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Ethics without Philosophers (the Appalling State of Affairs in Business)
P. Tittle   Jan 25, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Could someone without a business degree become a marketing consultant?  No? Then how is it that people without philosophy degrees are becoming ethics consultants? [1]  Is it that people don’t know that Ethics is a branch of Philosophy just as Marketing is a branch of Business? Doubtful.

Is it just the typical male overstatement of one’s expertise? [2]  Perhaps.  Is it that people think they already know right from wrong, they learned it as children, there’s really no need for any formal training in ethics?  Possible.  I have certainly met that attitude in business ethics classes and ethics committees. [3] 

Or is it that ethics consultants (advisors, officers, practitioners, and so on) don’t really act as consultants about ethics?  They act as consultants about managing ethical behavior.  No, not even that.  Ethical consultants, practitioners, officers, focus on how to increase the likelihood that employees will follow some specific professional code of ethics or, more likely, the ethical rules the company’s elite want them to follow. [4] [5]

As far as I can see, business ethics taught by business faculty, ethics programs run by managers, and so on – any applied ethics taught by non-philosophers – is superficial at best.  [6] First, following a code is just an appeal to custom, an appeal to tradition, which philosophers consider a weak basis, an error in reasoning:  just because most people do it that way, doesn’t mean it’s right; just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s right. 

Second, legal moralism is prevalent: if it’s legal, it’s right, and if it’s not illegal, it’s not wrong.  Few philosophers (and I daresay few intelligent people) accept this equivalence of moral rightness and legality.  After all, slavery was once legal, and even at that time many considered it wrong and had excellent arguments to support their position (which is, to some extent, why the law changed – ethics should determine law, not the other way around). 

Third, the so-called ‘media test’ and ‘gut test’ are essentially nothing but appeals to intuition, which is nothing more than childhood conditioning that makes us say X ‘feels wrong’.  I think it far better to approach ethical issues with thought, to consider the many rational approaches to making decisions about right and wrong, such as an appraisal of values, principles, consequences, and so on.

A second weakness of ethics as done by non-philosophers is that what takes place is usually preaching not teaching.  That is, course material consists of ‘This is the right thing’ and ‘Do this in this situation’ – professors simply convey simply the current conventions and standard practices and legal obligations.  The underlying principles and values are unexamined, and likely to be inadequate or contradictory in any case. 

The human resources director or management executive is simply not equipped to examine the principles and values enshrined in the code she or he advocates [7], nor to approach an ethical issue with any rigor (for example, to figure out whether affirmative action programs are really fair, to determine if a proposed advertising campaign is really coercive, or to decide if anticipated environmental destruction is ethically justifiable), let alone teach various ways of making decisions about right and wrong. 
Philosophers are. 

Not only are they equipped to approach ethical issues with rigor, they look at the principles and values involved in such approaches; they would consider whether one should conform to the codes that are so taken for granted by those in business, whether those codes are at all adequate.  A philosopher’s focus is thus more fundamental.  And therefore prerequisite.  That is why the business ethics as done by non-philosophers is so alarming: it’s building a house without a foundation – or, rather, convincing people to live in the house, without examining the foundation. 

A very rudimentary version of a philosopher’s “methodology for ethical decision-making”  would be something like this:

1. Identify the ethical issue, the question to be answered.
2. Identify the relevant facts, consulting all involved.
3. (a) Identify the relevant moral principles and values.
  (b)  Rank them.
4. (a) List all the decision options.
  (b) Identify the consequences for each option.
5.  Align the options with the values and principles – which are upheld, which are violated?
6.  Decide what’s the ‘rightest’ thing to do.
7.  Repeat the process for deciding about the ‘rightest’ way of doing it.

I present below notes that I made for analyses of ethical problems presented while I served on the ethics committee of a local hospital in order to show what a philosophically trained person can do, in comparison to what non-philosophically trained people would do (which is, I suspect, to judge by past experience, just sort of sit around and say things like ‘Well, I think you should do this’ and ‘I think this is the right thing to do’ – something no different than, no better than, what the physicians would’ve gotten in the lunch room).  (Which is why they brought the matters to the ethics committee!)

I.  A Nephrology Questionnaire was presented to the committee by Dr. X.

The basic question underlying the questionnaire is this: Who gets dialysis?

This question can be framed as:
(1) a futile treatment question
(2) as an allocation of resources question

The first had already been discussed, the main issues being the definition of ‘futile’ and whether we have a moral obligation to provide futile treatment.

With regard to the second, decisions can be made according to the following three criteria:

i) medical value in prolonging life, alleviating pain, and/or enhancing life – key questions are ‘How much value?’ and ‘How likely is the value to be achieved?’ and central conflict would be between the ‘best outcome’ approach (an end point approach) and the ‘most in need’ approach (a beginning point approach)

ii) self worth –  key question here is ‘Does the person have a high or low quality of life?’ (and is a subjective standard or an objective standard used to determine this?)

iii) social worth – key question here is ‘Does the person contribute to or cost society?’ (this would include consideration of emotional and/or economic dependents)

These three criteria can be used
- simultaneously (consider all three at the same time)
- serially (if, and only if, the first criterion is met – that is, the dialysis does have medical value – is the next criterion considered)

These three criteria can be given equal or different weight.

One can judge:

- according to consequences (in which case the ‘best outcome’ might weigh heavily, but one would have to ask outcome for who, the patient only, or for the family, or for society as a whole)
- according to rights (do all have equal rights to the treatment, in which case we toss a coin or consider ‘first come, first served’)
- according to justice (are some more deserving than others?)

One can also, of course, combine these approaches: for example, a person might by lifestyle forfeit their rights and so another might be more deserving.

II.  Dr. Y was faced with a request by a mother to employ aggressive management for her newborn son who’s longevity is limited (following a premature birth and surgery for a severe fetal anomaly). 

I identified six ethical issues involved the decision faced by Dr. Y:

(1) the conflict between physician and patient/proxy issue:
- the physician can override patient/proxy requests in some circumstances, one of which is a request for futile treatment, another of which is a request for harmful treatment unbalanced by benefit; this may be especially defensible if the proxy has already made an ethically questionable decision (in this case, the decision to carry to term with full knowledge of the defect)
objection: patient/proxy requests must always be fulfilled
response: this position simply seems indefensible

(2) the futile treatment issue:

(i) the “aggressive practices” requested fall into the category of ‘futile treatment’ (they won’t cure the condition)

(ii) the “aggressive practices” won’t prolong life - and if they do, such life is of ‘insufficient’ quality (must define ‘insufficient’, perhaps by reference to mental abilities, physical abilities, and presence of pain) and/or the prolonging is too short-term to be worthwhile (must define ‘worthwhile’, perhaps as above)

(iii) the “aggressive practices” won’t alleviate pain
objection: treatment would alleviate parents’ pain
response: this would be using baby as a means to others’ end; such alleviation doesn’t override lack of benefit to baby; such alleviation doesn’t override harm to baby
objection: life should be maintained at all costs in all cases
response: this position is indefensible

(3) the harmful treatment issue:
- the “aggressive practices” requested fall into the category of harmful treatment unbalanced by benefit because there is physical trauma involved and/or because there is no resulting recovery, minimal prolonging (quality and quantity), and/or minimal alleviation of pain

