relationships with others, and their fates; their past,
present and future and interrelations with other characters
give them meaning.
Professor Greenfield continues,
In the world of screens, actions are at a premium, while
individual thoughts, expressed so readily through
characters in a book, are far harder to convey with literal
Another argument raised by Greenfield is that information is not
knowledge, and that information processing is not the same as
understanding. Computer games cannot embrace abstract thinking and
metaphor, yet as Professor Greenfield notes, 'metaphor is a crucial
hallmark of the adult human brain that distinguishes us from our
nearest relatives, the chimpanzees.'
Another Screen Age cultural phenomenon is that of voyeurism. In the
Screen Age this is seen in the unrelenting growth in 'reality
television' programmes. There are the arm chair voyeurs who stare at
programmes such as The Only Way is Essex (although much of this may
be staged), Educating Essex, The True Wives of New York, What Kate
Did Next and many others. Programmes such as the Jeremy Kyle Show
also provide an often pitiful feast for the voyeur as our society
drools over the broken lives of people struggling with relationships.
There are those who watch the notable increase in reality programmes
such as the Police Interceptors, Road Wars, Brit Cops: Rapid
Response, Cops with Cameras, and Police Camera Action. Police reality
television has created theatre for the police officer, who rather than
working to protect the weak, now has an ethos of enforcing compliance.
These television broadcasts appear to disregard the notion of personal
privacy. Police Officers can be heard telling people whom they have
'stopped,' to ignore the camera, implying it is nothing to do with
them whether they are filmed or not, even when it is clear that they
do not want to be screened. There is no indication whether or not
those filmed in airports being questioned by customs officers have
given any consent.
The Screen Age has also seen the establishing of what commentators
have called the 'surveillance society.' The huge networks of CCTV
that have grown up in our towns like uncontrolled weeds respond to
the atmosphere of anxiety on our streets. But is this anxiety growing
out of our community, from the streets themselves, or is it being
nurtured by State authority as it seeks to tighten its grip due to
its own unease as England and Wales are increasingly ebbing towards a
policed state. Interestingly, the British Government declined to sign
Article 38 of the European Human Rights Act which respects the rights
of people to have private lives.
Privacy is being increasingly eroded as the means to trace everyone's
steps can be achieved through the use of CCTV, records kept of debit
and credit card transactions, and through our spending records on
loyalty cards. Travel cards such as London's Oyster scheme and bus
passes can be used to trace people's steps. Those who use mobile
phones can be tracked by GPS. Big Brother is more than able to put
together an image of your life in the Screen Age. Your text messages
can be accessed by third parties, and are available after you thought
you had deleted them. Electronic mail is also stored away when you
assumed it had been erased forever.
British Screen Age Man surely lives in a Surveillance Society. This
has been compounded by the previous Government's Regulation of
Investigatory Powers Act which was passed in 2000. The Act was aimed
at countering terrorism, but has been significantly abused by State
Authorities. Since the Act was passed by the State it has been used
to issue 20,000 warrants to snoop into people's telephone calls,
electronic mail and Internet usage. There have also been at least 2.7
million applications to gain peoples telephone bills and information
about their location. In addition there have been 186,133 permissions
given under the Act for covert surveillance by various law enforcement
organisations; 61,317 direct surveillance operations by 'public
bodies' which includes local councils, and 43,391 for what are known
as 'covert human intelligence' sources.
Worryingly, but highlighting the transformation of Britain into a
policed state, only 0.16% of authorisations issued under the Act were
approved by Judges. Permission to invade people's privacy in all other
cases were given by a bureaucrat, with only a small number of the
largest intrusions into people's lives involving agreement of the
Secretary of State. The Act has been used by local authorities to spy
on people to make sure that applicants really did live within a school
catchment area. For example, ordinary everyday couple Jenny and Tim
Paton were spied on for two weeks by their local authority under the
suspicion they were not living in the correct area for a school
application. A report by the group Justice noted that Britain has the
largest DNA database in the world, and also the largest number of CCTV
Television crews and photographers are allowed to camp outside
people's homes and the 'paparazzi' can chase people down the street.
