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Getting down to business

Laura Biron and Dominic Scott reason with Mammon

New York's financial district (cc) Michael Daddino

New York's financial district (cc) Michael Daddino

Imagine that you are flicking through a course booklet for a philosophy degree fifty years from now. Alongside the more traditional topics – philosophy of mind, philosophy of law, philosophy of science, and so on – you notice something that takes you by surprise: philosophy of business. Without looking at the particular topics up for study, you put the booklet down and start to wonder whether the idea of studying the philosophy of business really makes sense. You’ve head of business ethics, of course, but this isn’t usually taught in philosophy departments. How, then, could philosophical argument extend to the realm of business in such a way as to fill an entire syllabus?

Upon further reflection, you begin to realise that there is no shortage of topics that one could study, even back in 2010, as part of the philosophy of business. You discover that there are interesting ontological questions that philosophers such as French and Pettit have already been asking; that is, about the nature of corporations themselves. What is a corporation? Is a corporation no more than the sum of its parts, or is it an entity in its own right? Of course, these questions apply to other sorts of corporate bodies – clubs, churches, unions, and most notably, the state. Indeed, Plato and Hegel have been interpreted as holding the view that the state is some kind of ‘super-person’ over and above its members. And so, if philosophers are prepared to ask these sorts of questions in political philosophy, surely there is no reason why they cannot be applied to debates about the nature of corporations.

The example of the organic theory of the state is one in which a topic that is widely debated in political philosophy could be drawn upon to shed light on the nature of corporations. There are other topics like this, too, about which there is philosophical research already waiting to be applied to discussions of business. An obvious example is trust. Trustworthiness depends to a large extent on truthfulness. But, as philosophers such as Bernard Williams have argued, truthfulness is a highly complex notion, and certainly involves more than just telling the truth – if you are really being truthful, you should be sensitive to the sorts of inferences your audience may draw from what you say. Imagine a person saying to you, “Someone has been reading your mail.” Alarmed, you ask, “Who?” to which he replies, “You.” A true statement can still fall short of the standards of truthfulness.

Harry Frankfurt’s work on bullshit illustrates a similar point. Imagine a speaker uttering a string of platitudes in order to great a good impression of himself – sounding off about the importance of community or the value of the environment. Not only does the speaker in question think these statements may not be true, he does not care whether or not they are true. Indifference to the truth of this sort, Frankfurt argues, is even worse than lying. Like Williams’ views on truthfulness, Frankfurt’s analysis of bullshit could be usefully brought to bear on the phenomenon of corporate communications, and on their attempts to win public trust.

Of course, studying the philosophy of business might not be a case of simply using philosophical concepts and arguments in their current form. We might discover that arguments philosophers have made at the level of the individual are particularly weak when applied to the level of the corporation, and cannot carry over without substantively new philosophical research. To take a pertinent example, the US Supreme Court has recently ruled that corporations have rights to freedom of expression, akin to individuals. But as Onora O’Nell has pointed out, it is very difficult to make the argument that corporations have the same rights of expression as individuals, whether your argument is based on democracy, truth or liberty. Similarly, Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel devote an entire book to the discussion of taxation at the level of individuals. Whilst their arguments may well apply in the same way to the corporate context, this cannot simply be assumed; it may, for example, depend on your view about what a corporation is.

Finally, there are topics that are widely discussed in business settings, but which are still underdeveloped from the standpoint of philosophy. One example is intellectual property. A corporation’s intangible assets are widely viewed as their most valuable. But intellectual property is not, as yet, a mainstream topic of philosophical analysis. Whilst private property has received much attention in political and legal philosophy, philosophers, as opposed to jurists, rarely tackle intellectual property in any depth.

For instance, in intellectual property law, inventions, but not discoveries, are patentable. As companies start to press to extend patents to cover what many regard as discoveries, the question arises as to exactly how one differentiates the two. This is largely a philosophical question, and a very interesting one at that, but not one that has so far received much attention.

Among intangible assets, perhaps the most valuable that a company can be said to own is its brand. But what is a brand? The moment you start trying to answer this question, at least for the most successful brands, you start talking in terms of consumers’ perceptions of the company (often triggered by perceiving the trademark or logo). But how can a company claim to own people’s perceptions? As companies increasingly push for more control over the use of their trademarks, out of a desire to control their brand, this ontological question acquires more importance. We have no doubt that intellectual property will become more widely discussed by philosophers in the future and, as this happens, it will be interesting to see how corporations rethink their views on intellectual property and, likewise, how philosophical argument is informed by the value already attached to intellectual property by corporate entities.

Returning to the syllabus of the future, you may begin to wonder, in light of these various topics, why the philosophy of business has not already taken off as a subject in its own right. Were people to study this subject in the future and look back on 2008, a year in which the entire world was thrown into financial meltdown largely as a result of decisions made in business settings, they might find it surprising, to say the least, that this globally significant event was not more widely discussed from a philosophical standpoint. Given that philosophy students go on to work in a wide range of contexts, many of them corporate, it can surely only be a good thing to get them thinking, during their degrees, about the ways in which philosophical argument can shed light on questions about business that are far broader than those which currently occupy the realm of business ethics.