(4) the DNR issue:

- the physician should (a) make a DNR order (b) against the proxy’s wishes
- re (a), arguments re futile treatment apply
- re (b), arguments re conflict apply
- also, proxies don’t have medical expertise
- also, proxies are biased by love/emotion
objection: parents bear the consequences the most

(5) the euthanasia issue:

- the physician should (a) provide euthanasia, (b) against the proxy’s wishes
- re (a) and (b), if the patient is in pain, especially/but only (?) serious pain, which is resistant to alleviation and/or there is no hope of recovering to a certain quality of life ( must define ‘certain’ perhaps as above with ‘insufficient’)
- re (b), if the proxy’s wishes are clearly not in the patient’s best interests (in this case, we can’t use the ‘patient’s previously expressed wishes’ standard, nor the ‘patient’s would’ve expressed wishes’ standard)
objection: life should be maintained at all costs in all cases
response:  this position seems indefensible
objection:  passive, but not active, euthanasia is acceptable
response:  there is not difference if the motive, intention, and consequence are the same
objections: euthanasia is illegal in Canada
response:  ethics overrides legalities

(6) the allocation of resources issue:
- probably doesn’t apply in this case, but if it does, it seems merely to strengthen most of the preceding arguments (rather than add any)

To see similar differences in business, one need only compare business ethics articles with papers written by philosophers.  The philosophers will deal, in depth, with any one of a number of difficult issues; for example, if the issue is advertising, she or he might investigate the various kinds and degrees of influence and deception; the rights of persons to be free from intrusions in their physical, sonic, and visual space;  the difference between private and public space; the special rights of children given their undeveloped cognition; the relevance of what’s advertised and how it’s advertised; and so on.  The managers will present a checklist for making sure their marketing campaigns don’t break any laws.  The former will contain arguments, the latter mere assertions. 

How has this terrible misunderstanding, this doing ethics without philosophers, come about?  Perhaps the problem lies with the term ‘applied ethics’.  Business people take it to mean applying ethical codes, setting up policies and procedures that conform to – well, there’s the problem: which ethics?  (And perhaps only a philosopher would ask this question)

Perhaps the problem is that philosophers have understood ‘applied ethics’ to mean applying ethical analyses – identifying and examining the ethical issues in business.  Because ‘ethics’ doesn’t mean ‘moral rules’; ‘ethics’ means ‘the study of moral rules’.  This is a common misunderstanding.  A term with a very specific meaning among specialists has been adopted and used erroneously in the general population.[8]

But I can’t help wondering if it hasn’t just been a case of blatant appropriation.  Business has hijacked ethics as a marketing tool, just as it did with environmentalism, and turned it into something superficial and useless. Managers aren’t really not interested in the substantial, fundamental matters.  They just want a new way to attract customers and clients and so increase profits.  Indeed the blurb for an ethics seminar titled “Integrity Wins”, offered by and for ethics practitioners, not philosophers, described its purpose as “explor[ing] how ethical issues … can affect the legal status, revenue generation, and perceived trustworthiness of your organization.”  A subscription form for The Corporate Ethics Monitor says this:

“Successful executives, investor relations professionals, and independent corporate directors understand that business ethics is not a fad.  They know why companies are beefing up their ethical management, training and compliance programs.  They understand that high-profile misconduct can cause serious repercussions for a company – including alienation of customers, suppliers, employees, investors and business partners.  Therefore, quite apart from a desire to avoid fines and other financial penalties resulting from ethical problems, an effort to identify potential points of ethical weakness can pay off in higher morale and productivity, an enhanced reputation, and a healthier bottom line.”

Nothing is said about doing the right thing because it’s the right thing! 

However, I don’t want to put the blame solely on business.  If philosophy faculty didn’t have such disdain for business, and if they took a little responsibility for their discipline, there would be more preparation for philosophy majors to be ethics practitioners.  Philosophy departments should advise their students of careers as ethics officers and consultants; they should encourage their students to, therefore, take courses in business (if they want to be come a business ethics officer) or science (if they want to become ethics consultants in bioethics or environmental ethics), because without a background in business or science, philosophers won’t know which questions to ask, what difficulties to anticipate (for example, ethical belief in intercultural business is a real thorny issue – philosophy students will have to grapple with moral relativism in a big way…).  Philosophy departments could even arrange to have their applied ethics courses team-taught; this would require business, similarly, to dampen their disdain for philosophy. 

But since my readers are more likely in business, not philosophy, I’ll have to encourage you to take the initiative. 

Some philosophers are not satisfied with discussing whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if no one’s there.  And some of us are every bit as hard-nosed and hard-edged as business people – logic underlies critical thinking and errors in thinking are errors, there’s no ‘maybe’ about it.  Don’t dismiss the philosophy faculty.  Approach them.  Seek out the person who teaches the Contemporary Moral Issues course or the one who teaches the Critical Thinking course.  (Avoid those who teach Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Aesthetics; and run away as fast as you can from those who teach Kant and Derrida.) 

Work together.  The philosophy professor can provide the applications of ethical theory to issues in business, and the ethical analyses of various decisions, but you can identify the intrusions of current business practice and policy and procedure that complicate or change those applications and analyses. 


[1] I have only anecdotal information here.  I did send a three-item questionnaire to survey the Ethics Officer Association (U.S.), the Ethics Practitioners Association of Canada, and the Canadian Center for Ethics and Corporate Policy.  In the first case, I was informed they have no way to track the education status of their members as that was not one of the questions asked on their membership application, and apparently they were not interested in sending my three questions to their members; in the second case, again, I don’t think my questions got passed on; in the third case, my questions did get passed onto the Board of Directors, but no further, and I received three replies – one person had a B.A. in Science and an M.B.A., another indicated that he was a Chartered Accountant, and the third had a B.A. and an LL.B. with no particular training in ethics. 

[2] Most ethics consultants are men, I believe.

[3] Though, of course, childhood ethics doesn’t tell you who gets the kidney and at what price.

[4] Since “developing methodologies to inform decision-making” (a common part of the job description) surely refers to making decisions that accord with the company code – because methodologies for making ethical decisions already exist: are ethics practitioners intending to reinvent or surpass Aristotle, Kant, Mill, McIntyre, and the many, many others who have developed ways to determine what is right?

[5] And yet even at this rudimentary level, they fail.  Perhaps the biggest obstacles to ethical behavior are bonuses for behavior that increase profit.  Dangling such a carrot in front of someone for doing the profitable thing makes it harder, not easier, to do the right thing.  High salaries, which will be lost if one loses one’s job, which will happen if one doesn’t increase profit, is another way exactly not to “encourage compliance”.  So of course if a company were really serious about their ethics, they’d give bonuses for doing the right thing, whether or not profit is increased or decreased. 

[6] Of all the conferences I’ve attended only for the ethics practitioner one was I told what to wear.  Philosophers don’t care; they understand it’s not important. 

[7] Consequently, ethical codes remained unexamined and, therefore, more often than not, useless.  Partly, this is because there is no definition: what exactly is professionalism, for instance?  Excellence?  Integrity?  The latter, so often listed as value in codes of ethics, is nothing more than non-hypocrisy: having integrity means that if you think X is right, you should do X.  It doesn’t indicate what is right in the same way that, for example, ‘honesty’ or ‘beneficence’ does.  Examination reveals that ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ are similar to integrity.  I’ve even seen ‘objective’ listed in a code of ethics – again, qualified attention to definition would reveal that objective isn’t a moral value.