In any other context this would be called stalking and harassment.
Newspapers are active and enthusiastic voyeurs, with one tabloid
gossiping to its readers that it can now 'reveal' that such and such
a person split with his wife of twenty-five years six months ago.
This revealing was splashed on the front page of the newspaper, but
why did this paper reveal anything to me? Why are they nosey and
peering into the private life of a family and spreading gossip, with
the assumption that I really need to know. And why is this gossip so
important that it is on the front page?
It seems that our society has a great deal of difficulty in minding
its own business, preferring to be gossiping and generating rumours.
The roots of gossip and rumour mongering may well be the existential
anxieties and fears of facing the reality of our own mortality and
destruction, particularly in a competitive consumer based culture.
People do not stop talking, gossiping and judging others less we find
ourselves alone with our own self. Thus we drive out silence from our
lives. Why are we so entertained by other's misfortune, crisis, and
behaviour? Perhaps our self-righteousness and a sense of 'I would
never do such a thing' or, 'I am so relieved that this is not
happening to me' drive the unholy phenomenon. It also distracts
others from looking too closely at us. Thus by voyeurism we distract
from our own inner-life.
Screen Age Man is surrounded by the constant din of piped music that
is designed to beckon us into shopping mode and lure us to part with
our money. Each store in the shopping centre calling to us through
its own music genre and pulsating neon lighting. This saturation of
noise, busyness, crowds, possessions, constant telephone calls and
texting fulfils the need for Screen Age Man to block out silence and
prevent solitude. Sound is natural, created by the rhythm of life,
whereas I suggest that noise is human made and artificial. Sound is
harmonious and reminds us of our accountability to nature and
finality, with noise being intrusive and driving out the natural
People who want to live private and simple lives and particularly
those who are deemed by society as loners are held with suspicion.
Those who do not consume and comply with the Screen Age are often
called odd, weird, socially inept, aloof, running away, and worse
held as hiding something, or being perverts or paedophiles. Those who
do not want access to the Internet are penalised if their utility
statements cannot be e-mailed, and suddenly the bills are higher if
they do not want to use direct debits. Those who choose privacy, and
not lay down an electronic trail of their everyday lives, are deemed
to be digitally silent, and such digital silence is not appreciated
by State Authorities? Britain has the largest DNA database in the
world, and also the largest number of CCTV cameras in Europe.
Silence and solitude are often equated with punishment, a child is
sent to their room without any supper, and the prisoner is placed in
solitary confinement. The school child is excluded from the
classroom. Screen Age Man finds silence to be a terror in his life.
What do we do with silence? Silence gives no cue in the Screen Age
visually based world. Worse, silence leaves us in the company of out
own thoughts. We are not accustomed to silence, and do much to avoid
it. Solitude is not isolation, but Screen Age Man experiences the
later when he is not texting, twittering, e-mailing, staring at
social networking sites, and endlessly talking.
Mobile telephones seem to have become part of the anatomy of the
human body. Screen Age Man is forever displaying himself as a
consumer product for others, living in the fear of disapproval and
rejection, thus screen age society is a generator of anxiety. The
significant difference is that fear was once focused on the village
down the river, or invasion by another country, now we fear each
other and social rejection. Events now can be judged on the basis of
them being 'Facebookable.' On-going fear and the inability to embrace
existential anxiety produces much depression.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) stated depression was the 4th
leading contributor to the global burden of disease in the year 2000.
The WHO further predict that by 2020 depression will be the 2nd ranked
in the Disability Adjusted Life Years, used as a measure on global
health. Depression however has already reached the global 2nd ranking
for DALY's among the 15-44 age group. Mixed anxiety and depression is
the most common mental disorder in Britain. The British Office for
National Statistics Psychiatric Morbidity report (2001) states that
8-12% of the UK population suffer depression in any one year. It has
been suggested that self-harming (intentional cutting, burning and
poisoning), in Britain could as high as 33% of young people.
