Thursday, September 2, 2010

Not for Profit, episode 3: "We are creating the Orwellian state!"

Nussbaum argues that if we want democratic societies to remain viable, vibrant, and healthy then we need to reassert the foundational role that the humanities (this includes the arts) plays in our educational systems. Citizens need to have a basic understanding of the polis including the various norms and values that are the foundation of the polis. Her basic thesis is that incorporating the humanities in our education is essential for having citizens obtain the necessary knowledge and expertise to be effective (skillful) citizens in a political and social system that recognizes and enhances our basic autonomy as persons to be able to knowingly and freely develop lives that are flourishing and worthwhile. We need to recognize that free market based economic institutions, understood within the philosophical context developed by Rousseau, Kant, Rawls, and Kylmicka are fundamental to the development and implementation of healthy democratic societies. As Lewis Feuer argues in his Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism, there is a close correlation between the development of competitive, capitalistic free markets and democratic institutions. 

Having spent thirty-five years in manufacturing, I have a special interest in, and I think unique perspective on, her arguments. I am going to defend the thesis that businesspeople should study the humanities because doing so enables us to establish and maintain healthy economic institutions that are maximally profitable, stable and viable that will enhance the ability of people to fulfill their organizational roles and to lead lives that are flourishing.
After all, being a member of an economic organization is similar to being a citizen in a State. As a businessperson I support Nussbaum’s main argument in favor of a sound education in the humanities. Further, I maintain, as does Rousseau, that in order for people to be free there needs to be a economic baseline below which we do not allow anyone to fall and that the only way to ensure that this economic threshold is established is to focus on our common humanity which can only be understood by studying the humanities and understanding the inherent relationship between economics and the humanities. How we understand and treat people positively or negatively impacts the costs of doing business. Nussbaum recognizes that there is a relationship between the humanities, healthy and sustainable democratic institutions, and economics/business growth and sustainability in her criticism of Obama and the growing trend in education to emphasize those courses of study that are relevant to being economically successful, but she does not fully develop this crucial point. However, she does not consider the fundamental Rousseauean idea concerning the relationship of an economic baseline below which someone may not fall and human freedom and the role that knowledge of the humanities can play in recognizing this crucial point. But this is a small oversight, easily redressed.

To be successful we need to be mindful of the pluralistic societies within which we operate our businesses, as well as the culturally diverse makeup of our organizations. The organizations that I worked in, both as an hourly paid employee through various managerial positions including Director of Operations, were populated with people from many different ethnic, cultural, gender, political, economic, and religious backgrounds. This pluralistic working environment presented many unique and interesting challenges relative to how to effectively manage my areas of responsibility. An example of this occurred when I was trying to settle a problem with the working relationship between two employees who had recently emigrated from Mexico. They came from the same area in Mexico and were related familially. Furthermore, they had a very different conception of who had the authority to settle this issue then I did. From my perspective, I was the Plant Manager; I was the law! If I say this is the way it is going to be, then that is the way it is going to be. What I quickly came to realize was that even though they recognized me as the Plant Manager with authority on how to run the operation, I had limited authority to settle the personal dispute between them that was affecting their working relationship, the real authority was a ‘father figure’ back in Mexico whom they both recognized as having the final decision on how this particular dispute would be settled. So they took my solution and ran it past him to see if he agreed. Fortunately, this person agreed with me, and the issue was resolved, not because I was the Plant Manager, but because their recognized authority figure agreed with me. This experience was an eye-opener. I have many more such stories that demonstrate the need to know who you are dealing with. This knowledge goes well beyond simply viewing them as an employee filling some organizational function and ‘knowing’ them only through this role. A firm grounding in the humanities can open us up to the many diverse, and possibly conflicting, conceptual schemas and world-views and make us aware that some compromising and a restructuring of views may need to take place in order to forge good working relationships and a healthy environment.