Of course, none of this is to deny that some academic philosophers have thought and written about topics relevant to business. Furthermore, some professors in business schools, especially those teaching business ethics, have philosophy doctorates. But all this is quite different from the existence of an established sub-discipline of the philosophy of business, parallel to political philosophy, ethics and the philosophy of law.

Some people have objected that the very idea of philosophy in business is an oxymoron. But why? Does philosophy have to be, by its very nature, other-worldly? If so, how could there be such a thing as political philosophy? Perhaps some would say that philosophers who become involved in business are engaging in a kind of intellectual prostitution. But studying business is different from being paid by business; one might be paid by the usual sources of higher education funding. Of course, if one is paid by business to study business, there is still the question of why that amounts to intellectual prostitution: in some cases it might, but not in others. One cannot simply accuse all academics from business-funded science, law and economics of prostitution. In any case, if there ever is such a thing as the philosophy of business, you can rest assured that there will be the usual healthy divergence of views: philosophers will stand on the left and the right, some pro-business, others against, and most taking up all manner of positions in between.

Among his many achievements, Aristotle established the science of biology and, at the same time, the philosophy of biology. As he did so, he was acutely aware that some of his contemporaries (probably those of a Platonist persuasion) regarded such lowly things as animals to be unworthy of intellectual study. But, he protested, there was beauty and order to be found all around us, not only in the heavens and beyond. To make the point he used the following anecdote, in On the parts of animals. “Just as Heraclitus is said to have spoken to his visitors, who were wanting to meet him but stopped as they were approaching when they saw him warming himself at the oven – he kept telling them to come in and not worry, ‘for there are gods here too’, so we should approach the inquiry about each animal without aversion.”

The philosophical study of business may (or may not) help make the world a better place. But we are convinced that it will benefit philosophy by discovering whole new areas of interest. The world of business is not a world of much beauty and order these days, but it does contain within it all manner of problems and conundrums of sufficient abstraction and complexity to intrigue the most sophisticated minds in our field.

Laura Biron is completing her PhD and will be a research fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge from October. Dominic Scott is co-founder of The Forum for Philosophy in Business at Cambridge University.


7 comments for “Getting down to business”

  1. Very interesting. I wonder how classical political economy fits in here. Is it not a sort of philosophy of business in itself, in that it discusses what commerce is, for example?

    Posted by Stephen Cowley | April 26, 2010, 8:49 am
  2. Interesting post. Corporates already give thought/resources to some ethical questions, but it seems are very deontological in their approach: ‘we should report this profit warning to comply with SEC regulations’; ‘we should tackle this oil spill or we will be fined’.

    Some corporations are beginning to anticipate and exceed pressure to behave better, but this is still exceptional behaviour. I am not sure if corporations and businesses could ever come up with a nontrivial ‘internal’ ethical code.

    I suspect that we will always need ethically-minded consumers to challenge businesses to set new standards. But if it was possible to encourage more in the way of voluntary ethics and principles, this would surely be a more efficient process than ‘external’ accountability.

    Posted by John Fitzgerald | April 26, 2010, 1:05 pm
  3. John,
    I’m not sure the wish to “behave better” is that exceptional. There are many listed companies in the market for authoritative guidance and standards on corporate social responsibility. Several use Global Reporting Initiative for example or UN initiated guidance. A purely internal code would be hard for investors to verify, so publicly available standards might be a way forward. Investors too may equate “ethical” behaviour (e.g. sustainability) with their own investment goals.

    Posted by Stephen Cowley | April 26, 2010, 1:36 pm
  4. [...] hostile to investigating the practical applications of philosophy. At Cambridge University, a Forum for Philosophy in Business has been established, while in Australia, John Armstrong has been appointed as the philosopher-in-residence at Melbourne [...]

    Posted by TPM: The Philosophers’ Magazine | Floated on the ideas market | April 28, 2010, 6:08 am
  5. I thinks a darwinian twist to this makes a lot of sense. Economy is the science of scarcity, and enterprises are entities competing for survival in an hostile environment. Understanding what the nature of these entities is, what kind of “target functions” they have, how they behave as collective institutions, how this behaviour interacts with that of the individuals working for them or owning them, trade offs between short and long term survival, etc could be interesting.

    Posted by Lorenzo Miláns | April 28, 2010, 5:34 pm
  6. A lot of these questions are addressed in philosophy of law or jurisprudence courses. In law school, I remember addressing some of the issues that lawyers have traditionally had with corporations. The law treats corporations, of whatever type, as separate individuals with most individual rights (among the few they don’t have is the right to vote). However, they are immortal, soulless persons. This led us to conclude that they are vampires.

    Posted by Mike Lockaby | May 5, 2010, 7:41 pm
  7. [...] ‘Some people have objected that the very idea of philosophy in business is an oxymoron. But why?’ [...]

    Posted by Berfrois | May 13, 2010, 11:32 am