And partly this is because of internal conflict and lack of prioritization.  For example, one code I looked at says employees “shall act in a manner that is in the best interests of their clients and employer consistent with the public interest.”  That one item alone is fraught with internal conflicts.  It doesn’t take a genius to imagine an instance in which the best interests of the client collide with the best interests o the employer, let alone the public interest.  When they collide, when, for example, honesty conflicts with loyalty, or providing the highest quality of service conflicts with providing the highest return to shareholders, which one is to take precedence?  The code doesn’t say. I’ve seen no code of ethics provide a means of ranking values, a means of resolving such conflicts.

[8] The term ‘philosophy’ is itself is another example: to philosophers, it means something like ‘the critical examination of fundamental concepts’, but to the general population it means simply ‘a certain view of or attitude toward life”. 



P. Tittle is the author of Critical Thinking: An Appeal to Reason (Routledge, 2011), Sh*t that Pisses Me Off (Magenta, 2011), Ethical Issues in Business: Inquiries, Cases, and Readings (Broadview, 2000), and What If...Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy (Longman, 2005). She lives in Canada, and she blogs at


“But since my readers are more likely in business, not philosophy, I’ll have to encourage you to take the initiative.”

@Peg Are you posting this article elsewhere or only here? Because if the latter, I would have thought you’re going to get more philosophers than business people. Or at least think tankers, short, the kind of people who are interested, in a fairly academic way, in the issues we discuss here.

So if anyone in business actually is reading this comment, then let me strongly echo Peg’s exhortation. For the rest….well, perhaps we should reflect on how we can reach out to business. Because I fully agree: people in business talk about ethics without the slightest, foggiest idea what it means.

Thanks, Peg, for this.  As a person who holds a masters in Business Ethics, you probably have no idea how very true what you write here really is.  I cannot find a job in the corporate world because I have no ‘business’ experience.  I am, at heart and in practice, a philosopher.  I trained for two years in business ethics, and much of the training provided was exactly what you say—-“best practices” and “policy development.”  Except for one professor who wanted to relate every ethical decision to religion (specifically the bible—ugh!), there was not a lot of talk about what the “right thing to do” is or why we should do it.  So, for now, I sit in academia, awaiting my chance to use any bit of my education (which put me 30K in debt, by the way) because here seems to be the only place a real philosopher is in any way appreciated.

Good point, Peter.  The piece was indeed initially written for a business audience.  Hank thought it would be a good one for here as well. 

That said, I see it’s already been picked up and cross-posted, so perhaps we’ll get some business people here joining the discussion.  (Wouldn’t that be fantastic?!)

Ah, Michelle, that is so very discouraging.  I’ve just submitted a piece to titled “Why Teaching Business Ethics is So Very Difficult” (or some such) - I’m afraid you’re not going to be any more successful in academia…I certainly wasn’t.

When I first started, I garnered the attention of an ethics consultancy and was sort of offered a job.  Good thing I was offered a job with LSAC at the same time - I realized a very short while later just what I would have been doing (or, rather, not been doing) had I accepted the first one. 

No doubt you are correct, we see evidence of economic (and political) degradation all about us; but can business be business and not be degrading? ethical business is well nigh tantamount to vegetarian slaughterhouses, or chaste whorehouses.
Of course, we have to promote ethics in business, all the while knowing the entire notion of business would have to, eventually, be outmoded.
Pete, you have a good head for this: is the above mistaken? can business be ethical and remain business?

Intomorrow, OF COURSE it’s possible.  You just need to change your narrow definition of business.  Non-profits and a great number of small businesses…  The stake-holder model of business is an option (one need not follow the stock-holder model…)

Peg, re the list “methodology for ethical decision-making (points 1 to 7)”:

You mention principles and values, but you don’t mention persons. I miss some bullet points like “Identify the persons who can be affected by the decision,” and “Identify the consequence for each option and for each (group of) person(s) affected.”

I say this because I am persuaded that actual persons are more important than abstract principles and values, and that ethics should be primarily based not on abstract principles, but on the well-being of the persons involved.

Having read other essays of yours I think you probably agree, in which case please take this as a suggestion for the wording.

But let’s not let this discussion get hijacked (at least not right away) to “Can business be ethical” - I’d like to hear some discussion about “How has this terrible misunderstanding, this doing ethics without philosophers, come about?”, and Peter’s “How can we fix it?”

(Yes, yes, agreeing that it can be fixed is a prerequisite, but really, Intomorrow, are you suggesting business canNOT be ethically acceptable??  That people cannot engag in manufacturing or selling a product or service without necessarily harming others?) (just to take that as a starting definition of doing the right thing - not harming others)

Guilo, I was including that in “consulting all involved” but perhaps it needs to be articulated in the overt manner you suggest, good point.

“Intomorrow, are you suggesting business canNOT be ethically acceptable?? That people cannot engag in manufacturing or selling a product or service without necessarily harming others?) (just to take that as a starting definition of doing the right thing - not harming others)”

Don’t know, hoping heavyweights at IEET might provide a clue.

Peg it isn’t just business, my wife took her Master’s of Social Work at a university known for their ethics based curriculum. They in fact developed the first text book on SW ethics. She was horrified to learn that in some programs there is no course on ethics or the process of making an ethical decision. (What she learned was almost identical to what you laid out.) This is in spite of the fact that all SW are required to agree to an ethical code of conduct. How can they do that if they have not concept of the philosophy of ethics?

Business is easy to pick on, but we should be looking at a broader picture. Why aren’t basic ethics and ethical decision making taught at schools? The reason is simple, they are too busy teaching what is on the “test” to teach anything useful. Try to teach something different and the board will tell you that you’ll lose funding because the test scores will slip. If we are going to change business we need to start by educating future business people properly.

yes, absolutely.  it occurred to me when i was just out walking that i should post to say my comments apply to all applied ethics.  my example was from my experience on the ethics committee of a hospital.  given that, and the nature of this forum, perhaps we should turn our attention away from business.  or at least not limit it to that.

as for the schools…canada and us are woefully behind in getting philosophy onto the curriculum.  Ontario now has a high school philosophy course, but it’s not mandatory.  of course. 

There is a Philosophy for Children movement, and there are philosophers that go into the elementary schools, but it’s not by any means standard.

When I read Sophie’s World, it seemed to bizarre to me.  The philosophy was at undergraduate, but the plot and characters were for children.  I understood when I found out it was written by a Norwegian (?) and in Norway, they have philosophy in school from the elementary level.

America (to take one nation) can’t live in the past and in the future- can it? For form’s sake, the fiction is maintained that we carry on the heritage of Adam Smith, Riccardo, Hayek, von Mises, Friedman… the fiction is a backdrop for- it appears- sentimental reasons, the tricorn hats Tea Partiers wear sometimes is emblematic of such—so they can pretend it is 236 years ago when George Washington was president and not Barack Obama.
On the other hand, if they can someday live in the past while living in the future (VR, holodeck, time travel, etc.) then they should begin thinking about how to go about it!