I am not a fan of overly hierarchical institutional systems. I believe that they violate the idea of autonomy by placing decision-making in the hands of other people and create inefficiencies and levels of unnecessary costs in the operation of a business. These inefficiencies and costs must be eliminated as far as possible. I spent much of my managerial career ‘flattening’ organizations, in part by removing levels of management and restructuring and redesigning the manufacturing processes and the processes that affected them (sales, engineering, HR, etc.) and placing day to day operational decision-making into the hands of the people manufacturing the product and ultimately controlling the processes. It is my contention that people have the right to participate in the decision-making processes that affect their lives therefore I support participatory democratic practices in business and structuring organizations accordingly. But, in order to be successful in setting up these types of democratic work environments one must know the norms and values that define the people making up the group. It is an interesting challenge to develop self-directing work teams made up of people from many diverse backgrounds. Business oftentimes fails to maximize profit opportunities because they do not adequately understand the relationship between recognizing people for whom they are - people who have a narrative, deserving of our respect, and capable of being autonomous - being capable of defining what makes a life significant and developing and implanting plans to achieve such a life - and profit. What I mean by not ‘recognizing people for whom they are’, is that our present system tends to view people mainly in terms of economic criteria associated with Weber’s three P’s (property. power, and prestige). To incorporate an idea from Marcusse, we have become too one-dimensional in how we view people. We try to fit everyone into a world-view defined solely in economic terms and values. What is my/our market value? 

I have seen this attitude in my students. Oftentimes, at the first meeting of each of my intro courses at the start of a new semester I ask my students to complete the sentence, ‘The purpose of a college education is to…..’ I have never keep formal data on their answers, but the vast majority answer along the lines of “to gain the skills and knowledge to get a good job,’ ‘ to get a job,’ ‘to get into a career/profession that will enable me to get the good things in life,’ etc. When we discuss what these good things are the answers include getting a nice home, purchasing an expensive car, going on nice vacations and possibly owning vacation property, advancement and recognition within a career/profession and the community, a family, etc. There is a tendency to equate the material things that we try to accumulate and associate with achievement and success with what it means to live a good life. Now, there is nothing wrong with wanting these things, but very seldom does an answer focus on increasing one’s knowledge and becoming a more well-rounded and mature person by studying the humanities or the arts can help achieve those economic goals by placing them in a well-reasoned perspective. Many students seem to value the study of humanities as instrumentally necessary to achieve their economic goals. Many of them take them because they have to, not because they want to. They do not appreciate the intrinsic value that humanities and the arts might have in helping them to understand their situatedness within the global community they are a part of and how our individual lives are interwoven with the lives of others.

I would suggest that this failure to appreciate the intrinsic value in the humanities results in students viewing each other as rivals instead of ‘fellow-travelers’ as they pursue their educational goals. We are seeing the demise of what Paul Goodman referred to as the ‘community of scholars.’ Instead this community ought to be extended into our economic institutions. This adversarial relationship is transferred to the economic sphere when they start to compete for jobs and advancement within their careers/organizations. The higher up one goes in an organization the fewer people are your peers, and the top is very lonely. As Marx so well demonstrated in “Estranged Labor,” this process alienates us from each other and from ourselves. We understand and value ourselves only in terms of our economic value to the system. Even politics is being reduced to this level – how many jobs are being created, bailing out organizations that are inefficient, but’ too large to fail,’ etc. We are even beginning to look for cultural scapegoats as the cause of these issues – just look at the illegal immigration issue being propagated by commentators like Lou Dobbs as the main cause associated with the demise of the middle class. 

Let me be rather blunt here- as we turn away from developing and appreciating an understanding of who we are through the humanities we are creating the Orwellian State! In order to reverse this trend we need to understand economics through the prism of the humanities, not view the humanities through the prism of economics. If we want to have the best from those we hire, we need to know those we hire – we need to know their narratives regarding their ethnic, cultural, religious, etc. background. People do not fit into tidy, neat little conceptual boxes of understanding. Besides being able to understand what makes life significant in general, we need to see how our conception fits with our individual employees conceptions, not vice versa. We need to find an overlapping consensus concerning goals, objectives, and how to obtain them, to incorporate a Rawlsian notion. This is hard work, but it pays off because getting the best from our people will result in an increased opportunity to create wealth and create and maintain a stable, healthy democratic society where everyone is living a viable and flourishing life.


