First off, by way of introduction, I am pleased to have the opportunity to be a contributor on “In Socrates’ Wake.” I am excited about this blog because I think that philosophy is a discipline and activity that everyone should be exposed to. Therefore, the effective teaching of philosophy is crucial for success in exposing students from varied backgrounds and perspectives to the intricacies of philosophical reasoning. I use the term ‘discipline’ because I do not think that philosophy is a subject like physics, chemistry, history, etc. with a specific body of knowledge that once mastered makes a person a philosopher. It is a discipline because it is a distinctive way of way of thinking. If memory serves me, it was A.J. Ayer who said that philosophy is distinguished from others subjects because of it method. Done well, it allows us to see issues from different perspectives and helps to develop our critical imagination. In my teaching, I use Socrates as the paradigm philosopher, both from a theoretical perspective and a practical perspective. I have greatly benefited from studying the Socratic dialogues. The Socratic method served me well as a manager in helping me to work with people in a dialogical manner to uncover the root causes of issues and developing resolutions for them. To that end, I think that philosophy is the analytical methodology that when properly employed enables us to critically think about subjects/questions in depth so as to uncover and understand the underlying schemas upon which these subjects/questions rests and to be able to determine if there are sound reasons for accepting these schemas. If we cannot find sound reason that justifies our present schemas, then philosophy provides a methodology for revising our schemas. I have in mind here Rawls’ notion of ‘considered judgments in reflective equilibrium’ as an example of this type of methodology. The Socratic approach of finding the correct definition (form) of key terms is another methodology that can be useful.
The Issue: In a recent post, David Hunter, commenting on my observation that many students are not that motivated to study philosophy, indicated that he faces hostile students in the ethics course he teaches dealing with professional life. Having taught business ethics, managerial ethics, and ethics in professional Life courses over the last twenty years and having been in business for thirty-five years, I can identify both with his predicament and the predicament of his students. There are many factors that might contribute to this hostility (and lack of motivation). In this post, I shall consider what I take to be three of the main factors, 1) fear, 2) a disconnect between philosophy and the ‘real’ world, and 3) the perception that colleges and universities exist as training grounds for people to enter into the market as employees. In this post I will briefly discuss each of these items.
1) From the business perspective my major responsibility was basically what Friedman said it was; to create wealth by following the laws of the community I am operating in without performing acts of fraud and/or deception. This is what I was taught by my mentors in the business world (I never took a business course in college) and essentially what is still being taught today in business schools. Of course, now we consider ‘stakeholders’ and not just ‘shareholders’ in making decisions, but profit (versus cost) is still the central core value that we utilize when making business decisions. Profit is the main filtering value thru which we evaluate and utilize other values. From the ethical perspective, we should ‘do the right thing’ (whatever that means). We should be able to explain and justify our decisions by utilizing various moral principles supported by well-worked out moral theories, or developing the virtues necessary to be an ethical businessperson and implementing them in my daily endeavors. The ethicist is thinking something along the lines of “I have something of great value to offer you and if you open your minds you will see the benefit of studying ethics and integrating ethics into your daily practices.” While I think that what the philosopher/ethicist has to offer is of great value, the fear, and, dare I say, the experience, of many businesspeople is that the ethicist is simply going to be critical of them and how they make decisions and conduct business in the marketplace. They fear that they are going to be depicted by a broad ‘brush stroke’ of implications from a few well-known and overworked examples as immoral agents engaged in immoral practices. In so far as most people consider themselves to be reasonably good people and act, as they should, this fear may not be misplaced.
2) There is the perspective of the businessperson (and many others) that philosophy, and by association, ethics, is simply ‘in the clouds;’ it is unrealistic and not practical. They see little value in studying it because they think there is an insurmountable disconnect between the philosophers’ and the businesspersons’ worldviews. I think that this perception has great merit. Imagine being a businessperson and being told by ethicists (the expert) that there are fundamental questions that must be addressed and resolved before one can begin to operate a business as one should. As I have written (in an unpublished paper, “Character In Practice, Business, And Moral Decision-Making”), I believe that when we, as ethicists and philosophers, engage in meta-ethical analysis and maintain that what we are doing is theoretically prior to, and necessary for the correct application of epistemically warranted normative values in practice that we effectively remove ourselves from having any meaningful opportunity to interact and positively affect the dialogue that is taking place at that pragmatic level where actual normative issues arise which affect individual and organizational behavior and performance. Focusing on meta-ethical issues, and the analysis thereof, as the starting point of discussing normative issues in business, organizational, and/or professional life creates a serious disconnect between what ethicists engaged in meta-ethical analysis are doing and what business people engaged in operating within societal rule-defined parameters are doing in actual practice such that these two groups do not appear to have a common ground to meet on as long as the ethicists are arguing that there are fundamental meta-ethical issues that need to be addressed before the practical normative issues faced by practitioners can be resolved.
Furthermore, just imagine the reaction of a person working 50-60+ hours a week managing a business in today’s complex and highly competitive global marketplace reading some contemporary work in ethical theory, for example, F. M. Kamm’s Intricate Ethics. I can assure you that most would simply give up trying to follow the nuances of her arguments and dismiss this work as without merit. I know that if I were still working full-time in business I would not be reading this work, or many other works of philosophy/ethics. We would of course be wrong; it is an important work in ethics. But for those engaged in the day-to-day struggles of operating a business the time is not there to be able to exert the mental energy necessary for following complex arguments. We do not see the practical value of studying such work.
3) There is a perception that many hold that colleges and universities are simply the means to an end. That end being the ability to get a career that will enable them to achieve what we, as a society, have defined as ‘achievement and success.’ Education is viewed as an instrumental good, not something that might have (has) intrinsic value. It will be remembered that Max Weber argued that we develop our sense of self and self-worth by how much of the 3-p’s (power, property, and prestige) we accumulate over the years. One of our society’s core values is ‘achievement and success.’ Through the socialization process that we go through, we have been taught that the 3-p’s are indeed the measure of one’s success and social status. (Simply look at your own life. I certainly like the idea that I have a nice home (much larger then I need) with a swimming pool, two cars, a position at a good university, a successful career in business, etc.) Now we have students take a course that, if done properly, may (will) challenge these deeply held foundational assumptions. We, as philosophers and ethicists, are demanding that they uncover, examine, and justify the core values that define their conceptual schemas. How intimidating this must appear to the novice.
So I can understand why students might be hostile to studying ethics (or philosophy in general). In part 2, I will present a strategy for dealing with this hostility in an ethics course.