...“so they can pretend it is 236 years ago when George Washington”

Actually, there was no presidency 236 yrs. ago.
The distant past is a Hollywood backdrop for the old fashioned, isn’t it? when the Tea Baggers wear tricorn hats, attend old fashioned churches, go hunting & fishing, and so on, they want to retain linkage with their heritage and its simplicity.They are sentimental for Adam Smith and George Washington.
So we should discuss not only ethics, but retroism—what good are ethics and aesthetics if they are 18th-19th century? funny, the Right thinks of Reagan as a 20th century conservative when he was more akin to a 19th century liberal.

Ethics is concerned with “doing the right thing” in terms of morals, fairness, respect, caring, sharing, no false promises, no lying, cheating, stealing, or unreasonable demands on employees and others, etc. In addition, business ethics calls for corporate social responsibility (CSR) and addressing social problems such as poverty, crime, environmental protection, equal rights, public health and improving education.  We need a practical approach rather than a philosophical one (as discussed later), with “leadership by example.”

Business decisions often concern complicated situations which are neither totally ethical nor totally unethical. Therefore, it is often difficult to “do the right thing,” contrary to what many case studies will have you believe!

For instance, in a proposed sale, is it the seller’s duty to disclose all material facts regarding the product/service in question or is it the buyer’s responsibility to find out the pros and cons of what he or she is getting into? Should the seller answer each question exactly as it was asked, and ignore some pertinent information? Or should he or she merely address the spirit of the question? Is the buyer responsible for conducting due diligence, including checking out the pros and cons of buying products/services offered by the competition? In the light of real world constraints, is it really feasible to draw upon the teachings of Socrates, Aristotle, Plato and other philosophers before making a decision in every single situation?

Ethics training can raise ethical IQs and monitor behavior, but it is difficult to alter the basic nature of individuals such as Bernie Madoff, Conrad Black and Vincent Lacroix. Ethics is conscience-based, knowledge-based and attitude-based, and not suited to some individuals, who, by their very nature, have consistently demonstrated selfishness and greed.

Maxwell Pinto, Business Consultant and Author.,i:digital-text&keywords=maxwell+pinto&ie=UTF8&qid=1323793453

Interesting perspective in this article, but I must say that I come from a different angle. I’ve been in industry for over 25 years and continue to balance academic achievements with industial promotions. I agree that philosophy provides a powerful foundation, but how does it apply to the real world?.  Practical applications of philosophical research are few and far between.  The class of individuals such as myself strive to BALANCE theory with practical focus—the scholar-practitioner, as defined in the literature.  There is nothing wrong with maximizing the value of a corporation to the stakeholders (note I did not say stockholders).  Good business is not the outdated model of merely making a profit.  Competition, the government over site, corporate leadership, and individual values all contribute to doing the right thing.  Pure Philosophy can only get you so far. The bridge between philosophy and practice is complex and requires the integrated methods of philosophers and practitioners… Not either or.

“How has this terrible misunderstanding, this doing ethics without philosophers, come about?”

What kind of reputation do philosophers have among business-people? I think the answer to that question might provide a clue. I know at least one business-person who has a philosophy degree, so let’s take a couple of breaths before stereotyping, but business-people are practical people. They like to get things done. Philosophers like to…think.

Business-people think as well, of course, but they are generally thinking about how they can grow their business. This places them in a moral and (more to the point) PR dilemma: often, what they need to do to grow their business is incompatible with what society around them, and to some extent they themselves, consider “ethical”. So they hire some ethics consultants to help them sort their way through the maze, and (more to the point) convince others that they are taking such matters seriously.

Now the last person they want to be playing that role is someone who’s obsessed with the truth, as any half-decent philosopher has to be. They want someone who’s just enough aware of these issues to clarify their own thinking with regard to their ethical behaviour (these people are not entirely amoral, let’s remember, which is why Intomorrow is still wrong to be quite so pessimistic, even about America), and to have a minimum of credibility among those within society who are interested in businesses being “ethical” (or in portraying their competitors as unethical).

As Al Gore says in Inconvenient Truth, it’s difficult to get someone to understand something if their salary depends on their not understanding it.

Meshing business and ethics (foundational philosophy) can be done.  It’s the question of if businesses actually want to do it.  In my humble opinion, most do not simply because not having that “thinker’ in the midst allows for plausible deniability.  Best book on ethics and business I ever read—-Dee Hock, the founder of Visa.  The Birth of the Chaordic Age.  Addresses this issue well.

PhD-Candidate, how does philosophy apply to the real world?  HOW DOES PHILOSOPHY APPLY TO THE REAL WORLD?!

Every time you say “I know…” you are applying a theory of epistemology.  Though you apparently don’t know it.  (Epistemology)

Every time you consider an argument, every time you have a reason that logically supports a conclusion, a reason you deem relevant and sufficient, you’re using philosophy (Informal Logic)

Every time you think something’s beautiful, you’re using a theory of aesthetics.  (Aesthetics)

Every time you choose not to do something because it’s wrong, you are applying a theory of ethics.  (Ethics)

And on and on. 

Philosophy is the foundation of EVERYTHING.

@Peg, I think you’re overstating your case a bit there, aren’t you?

To me, “applying a theory of epistemology” means consciously doing so. I don’t think you can unconsciously apply a theory of epistemology, at least not without having done so consciously in the past.

Perhaps we’re arguing semantics here, but I’m assuming that by “theory of epistemology” you mean more than “unconscious cognitive process”.

When we say “I know”, we are in the first place repeating a meme (the “I know” meme), and somewhat more fundamentally we are expressing a sense of certainty about something. That sense of certainty may have various causes, not all of which would, O suggest, deserve to be labelled “theory of epistemology”. Often it’s more like a gut feeling.

Similarly, we are not “using philosophy” every time we consider an argument, unless, again by “philosophy” we mean something as trivial as “cognitive process”. The point of philosophy, I would suggest, is to make conscious and explicit that which is normally unconscious and implicit, so that it can be analysed, debated, checked for logical inconsistencies, benchmarked against evidence etc.

For that matter, I overstated my case when I said “people in business talk about ethics without the slightest, foggiest idea what it means”.

I agree that the statement “practical applications of philosophical research are few and far between” is grossly untrue, but it does at least contain a nugget of truth, namely that philosophers tend to be over-analytical in practical situations where they would do better to use mental short-cuts and keep their decision-making processes quick, unconscious and implicit. So if we want to incite business-people to embrace philosophy, and come to philosophers for advice about what it really means to be ethical, then we probably need to work harder to demonstrate how our knowledge is going to help them practically.

Even your 7-point methodology for ethical decision-making is likely to be too cumbersome in more practical situations.

Furthermore, we should also bear in mind that moral philosophers have so far failed to come to any kind of consensus either on meta-ethics (moral realism vs moral subjectivism) or on ethics (e.g. utilitarianism: good or bad?). It’s like a priest complaining that people aren’t taking religion seriously. Why should we, when the religious can’t themselves agree on their story.

Contrast this with science, where although many questions remain open, there are certain things that (according to any reasonabe, practically applicable theory of epistemology) are known. Scientists, have, I would suggest, a much stronger case for complaining that they are not taken seriously when pointing out what will be the scientifically demonstrable consequences of certain actions. And no business-person in their right mind would come out with a statement like “the practical applications of scientific research are few and far between”.