Self-harming being rooted in self-reproach, and attempting to dull
The information highway has not brought about the leisure revolution;
instead it has brought new diagnostic terms to the therapist's table,
such as Internet and text messaging addictions. Stress is another
familiar phenomenon for Screen Age Man, a notion more domestic than
battle fatigue or shell-shock. The Health and Safety Executive
reports that in their view 60% of all work absence in Britain is the
result of illness is stress related. Interestingly, work based stress
is cited as the second highest reason for calling in sick by
non-manual workers. Screen Age Man tends to pathologically label the
weary, fearful and exhausted, deeming those with overt existential
anxiety or value realisation as failing to cope and being unwell. It
is they who are disordered, not society itself?
But what are the advantages of silence and solitude, as terrifying as
they are to Screen Age Man? Making time in our lives 'to get away from
it all' is a ploy used by the travel industry to convince us to part
with our money, but this is far removed from the distancing of the
visual and auditory onslaught of the Screen Age. Making room for
external silence is to nurture internal silence. Internal silence
allows for contemplation, where we can listen to our voice within.
Screen Age noise snuffs out the candle of inner life, where we come
face to face with our deepest fears and existential questions.
Sitting in the company of such awareness, opens our eyes to the
illusion of Screen Age values, and creates the channel for the gentle
voice of God to break through the chatter and clutter of life. Dallas
Willard notes that 'Silence is frightening because it strips us as
nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark reality of our life.'
Professor Greenfield suggests that 'the constant self-centred readout
on Twitter belies a more childlike insecurity, an existential crisis.'
Screen Age Man is addicted to noise; he needs noise because silence is
creepy and disturbing.
The act of putting opinions, judgements and self-promotion to
one-side, enables us to listen in to the rhythm of our own souls.
Henri J M Nouwen suggests that 'it is a good discipline to wonder in
each new situation if people wouldn't be better served by our silence
than by our words.'
It is time to reduce our digital footprints for the sake sake of
In the societal move away from religion, counsellors and
psychotherapists have become the new clergy for the Screen Age. This
new clergy, particularly the much promoted Cognitive Behavioural
Therapists, have been much hailed by economists, accountants and the
medical profession. CBT offers us cognitive engineering and thought
adjusting methods to help the casualties of Screen Age living to
retune themselves into compliant consumers. CBT sits very well with
the Screen Age.
However, some CBT promoters have become excited about the new
'Mindfulness' approaches to human healing. These exciting approaches
are nothing new at all. The 'clinical' concepts of Mindfulness can be
seen in Buddhism and the practice of the Christian Desert Fathers in
their contemplative spirituality. Our new CBT clergy are discovering
what was known 2000 years ago by theologians, philosophers and
contemplatives, and parcelling it up as science that can be sold to
us by experts to be consumed by the faithful.
There are two demands placed upon Screen Age Man; to consume and
comply. The problem of embracing a spirit of silence is that it
cultivates a space where we realise that we spend much of our lives
chasing things that we do not really want, desire, or need. Much is
made of reducing our carbon footprint for our physical well-being.
Perhaps it is time to reduce our digital footprints for the sake of
our souls and return to what I want to refer to as 'value added
living.' As philosophers we have much to ponder in a time when
philosophy courses are being stripped out of our universities for the
sake of more Screen Age endeavours that attract better funding. The
warning signs are here.
(c) Stephen Farthing 2012
Stephen is a member of the Philosophical Society of England and
the International Society for Philosophers. He has recently become an
Oblate of the Order of St. Benedict.