  1. Thank you for the provocative post, Michael. There’s so much here to talk about, but I want to limit myself to the sort of critical reasoning in relation to authority you describe, and whether this is truly cultivated in the Humanities. In her book, Professor Nussbaum argues that Socratic pedagogy is anti-authoritarian to its core. I think this only one strand of argument on display in Socrates, however. This is to say that while Socrates challenged the pretense to wisdom exhibited by the leaders of his day, he did argue for the authority of Philosophy as well. I love this interplay of critique and substantive claims in the dialogues, and I will illustrate it with a well known moment.

    In the “Euthyphro,” Socrates takes on the priest (and his friend) Euthyphro over the question of piety. Euthyphro believes he knows the nature of piety, and is willing to prosecute his own father for a capital offense precisely because knowledge of piety entails knowing the will of the gods in such matters. Socrates is stunned that Euthyphro feels no obligation to his father even as he admires Euthyphro’s sense of obligation to justice. As usual, Socrates’ raises questions about the nature of the concept (of piety) that Euthyphro answers with instantiations rather than essence. Euthyphro, something of what we might call a fundamentalist today, struggles to answer Socrates, but does not seem swayed at all to rethink his stance regarding his father as a result of these struggles. At this point, Socrates challenges the authoritarianism of Euthyphro by appealing to a higher authority. This can be gleaned in the very structure of the question he poses: “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”

    This is a question about the ultimate source of truth in the universe. In asking it, Socrates suggests that there is a source of truth higher and older than the gods. He says in effect, that priests like Euthyphro settled too early and too low when privileging the will of the gods. Philosophers know better. Or at least they are heretical enough to suggest that turning to the gods for guidance may be an error. In any case, we can never be sure if Euthyphro was challenged enough to engage in critical self-reflection. But we can observe an epistemological claim to the authority of Philosophy over religion.

    This strain of authoritarianism in the Humanities can be observed on a number of fronts today. Think of the way schools of thought, demanding, at least tacitly, discipline and obedience, emerge in the Humanities. This is true even of schools of thought that are dedicated to the advancement of democracy as a concept and practice. Think of the quality of democracy in classroom discussions and how it is qualified by the larger context of grades and credits. Of course there are the cults that arise around especially charismatic teachers.

    When I read Professor Nussbaum, I know I am in the presence of one of the most fertile minds of our age. I have to struggle with my deep admiration for her thinking and productivity to articulate my criticisms. I think this interplay of respect and critique the most important dimension of work in the Humanities. More to the point, however, it shows the limits to the thesis presented in the subtitle: “Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.” We need to be better than Euthyphro and recognize paradox. Here we need to examine, pace Professor Nussbaum, why the Humanities Need Democracy.

  2. Just for the record, this is my post. Michael posted it for me as I am having problems getting my longer comments posted. I have been sick the past few days and will respond to comments Tuesday.

  3. I'm sorry for the misattribution John. Thanks so much for your interesting post. Hope you're feeling better.

  4. John, those are great illustrations of the value of a humanistic education. It often surprises me how much business leaders talk about employees needing "leadership skills," "the ability to work in teams," etc., but don't recognize how humanistic education fosters these capacities and makes possible meaningful collaboration in groups whose individuals have different cultural backgrounds, assumptions, and values.

    But a subtext in your post is that before individuals in the workplace can truly collaborate with one another, they must be able to see one another as something other than economic agents or rivals (fellow travelers, as you put it). And in order to do that — and this is what I find most provocative about your post — they must have a conception of themselves as something more than just economically valuable placeholders. So you've highlighted how humanistic education aims both at knowledge of others and knowledge of self, and how these entwine to create individuals able to maintain mutually respectful (and economically profitable!) working environments. And the notion of the classroom as a laboratory for workplace democracy -- cool!


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