What I think would help is if more philosophers adopted a moral subjectivist position on meta-ethics, thus paving the way for a consensus that accepts that values, ethical frameworks, and even how much one wants to make one’s ethical decisions logically consistent, are matters of choice, not of truth. This will reduce the temptation to keep searching for the holy grail of moral reality, which business- and other practical people can be forgiven for thinking is a bit of a waste of time.

Another thing that might help is point out that business, to the extent that it worries about ethics at all, tends to be dominated by utilitarianism, and often rather naive or crude applications of it. Those moral philosophers who (unlike myself) dislike utilitarianism should then explain clearly why this is a bad thing (focusing, in particular, on the practical consequences). Those who, like myself, like utilitarianism should be best placed to work together with business to help them to be a bit less naive and more mindful in their application of it.

Peter, re your comments about what people mean when they say “I know” - I guess that’s why I don’t say “I know” nearly as often as most people.  And why, consequently, most people think I don’t know anything.  (I agree, most people have such low standards of knowledge…)

“...they would do better to use mental short-cuts and keep their decision-making processes quick…” - not convinced of that at all.  better?  Most people think far too little.  I dare say most don’t think at all.

consensus isn’t required for merit.  just because there’s no agreement on a matter, doesn’t mean the matter shouldn’t be taken seriously!

BB, have you been able to get online here yet?

I submit that Peter has proven Peg’s argument.  Everyone in a field does not have to agree on a matter before it is fact.  Correct me if I misunderstand your argument, Peter, but to try to make moral decision-making a science by having a “logically consistent” framework that paves the way for making one’s ethical decisions is impossible within our diverse cultural conditions.  As Peg said, consensus certainly is not a requirement. Global warming or lack thereof is certainly within the realm of science and we still have lack of consensus (however ridiculous that seems) on that.  Utilitarianism is the lazy man’s ethical framework.  But you are correct that most people, including business people, operate on that philosophy.  Maybe that’s what is wrong with the whole thing.  I’d venture to guess part of Peg’s whole issue here.

I smiled as I read your article,“Ethics Without Philosophers (the Appalling State of Affairs in Business.” While I am in total agreement that ethics shouldn’t be taught be non-philosophers, I disagree with your statement, “(Avoid those who teach Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Aesthetics; and run away as fast as you can from those who teach Kant and Derrida.)” 

One’s ethics (as well as one’s politics and aesthetics) is a product of one’s metaphysics. What one thinks is real and true will affect what one thinks is good and right. You call for us to “work together.”  But how are philosophers going to work together with non-philosophers if we can’t even work together with each other? 

Finally, there is also more to ethics than what Modernism would have us believe. (See Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. . You haven’t addressed the contributions that Virtue Ethics is able to make to business ethics.

I submit that ” this terrible misunderstanding, this doing ethics without philosophers” has come about precisely because modernism has reduced ethics exclusively to dilemmas and principles. When business ethics is reduced to a series of dilemmas, it is just a variation on the business case study.  Principles alone are like mathematical formulae—just plug and chug that Principle of Utility or that Categorical Imperative or whatever “Methodology for Ethical Decision Making” you choose, and voila—you’ve done ethics! A person doesn’t have to have a higher degree in mathematics to be able to get the answer to quadratic equation. It seems that we philosophers have allowed ethics to be reduced to a similar state, so no wonder people without philosophy degrees are becoming ethical consultants.

However, there’s a bit more to ethics than just principles: there’s character and there’s telos/goals/ends. Of course logic and critical thinking are necessary, but they are not sufficient. (Hopefully, they are also areas in which non-philosophers will have some expertise and practice.)  But philosophers are the peculiar folks who wonder about things like “what is the good life?” “What is a good person?” “what is justice?” Those are questions that non-philosophers don’t have time to deal with, or aren’t interested in. But in grappling with them, philosophers are stretched into areas of metaphysics, epistemology and the history of philosophy, and are able to bring a unique perspective as well as valuable expertise to business ethics, environmental ethics, medical ethics, etc.

Philosophy flies with two wings: analysis and synthesis, and business depends on philosophers’ ability to soar.


I agree that absence of agreement doesn’t mean a matter shouldn’t be taken seriously. And I agree that much of what passes for “ethics” in a business setting is, as you put it, “superficial at best”.

But I don’t, remotely, agree that most people think too little. The default condition of many in the modern world is that of an anxious, over-stimulated mind, producing a constant stream of thoughts, many of which are quite unhelpful or irrelevant. If philosophers have a role to play, it is to help people to think better, not to think more.

And the issue wasn’t whether ethics should be taken seriously. It was rather how can we get business people to take the issue seriously, and in particular to pay more attention to what philosophers are saying about it. So the debate is an empirical one: what is most likely to convince business-people take philosophers’ opinions on ethics more seriously. And while it’s somewhat simplistic, it seems a decent zeroth approximation to say that they will do say when they perceive it is in their self-interest to do so.

So first of all you need to get their attention. Short, punchy messages, please, and certainly not calls to “think more”. Secondly, those messages need to be directly and practically relevant to current concerns.

Which beings us back to “I know”. Business-people aren’t interested in long discourses that are so tentative that the speaker doesn’t even appear to have made up his or her own mind about the subject, let alone has a good case to convince others. The message must carry conviction. You have to talk as if you do know.

This being the case, the reason why consensus is important in ethics is precisely that it concerns the question “what should be done”. We can disagree about many things, and just agree to differ. But if we disagree about what should be done then we are, in a very literal sense, at cross-purposes.

So for example, when we say “business-people should pay attention to what philosophers are saying about ethics”, we are making a moral statement. But what can possibly be the basis for such a statement? Since there is no moral reality (or at least no credible reason for thinking that there is), it can’t be because it is true in any absolute sense. It can only be true with respect to some ethical framework that we have chosen. So we need to be clear about what that ethical framework is. Then we need to show how business-people are failing with regard to that ethical framework. Only then do we have a remotely credible reason for insisting that they take us seriously.

Assuming that this ethical framework is to be utilitarianism, this basically translates into making a case that business is failing in its ethical duty to maximise overall welfare (within the constraints of its agreed role, e.g. to make a profit) by being woefully amateurish in its treatment of ethics. Together with practical case studies where things have gone badly wrong (some major industrial accident for example) and where the amateurish treatment of ethics can credibly be shown to have played a role.

Now that is something that non-philosophers *would* be willing to take seriously.

I have a degree in Philosophy. I focused on ethics and aesthetics. I spent 40 years in business in the US, Japan, and Amsterdam. The understanding of business and the characterization of business and business people on this forum is shallow, naive, over-generalized and unhelpful. As in all groups some business people are ethical and some not, some are greedy and some are not, some are caring and some not, some are talented and some not, some are serious people and some not. I know many business people who want to do the right thing simply because it is right.

Any publicly held business has four constituencies. Stockholders, employees, customers and the general public. The needs of all four will be taken into account by any sophisticated businessman, and creating value for all four is necessary for doing what is right—and succeeding. Doing right and succeeding are not mutually exclusive, they are interdependent.