II. TIM E. TAYLOR 'KNOWING WHAT IS GOOD FOR YOU' REVIEWED BY RACHEL
Knowing What is Good for You:
A Theory of Prudential Value and Well-Being Tim E. Taylor
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
Dr Tim Taylor is visiting research fellow at the University of Leeds,
UK. He is a very analytical, very careful writer, and enters the
analysis of the nature of value in great depth. An irony of the book
is that, as Taylor says, you will not read an analytical philosophy
book unless you already value thought provoking, detailed analytical
literature. But then, Taylor argues, we can believe something to be
of no interest or value and yet, with hindsight, find that we were
So there is a reason to read this book: It is a chance to challenge
your perceived values. However, I recommend it because on the second
page of the first chapter Taylor says that he wants a theory of
prudential value and well-being that accords with our common sense
and our pre-theoretical thoughts about what is good for us. Common
sense tells us that we can reflect on our lives and think about how
to improve them to increase our sense of well-being and this is by
increasing the amount of things that we value in our lives and
getting rid of those things that we don't value.
Basing his analysis on intuitive common sense, Taylor doesn't leap on
any current in-theory bandwagon. For instance he doesn't believe our
well-being is determined by what is good for us in evolutionary
terms, as this would give 'a very impoverished picture of what is
good for humans' (p.51).
Though based on common sense, the book is quite technical. Taylor
considers in depth both subjectivist and objectivist approaches to
prudential value and well-being and is firmly on the subjectivist
side, given that a value requires that we evaluate as subjects and
satisfaction of value gives rise to a positive psychological attitude.
Many questions are raised, but the main questions are: How do we know
that something contributes to our personal well-being and why we can
be wrong about this? What is it about some things that makes them
good for us? What brings together different evaluations into a class
of 'prudential value'? We know if something contributes to our
well-being if it brings about a positive state of mind, but our
attitudes can be distorted. We know what is good for us by reference
to our subjective states of mind. What brings together prudential
values is that they contribute to our well-being.
Prudential values are not the only values. There are moral and
aesthetic values, for instance. These differ from prudential values
in that you may lead a highly moral life or achieve a high level of
aesthetic appreciative understanding, but that is not a guarantee
that these things are good for you or that such commitments
contribute to your well-being. They might lead to restrictions on
other areas of activity that would have led to greater well-being. It
is not even obvious that prudential values do lead to well-being
unless they satisfy desires and, through hindsight, we can find we
were wrong to hold something of value.
Taylor holds that prudential value determines well-being since the
more things that we value are present in our lives, the greater our
well-being. Given that values are subjective and personal, it needs
to be explained why states of affairs, such as the health of the
economy, have prudential value and so contribute to our well-being.
Taylor argues that such states of affairs have prudential value for
us because a healthy economy fulfils a psychological desire which we
want to be satisfied, which will contribute to our well-being.
Taylor's subjectivist position is that value depends on psychological
attitudes of individuals. The opposing position comes from the
objectivist. The objectivist -- according to Taylor's definition --
holds that this not entirely so. So at the end of the spectrum
between subjectivism and objectivism, there is a rather strange
'objectivist list approach' of what is of prudential value. A list of
what is valuable doesn't answer the question about what makes these
things valuable though. Further, the list cannot be all encompassing
because people, Taylor says, are 'capricious' in what they hold to be
of value. There is no universal or independent determination of what
can be of value. The capriciousness of people is also a problem for
the subjectivist, as seen in the two questions above. However the
subjectivist can more readily acknowledge relativity or personal
variation in prudential evaluations on what will determine well-being
for an individual. Indeed, the 'reasons why people value things can
vary from case to case, and there is no requirement that we must
always value things for a reason' (p.81). It seems, further that in
giving reasons why you value something, you run out of reasons, and
end up saying 'I just do' think so.
