Lessons from Aristotle

Business meetingA great article from FT.com. I think the author hits more than one chord straight on. Martin Sandbu is the lead writer for FT’s economics. His book Just Business: Arguments in Business Ethics has just been published by Prentice Hall. I am delighted to say that I think he nails it! Excellent advice for bankers and business leaders across the board. We have been looking for insights and frameworks to help lead individuals in the pursuit of multiple bottom lines, but for those who do not have a Christian foundation. I posted this in the comment after the article: “Taking her lead from Aristotle, Ayn Rand provides just such a secular perspective. As a Christian, I agree with many of Aristotle’s (and Rand’s) ethical conclusions, even if my world view stems from a different foundation.” You may agree. I have copied the article, entitled “Aristotle – the banker’s best friend,” in its entirety below.

Aristotle took a dim view of business. Sometimes, of course, business people give the impression of being equally unconcerned with Aristotle’s main concern: living a good life. Just witness the grilling Bob Diamond, chief executive of Barclays, received this week from UK legislators angry at his bank’s bonuses. Yet today’s corporate titans would do well to pay the Greek philosopher more respect than he did to their predecessors. Indeed, reading his works may be one of the best investments they can make.

Aristotle was not against a certain degree of greed, especially in the context of managing a household: household heads accumulate possessions for their usefulness. But he saw the aim of commerce simply as increasing wealth without end, or making money for the sake of accumulation. Aristotle admonished those who were “serious about living, but not about living well”. Mr Diamond would probably not have escaped his scorn.

Beyond living well, philosophical inquiry can also be good for business. That is particularly true of moral philosophy. I do not mean here to join the soppy chorus of calls for business to be more moral or “socially responsible”. True, business does indeed need to be more moral than it often is. But much debate on business and morality is too sentimentalist to be useful. What is needed is more hard-headed thinking.

It does not occur to most people that moral philosophy should have a contribution to make to our understanding of business. This is partly the fault of Aristotle’s modern heirs. By staying silent throughout a financial crisis featuring a considerable amount of questionable conduct, moral philosophers have granted impunity to lazy thinking. And the result is a debate soaked in such inanities as “giving back to society” or putting “people before profit.” Fine phrases, but they mean little and in practice will achieve even less.

Most attacks on business immorality conjure up villains in corporate boardrooms plotting their next evil deed. The real problem is harder. Most business people are like most people everywhere: wanting to do the right thing but confused about what the right thing is in a complex world.

This is where moral philosophy, done well, can help. One thing it helps counteract is cognitive dissonance: the tendency, when the reality of what one does grinds too uncomfortably against one’s beliefs, of the beliefs to creep so as to fit one’s conduct rather than the other way round.

An example is the conviction with which otherwise sophisticated business people profess that doing well and doing good are always compatible. From Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” to company reports vaunting spare change spent on do-goodery as part of the bottom line, too often businessmen conveniently rule out any conflict between ethics and profits.

But, of course, assuming that a process of reasoning will reveal no problems with a course of action – and so deciding that one need not engage in reasoning at all – is just intellectual cowardice. That goes for both moral and monetary affairs.

Criticised businessmen such as Mr Diamond would do well to read the great moral philosophers, with the courage to follow their thinking wherever it might lead. Bankers whose inquisitiveness matches their acquisitiveness might, for instance, ponder Aristotle’s view that the virtues of a profession are what fulfil its social purpose. That could prompt a reflection on how to forge a new ethics for investment banking along the lines of the medical or legal professions.

Or one may question whether corporate conduct must be justified by its social usefulness. Is business really responsible for the common good? Or is it enough to respect the rights of others while pursuing profits? To ask that question – surely a fundamental one – is to enter a big philosophical debate midstream, for which reading John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant is better preparation than any number of management books.

Plato wanted states ruled by philosopher-kings. That is unacceptable to us modern democrats. But more philosopher-executives would be no bad thing. Moral philosophy sharpens the mind, ferrets out sloppy thinking, and clarifies the ends one aims for and the means by which one may pursue them. What are these if not leadership qualities?

On this Aristotle and Mr Diamond could surely agree.

As always, I am interested in your thoughts.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from Aristotle

  1. This article was so great that I could hardly read it without stopping every other line to think of all the people I know who would either want to see it or would have their eyes opened by reading it. Absolutely spectacular!

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