“Could someone without a business degree become a marketing consultant?”
Happens all the time. I know a couple of dozen really good, smart marketing consultants without business degrees, at least one with a philosophy degree. Your opening sentence demonstrates your lack of understanding of the problem.
“typical male overstatement of one’s expertise? ” Sexist nonsense. Indicates your lack of understanding of people.
“this position simply seems indefensible.”  Now, there’s a rigorous philosophical conclusion.


You’re right about climate change: despite plenty of good evidence, there’s still no consensus. We’re getting there (recent attempts to “disprove” it are backfiring), but overall that story has been a perfect illustration of the human capacity to deny what is staring us in the face, and (of course) of policy capture by special interest groups.

But at least climate scientists recognise the importance of consensus, and to the extent that they have been successful it is I’m large part down to this recognition. If climate scientists had just sat around squabbling and discussing angels on pins (we’ve been caricaturing business, as guitar39 has pointed out, so we might as well caricature philosophers as well!) we’d be in an even worse mess.

Note also that I did not say that utilitarianism is the truth. I said it is the ethical framework that appeals most to me, and which is likely to appeal to business. You appear to be one of those philosophers to whom it does not appeal, so please: tell me why. And be a bit more precise than “utilitarianism is the lazy man’s ethical framework”.

guitar39, I do hope my characterization of business people is incorrect.  I admit it is based on my own limited experience.  But I have to say that well over 95% of the business people and students I interacted with, regarding ethics, are as I describe.

I sent a couple ethics officer organizations a survey to try to get real data - I received only three responses (of hundreds).  That in itself told me something. 

As for the “typical male overstatement” comment, that IS based on non-anecdotal evidence.  Unfortunately, I didn’t write down the citation…the conclusion was something like what I said: men far more often than women overestimate their expertise, say they’re qualified, etc.

And Beth, if you’re still with us, re my not mentioning virtue ethics - I consider virtues to be nearly indistinguishable from values and so included them there. 

I was, yes, simplifying.  You suggest I simplified too much; others have said what I have is too complicated…

‘the conclusion was something like what I said: men far more often than women overestimate their expertise, say they’re qualified, etc.”

And in politics, BTW. All 44 of the CEOs of America have been men, and a fraction were qualified; the majority of candidates to this day overestimate their expertise, and say they are qualified 😉

@Peg Surely “virtues” refers more specifically to personal qualities and behaviour patterns, while “values” is more general, referring more or less to what we regard as good. We may value good weather, but one would not describe good weather as a virtue. Would you? Well I suppose in the expression “making a virtue out of necessity”.

By the way I tend to see virtue ethics as an application of rule utilitarianism. The point being that the maximum good for the maximum number of people tends to be attained when people practise certain virtues. But we don’t need a whole new set of ethics for that, much less reject utilitarianism. Just practise and promote virtue in the sense of a “rule” in rule utilitarianism. Utilitarianism still provides the logical framework within which to decide which virtues we need to practise, and in what context.

(For example over-confidence in business, whether gender-correlated or not: good or bad? Why? What are the consequences?)

Peter, my thinking is that if one values honesty (values-approach to ethics), one is an honest person (virtues-approach), so with regard to decision-making, it boils down to the same thing.  Be honest, choose to tell the truth.

@Peg Actually that isn’t true: one can be a naturally honest person, without particularly valuing honesty, or someone who genuinely values honesty but finds it really hard to do. Just as you can value being thin but find it still have a weakness for desserts.

And in a way that’s the whole point: our behaviour is not for the most part driven by conscious, let alone rational, decision-making. It’s mostly unconscious, and habit-driven. Business-people instinctively understand that, and also understand that rational thought at the wrong time can unhelpfully slow down and confuse a decision-making process that is otherwise instinctual and effective, because of some combination of natural talent (innate instinct) and experience (acquired instinct).

Take guitar39 for example. Assuming we can take his/her words at face value, he (I’m going to go with “he”) has a degree in philosophy, yet bristled at your (our) suggestion that business-people are half-amoral and don’t have a clue about ethics. How do we motivate someone like him to act as the bridge between business and philosophy that he is obviously ideally placed to be, even more than he already is?

I would suggest that we need to reframe the issue. We perceive a problem - an amateurish approach to ethics in business - which could be addressed by involving philosophers more. We’ve made our point; now how do we motivate them to implement our suggestion? Not by arguing the toss with the, I would suggest. Rather by providing practical examples of where it is going wrong.

I’m neither a businessman (yet) nor a trained philosopher. I do like to philosophise, and believe I have built up some expertise in the field, am considering going into business of one sort or another, and have 18 years of experience in public policy. I think that gives me some insight into what’s likely to work. Recently I’ve been focusing especially on the science-policy interface, and I see strong analogies between that issue and the philosophy-business interface. I have an idea of what works, and what doesn’t. And the first thing we have to do when talking to people with a more practical than analytical bent is to avoid lecturing, and make more effort to understand where they’re coming from. It makes sense to lecture to each other, of course, because we know our arguments will be given utmost attention. Business-people are necessarily less patient with that kind of thing.

Well, Peter, I didn’t think my proposed methodology WAS lecturing.  I thought it WAS providing something practical, something not bogged down with philosophical analysis.

But we still need to convince them that their “gut test” and “media test” should be replaced with something like what I suggest.  And I don’t know how to do that without, necessarily, showing its shortcomings.  Which, necessarily, involves criticism.  And rational thought!

What would you do?  Show us some “practical examples of where it is going wrong”.

“obstacles to ethical behavior are bonuses for behavior that increase profit.  Dangling such a carrot in front of someone for doing the profitable thing makes it harder, not easier, to do the right thing.”

“This places them in a moral and (more to the point) PR dilemma: often, what they need to do to grow their business is incompatible with what society around them, and to some extent they themselves, consider “ethical”.”

The assumption is that making a profit and doing the right thing are always in conflict. We saw much greed and unethical behavior as causes of the recent financial melt down, so there’s no doubt that doing the wrong thing sometimes pays off big (so does robbing banks). But one can’t generalize from that to all business. As PhD Candidate said, “There is nothing wrong with maximizing the value of a corporation to the stakeholders (note I did not say stockholders). Good business is not the outdated model of merely making a profit.”


“Now the last person they want to be playing that role is someone who’s obsessed with the truth”

Again, evidence of bias—business people don’t want to know the truth. The underlying assumption in many comments (not all) seems to be that business people (whatever that means) are less ethical than other people. Really? Is the business community less ethical than the academic community? Not in my experience.

If business people are rejecting philosophers as counselors it may not be because they fear truth. Perhaps they don’t like being patronized.

” The philosophers will deal, in depth, with any one of a number of difficult issues; for example, if the issue is advertising, she or he might investigate the various kinds and degrees of influence and deception; the rights of persons to be free from intrusions in their physical, sonic, and visual space;  the difference between private and public space; the special rights of children given their undeveloped cognition; the relevance of what’s advertised and how it’s advertised; and so on.”

These are real issues. But they are not day-to-day issues. They are background issues and their resolution is the framework for making day-to-day decisions—the values and principles by which the options should be judged, perhaps using Peg’s system. They do not have to be re-examined for each decision. For instance, advertising practitioners have long held that it is appropriate for advertising to try to influence people, but unethical to be deceptive in doing so. Questions about private/public space or the right to peace and quiet are more about the ethics of advertising at all than about the ethics of a particular ad.