A theory of well-being as 'what is good for you' is quite closely
allied to hedonism, such as utilitarianism, where it is claimed that
what is good for you is what is pleasurable for you. Jeremy Bentham,
who espoused the first form of hedonistic utilitarianism held that a
'game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and the sciences of
music and poetry' in providing pleasure' (p.23). Taylor, as well as
nearly everyone else, finds this doesn't accord with our common sense
values. We just do think watching documentaries is more valuable than
watching East Enders, even if we like to watch East Enders. Although
our values are subjective evaluations, we sometimes attribute 'real'
value to things. That is, we have a tendency to objectify value as if
it was a truth was out in the world, that watching documentaries is
more valuable than watching East Enders.
Bentham's utilitarianism is the most basic form of hedonism and, of
course, Taylor rejects this as not in line with common sense. What
matters to Taylor is that pleasurable should be valuable if it is to
be prudential. Is watching East Enders in any way valuable for your
future or a prolonged sense of well-being? On looking in the
dictionary I find that prudence includes concepts of caution and
wisdom, so it cannot simply be about the pleasure and pain of the
A closer subjectivist theory of well-being to that of Taylor is
'life-satisfaction'. This is a theory laid out by Wayne Sumner. As
opposed to hedonism, this has some relevance to business ethics.
Sumner argues that we don't simply want to be happy, but we want it
to be authentic. We don't want to be deceived. We don't want to be
happily married only to find out that our husband has been having a
string of affairs. So if we are to have life satisfaction, we should
at least be well informed. Sumner argued that on top of being
well-informed, we need autonomy. We shouldn't be indoctrinated,
programmed, brain-washed or role scripted.
Sumner would probably say that that leadership should be
well-informed about it's workforce. If a leader has satisfaction in
his job -- as a leader -- and he is not informed that his
workers have no satisfaction, then his own satisfaction rests on
false beliefs and he does not have an authentic sense of well-being.
Furthermore, any worker who is in the least bit indoctrinated,
programmed or role scripted does not have autonomy. Role playing and
indoctrination, such as being expected to commit to a product or
service, means the CEOs, management and the workers only questionably
possess well-being, at least in the work place, as well as the time
spent building up to go the workplace and winding down from it.
Prudential value is what is good for you and there should be the
potential to know that it is good for you. You may not have realised
that you were indoctrinated or bullied in the workplace, but you
should become able to come to see. Lack of information and distorted
perceptions answer the question about how we can be wrong about what
is of prudential value. Taylor is in agreement with Sumner on this,
but the life-satisfaction theory in general is too vague. Taylor
stresses prudential values first and argues that the more positive
values over negative which occur in our lives, the greater the
well-being. Hence we have some measurement of well being. Albeit, not
perhaps a useable one.
Taylor is persuasive about prudential value. If he is right, what
does this suggest for business ethics? Taylor seems to suggest that
an organisation can have well-being but not prudential value.
Well-being here is well-being of the company. Prudential value refers
to the individual subject and a psychological state. The prudential
values of the individual are likely to be at odds with the well-being
of the company. The well-being of the company will rest upon it's
reputation and how it satisfies it's customers. It has been reported
that shop-workers who are told to tell customers to 'have a nice day'
are actually a particularly angry part of the workforce. It might be
noted that the customers find this irritating too. There is a lack of
prudential value for individuals where policy is concerned and policy
is essential to businesses or people don't know what the boundaries
are and nor do they know the norms of behaviour for a particular
company. The consequence of Taylor's argument is again common sense.
Those of us who shy away from the workplace know that it is not
conducive to well-being.
This is an analytical philosophy book. The continental philosopher
would argue for the role of culture in determining values. There is
no incompatibility here though. Cultural values can be internalised
and become your own. The basis of the book, it's consequences for
business and it compatibility with a different style of philosophy
make it a recommendable read, as stating something true.
(c) Rachel Browne 2012
III. MACHIAVELLI AND BUSINESS ETHICS: THREE RECENT ANSWERS
'A question of business ethics?'