@Peg Yes to criticism and rational thought. Ain’t the same thing as lecturing and telling people they need to think *more*.

Here’s what I think. People tend to use the word “ethical” and “non-ethical” in relation to some kind of social taboo or controversy that has recently been the subject of much public attention, and/or as a weapon to with which to defend their practices or criticise those of others. So even when, as guitar39 points out, business people want to do the right thing just because it is the right thing, they don’t necessarily associate the term “ethics” with that. They may have a very positive, ethical vision of what they are trying to achieve by being in business, but they actually associate the term “ethics” with specific issues (like conflict of interest or such) which, while important up to a point, can distract attention from what is actually more important, namely whether your underlying motivations are sound. As Jacques Delors said: you can choose a policy of responsibility, or a policy of clean hands,

Another problem is that, whether in business or in government, the most “ethical” people i.e. the ones with the best intentions, are not generally the ones in charge. Those in charge tend, however subconscious and self-delusionally, to be most effective at power-brokering and serving the interests of the elite. This is especially true in large corporations or governmental departments.

This, of course, leaves many good people in business and government very frustrated, and they are the ones who are likely to be most receptive to the idea of getting philosophers on board. There is a reason why Dilbert is popular: just about any office worker can recognise the truth of it. That, in itself, should be enough to convince anyone who’s willing to listen that there is a problem of ethics - and therefore presumably the teaching of ethics - in business.

And if you want really concrete, practical examples, then go for the high profile ones: Enron, BP, Goldman, Siemens and Greek bribes. These things *could not happen* of ethics was being properly taught in business.

Oh, and another thing: most office workers utterly fail in their ethical duty to courageously oppose unethical instructions from their bosses. It’s the prisoners’ dilemma at work, and it sustains deeply unethical practices. If civilisation fails to survive the next few decades, this will be why.

Peter, this is why I separate morality from ethics. Morality is the set of rules that we are taught that make us feel guilty when we break them. Many of those rules are unethical. An example would be a moral obligation to not use birth control, yet ethically birth control is useful and “right” in many circumstances.

I am pragmatic rather than dogmatic about the rules. There are some that work pretty much all the time. (Don’t Kill for instance) Yet a lot of rules need help in the implementation of them. Think the difference between policy and procedure.

“How do we motivate someone like him to act as the bridge between business and philosophy that he is obviously ideally placed to be”

People other than philosophers can have a root understanding of concepts such as honest, fair, decent, true. Many use those core values in making decisions because they cannot be avoided.

I tried to choose people I would work with who would apply good core values, and sometimes I got it right, and sometimes they showed me ways I could be better. I admit to being fortunate.

I suppose some ethics consultants are good people trying to do a good thing. But I must say I’m with Peg in feeling that many ethical consultants have jumped on a bandwagon in order to make a buck, and I wouldn’t want them anywhere near my company, nor would I want to work in a company that thought they needed them.

Most succeed for the same reasons that self-help books outsell philosophy books, which may be the answer to Peg’s original question.
It may also be that the companies they purport to fix are unfixable without a serious, major overhaul. I doubt that you can retrofit ethics to a company, or attach it to an organization. It has to be inherent.

Look at the most successful companies which are also ranked highly as good places to work and you will find organizations with solid belief structures. They treat their customers honestly, value quality products, encourage individual responsibility and help their employees grow and succeed, and deliver a profit. They need to be rigorous in applying their beliefs and in judging themselves. But they don’t need an ethics consultant.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with several companies like that. Actually, I found that they used something akin to Peg’s methodology when faced with real ethical dilemmas. Define the problem. Discover who is affected. Explore alternative actions. Rank them according to the beliefs of our organization and ourselves. Do the right thing.

I wish that were more universal in the business world ...and in the political world and the academic world and all the other worlds.

There is a difference between instinctual understanding and explicit understanding. I wild suggest that people who have the latter kind of understanding are doing philosophy, whether they regard themselves (or others regard them) as philosophers or not.

There is also a difference between understanding and commitment. One may have an excellent understanding of ethical issues, but be utterly indifferent to them, to the extent that the approach you outline is not as universal as we all wish, I guess it’s a mixture of both: poor understanding and lack of commitment.

What we need, then, is to increase people’s instinctual understanding of ethics and their practical commitment to behaving ethically. The advantage of explicit understanding is that it is easier to communicate and less prone to error when faced with unusual situations, but it is useless unless it becomes instinctual and habitual.

Self-help books are not bad, by the way, as a genre. Some of them are terrible, of course, but some of them are, well, helpful. So if ethics consultants are the self-help gurus of ethics, that may not be a bad thing. What is a bad thing is the way so much big business and government is short-sighted and serves elites at the expense of longer term concerns and the wider public. Don’t you agree that philosophers who want to make a difference need to attack those problems and put their expertise (in logical, rational argument) at the service of the frustrated wage slaves and small-business entrepreneurs who are genuinely trying to be ethical. They will be accused of political activism of course, but only by the best of enemies.

@Alex Congratulations, you’ve just described rule utilitarianism.

Thank you for your perspective on Ethics.  I believe that Business Ethics is the derivative that has replaced the fundamental, because business academia is attempting to reinvent Ethics to further the profit motive, and create checklists of values to support the “corporate culture doctrines” of an equity-based economy.  Such doctrines are not universally unacceptable, because they are dependent on the intentions of those engaged in the practice of corporate culture.  However, checklist of values and moral efficiencies do not make effective discourse. In the pursuit of truth; thesis, antithesis and synthesis, follow from reasoned discourse.  Therefore, Philosophers avoid the fallacy of simplification in their understanding of Ethics.  Furthermore, Philosophers seek truth and not affiliation with job security or promotion of self-interest.  I believe that Kant was correct in his assertion that Ethics and Morality should be approached as a “Moral Imperative”, and is neither “pure” empiricism nor “pure” rationalism. Kant’s Ideal of the highest good, establishes a “duty to employ a reasoned dialectic to the understanding”, of any moral issue.
It is dialectic exchange that thrashes out the truth, and is neither profitable nor efficient.

“reinvent Ethics to further the profit motive,” “frustrated wage slaves”  Really? How wonderfully naive. The language of the far-left, academic know-nothing.

Also dangerous in its moral realism. The idea that ethics can be determined purely through “reasoned dialectic” and with no reference to what is profitable or efficient, that is to say to _consequences_, is irresponsible and itself has consequences. I would even go as far as to suggest that this thinking, which originated in Germany, has bred a psychological rigidity, and lack of respect for evidence, that has played has contributed to that nation’s dark role in recent history, which continues to be played out in its stance on the eurocrisis.

I will only add, in response to guitar39, that this is by no means a problem that is limited to the far left.