February 16, 2012
DeLisa Winters asked:
The Budgeting VP for the large publicly traded corporation which I
work for was very upset with me. I am a Divisional Manager with the
company. After reviewing the midyear budget reports my Budgeting VP
was angry because I had not spent all the monies allocated for new
equipment purchases, i.e. computers, copiers, etc.
I indicated that my department did not need new equipment at this
time and mentioned that I would like to use the money on employee
training since no new equipment was needed.
My VP told me that it is not my job to decide how monies should be
spent. In fact, I was reprimanded by my VP because I had not spent
the money as directed. I was told also, if I did not spend the money
as directed by the end of the third quarter, the money would be
reallocated to a colleague's budget, who is also a Divisional
Manager, for equipment purchases in her department.
A statement was made that my colleague would spend the money
allocated to her department as directed regardless of whether the
equipment was needed or not. Additionally, I was told that my budget
for next year will be significantly reduced if I did not adhere to
what was told to me.
To me, my VP violated all ethical standards. I'm wanting to get
someone else perspective on this so that I can see if I'm looking at
this wrong or if what she said to me was unethical.
If so, if you were in my place what would you do? and ... What
changes should my company make to improve our resource allocation
within the organization in cases like this?
Answer by Peter Jones
My sympathies. I see you have run foul of a very common problem. When
chasing public funds it is often best to do so when budget deadlines
are just coming up, since may public institution adopt the same 'use
it as we planned or lose it next year' approach, including central
government, and they can be desperate sometimes to spend up the
budget in time.
I do not see an ethical issue but a management problem. The issue for
the company, I would say, is whether it wants to devolve
responsibilities or run everything from the centre. The modern trend
is towards the the latter since modern communications technology and
computer power now allow it to be done very easily. But it is usually
highly inefficient at a local level in important respects, and very
often for the reasons you give.
What would I do? I would buy myself a fantastic new music
workstation, a couple of laptops, a big screen TV, a top of the range
photocopier, lots of fancy software, call it miscellaneous equipment
and take it home. If there's anything left I'd ask my staff what they
wanted for Christmas.
No. Really. What I would do is spend it in advance. I'd pay my
suppliers for some appropriate but notional products and services,
stuff you expect to have to pay for next year, get an invoice and if
possible a receipt, account for it as spent, and then be in credit
with them for next year. I used to do this all the time to get around
the problem. It means next year you can make amazing budget savings.
It's standard practice for European Commission funded projects and
used to be about the only way to make them work. All big institutions
fall foul of this sort of wastage unless they trust their managers to
make sensible decisions. Just check out a few government departments,
they are masters of this sort of nonsense. Come February/March
everybody is desperately trying to waste money all over the place in
order to avoid budget cuts in the next year. Better to hide it away
for a rainy day. Budget management by dictat from the centre can be
globally efficient, but at a local level it's often just a recipe for
wasting money and demotivating managers.
Not sure what this has to do with philosophy but it's an interesting
issue. If you find the solution a lot of people will be interested.
Answer by Jurgen Lawrenz
The rather brutal answer to your predicament is this: that ethics and
business are never happy bedfellows.
The reason is that ethical philosophy seeks a standard of behaviour
by which human beings may live in society without hurting each other,
and at the same time facilitating the pursuit of happiness for each
Business, on the other hand, resembles politics by being principally
concerned with the exercise of power. Business has a target or
purpose in which the human being is made happy contingent on
accepting the benefits rendered by business. In the context of small
business, the two frequently go hand in hand. People in society have
a need for shoes, and the cobbler serves that need while serving his
own needs at the same time by charging money that enables him to buy
food for himself and his family.
Big business, however, although it exists in principle for the same
reason, has none of the needs that explain the existence of small
business. It does not charge for its services because it needs food
etc., but because its investors want a return for their investment.
Accordingly the self-perpetuating principle is the escalation of
autonomy for money. The success of a business is gauged by the amount
of excess of profit over expenses.
One practical outcome of this is that business must exert power on
several fronts. In society by advertising to ensure that consumer
will buy product X rather than product Y, and telling lies is part of
that game. Inside by ensuring that staff minimise costs and maximise
income. The staff are accordingly under pressure from the power of
the business which affects their life significantly.
Your predicament is, that the exercise of this power is generally
enhanced by mechanisation of its procedures -- that is, removing the
decisions of human beings from the scene, because humans are driven
by ethical considerations. For business, ethics are a necessary evil,
not a value. One look at the pharmaceutical industry or the weapons
industry will tell you this.
Your idea of enhancing the skills of staff is an ethical idea. If
this was useful to the company, they would support you. But it costs
money; and while equipment costs money too, this disbursal can be
rationalised under the ethics-free tenets of mechanisation. Business
would always choose machines to do the work that has to be done and
dismiss personnel, if it is possible. But if business has to hire
staff, they would obviously also prefer staff that arrives, already
trained. Why not? Why do we have technical colleges, run by
government (i.e. public money)? To make staff training cost-free to
What you are doing, therefore, is to infract the power structure of
business. You are operating under the assumption that human values
play a positive role in business, whereas the opposite is the case in
It is very sad, for you and for mankind altogether. We Westerners
have promoted the idea (based on Locke's political theories) that
freedom of economic agency is the foundation of a liberal society.
Poor old Locke had no notion that business would thereby become a
political power running in parallel with social political power.
Furthermore that this political power can be restrained with only the
greatest difficulty under the principles on which democratic societies
I think I've said enough to make the point. I will conclude by noting
that Machiavelli is nowadays part of the business curriculum.
Machiavellianism has become the philosophical backbone of business;
it is being studied more intensively by business leaders than by
political leaders. I think that says more than a thousand words in
explanation of your ethical worries. I'm sorry to say that your
situation is practically hopeless. Philosophy and ethics are each
concerned with 'truth' and 'justice' in the human context. The truth
and justice of business is the benefit such concepts render to
'Machiavelli's notion of truth'
March 22, 2012
What kind of truth is Machiavelli concerned with?
Answer by Caterina Pangallo
Machiavelli's truth is human truth. This means he was not fooled by
what people wrote or spoke. He looked at them in action. When you do
this intently, you soon discover their words and their behaviour are
very different. But the truth is only discovered by watching them
acting. Then they reveal themselves in their truth.
A good example are the so-called Princes Manuals that were some of
the favourite literature of the time. They are full of noble and
idealistic sentiments, and the princes read them, because it is good
for conversations at the table. But when it comes to acting, things
change. Princes want power. If there is a rival, they get rid of him,
even if it means murder. So this is the truth about princes.
Therefore Machiavelli's truth was the truth of power. He writes:
'Where it is an absolute question of the welfare of our country, we
must admit of no consideration of justice or injustice, of mercy or
cruelty, of praise or ignominy; but putting all else aside we must
adopt whatever course will save the nation's existence and liberty.'
Morality in general is a code of conduct given to the members of a
society or state to maintain collective order, unity and strength.
There is no 'natural law', no 'right' universally agreed upon.
Politics in the sense of statesmanship, must be held completely
independent of morality.
At the beginning of The Prince he writes:
'Since my intention is to say something of practical use to the
enquirer, I have thought it proper to represent things as they are in
real truth, rather than as they are imagined.'
So there you have it. That's his truth.
Real, efficient and ruthless politics is completely independent of
morality. In fact, the more people talk about morality, the more they
show in their conduct how much they despise it. And therefore the
truth of politics is the truth of power -- again.
Machiavelli's writings were very much disliked. But this was only
because he told us the truth about the exercise of political power.
Basically you could say that his idea of truth has nothing in common
with ethical or religious ideas of truth. Even for those who preach
ethics, morals and religion, if they want to win, they must come down
to the political truth.
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