It is true that Kant was quite rigid, but history has given him credit for the Kantian Revolution in sparing Philosophy from becoming irrelevant.  It is also true that my statement concerning the reinvention of Ethics goes too far, however this is an approach of reasoned discourse, called “Pro and Contra”, that was often employed by Descartes to help his students understand his metaphysics.  I would urge you to refrain from name-calling, because if you were in a college-level Philosophy course,  you would be expected to be respectful of others, and simple civility is what is lacking in “unreasoned discourse”.  Furthermore, Kant had the greatest respect for evidence, as a Philosophy teacher, and proponent of the “scientific method”.  As for moral realism, I am not sure I understand what that is.  Realism is categorically a metaphysical subject, while morality has more to do with faith.  Kant set aside morals, as I said before, as separated from both the empirical demands of “evidence”, and the rationalist demand of “coherence”.  Therefore, Kant determined that morality was neither empirical nor rational, and belonged to the domain of faith.  It was “reasoned dialectic” that allowed Kant to reach his conclusions, it was not “evidence”, or name-calling, or reasoning from ignorance that leads one to “false conclusions”.  Furthermore, it was the doctrines of the Nazis, that led to Germany’s darkest role in history, and not the Kantian Revolution in Philosophy.

“morality has more to do with faith”

Kant was wrong, of course.

Morality developed because of mankind’s evolution. Those groups survived and succeeded who learned to help each other, care for each other, treat each other fairly, be honest with each other, practice altruism, or at least enlightened self-interest.
Those groups who practiced only selfishness and power grabs withered.


Moral realism is the idea that moral statements are truth-apt, that is to say can be true or false. Non-cognitivism is the opposite extreme, which holds such statements to be meaningless. Moral subjectivism, my own position, holds that they are meaningful but not truth-apt, in that they express the values (moral opinions) of the speaker: nothing more, nothing less.

I certainly did not want to blame Kant for the holocaust, but perhaps I was unfair in accusing you of moral realism (a position on meta-ethics that is prevalent both among moral philosophers and, in less precise for, in wider society, amd which I regard as both unjustified and dangerous). At the moment I’m really upset about the current breakdown in European solidarity and it’s consequences, and I fully agree with Italian PM Mario Monti’s recent statement that Germany is seen in the countries of Southern Europe (and with good reason in my view) as a ringleader of EU intolerance.

It is simplistic to say that it was the doctrines of the Nazi’s that led to Germany’s darkest role in history. We also need a theory about why those doctrines gained such influence. Much can be (and has been) said about the role that WWI, the Treaty of Versailles, and the Wall Street crash and how it’s aftermath was handled played in creating the conditions for the hijacking of the German political system by this virulent, incoherent and hate-fueled ideology, but I suspect that antagonism towards commercial, business-oriented practices and thinking also played a role.

With regard to “morality as faith”, I prefer to talk of choice than of faith. If anything scientific knowledge has more to do with faith, since one has to believe that the pattern’s that we have observed, and on which we base our theories, correspond to something real. As John Gray has put it, somewhat melodramatically, ultimately we have no more reason than the animals to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. Whereas morality is more of a choice: it’s a set of decisions about how we want to live, and what kind of people we want to be.

Thank you for your explanation of moral realism, it is quite interesting that true-apt moral statements are true or false, therefore “propositional”.  As propositional statements,  there is no room for a middle ground.  I believe that is contrary to dialogue, because it does not allow for synthesis when thesis and anti-thesis are inconclusive.  Ethical issues,  seem to require greater tolerance for a “middle ground”. Moral subjectivism,  also seems to be contrary to dialogue, because moral opinions are often based on fallacy. For example, the Nazis’ doctrine of intolerance was a meaningful, simplistic moral opinion. However,  it was based on the fallacy of defective injunction.  I agree that there were many other factors that led Germany astray.

Kant was raised in an altruistic, Protestant family, and was most generous to his friends that needed financial support.  Kant believed there was an obligation (duty) to make the most informed choices possible regarding faith and Ethics.  He believed that Philosophy provided the best approach because of the methods that Philosophers utilize, not just his own preference to reasoned dialectic, but the methods of other Philosophers, like Aristotle’s use of categorical logic, or the Socratic method.  Which brings us back to the original premise of Peg Tittle: Are non-philosophers sufficiently trained in the understanding of Ethics?  My response is yes, if and only if the Ethical issue is straightforward and simple.  No, if the Ethical issue is more complex.  Philosophy training provides the history; logic, metaphysics,
Ethics and Epistemology to provide the greatest understanding of Ethical issues.  All philosophy training, from the Pre-Socratics to the current times, involves reasoned dialogue and respectful discourse. Philosophy encourages dialectic exchange, even among the ignorant, which is why the Oracle declared Socrates the “wisest man in Athens”, because Socrates proclaimed his uncertainty of everything.

Similarly, thanks for the background on Kant, it’s always interesting to know more about the men (or women) behind the concepts. And I like what you say about reasoned dialogue and respectful discourse, I agree that this is essential (it’s one of the reasons why I like this blog so much).

Re moral subjectivism, I can agree with you in two senses. Firstly, many claims that might be thought of as “moral opinions” are actually hybrids. Let’s say, for example, “gay couples should not be allowed to raise children because the child is more likely to grow up damaged.” This combined a moral opinion with an empirical claim (albeit a rather imprecise one). Secondly, as this example show (and as you point out) moral opinions may be based on empirical beliefs even when this is not explicit. So in this example someone might simply say “gay couples should not be allowed to raise children” and only on further questioning do we find out that this opinion is based on an empirical claim.. Similarly someone might say that homosexuality is wrong because it is unnatural a claim that is patently absurd, but also quite common.

But strictly I’m terms of form, I can’t say that someone who says “homosexuality is wrong” or “gay couples should not be allowed to raise children” are mistaken. Thus far they are merely stating moral positions (perhaps a better word than “opinions”), and thus far we don’t have concrete information on why they hold these positions. Nor is it strictly relevant in determining whether they are truth-apt. In the same way one might correctly believe an empirical claim (say “China is in Asia”) but that belief might be based one falsehood (say “my uncle Peter said so and he always tells the truth”, when in fact Uncle Peter is a well-know consummate liar). This in no way changes the truth of the original belief.

So what I understand by moral subjectivism is that moral statements cannot, as a matter of principle (and form), be truth-apt, but they are meaningful in the sense that they express the values of the speaker. That they may also be based on mistaken empirical beliefs doesn’t change this; what it does mean is that they may not reflect particularly fundamental values, in the sense that they are derived rather than primary, and are therefore likely to change if the empirical belief changes.

My main gripe with your original emphasis on reasoned dialectic was that you seemed to be saying that ethics could be based _purely_ on that. I guess this must have been one of the claims that Kant was examining in his Critique of Pure Reason? Whereas in reality, ethics is first of all a choice about how we want to live and what kind of people we want to be, and secondly for any practical application it needs to be coupled with empirical considerations. And if our choice about how we want to live is “in such a way as to make people happier” (i.e. my preferred utilitarian position), then empirical considerations will quickly lead us to conclude that, other things being equal, it is good to pursue efficiency and profitability.

Of course, other things are not always equal, in spite of guitar39’s rosy view of natural incentives in the business environment.

Yes,  Pure Empiricism and Pure Reason “awakened” Kant to examine the weaknesses in both, thus his synthesis of Empiricism and Rationalism.  Kant’s arguments in his Critique of Pure Reason uses the dialectic between the two extremes as a method of reaching a greater understanding of human thought.  Unfortunately, Kant is writing in Archaic German, and his arguments are very rigorous, which requires a skilled interpretation and sufficient background in logic.  This has made Kant’s works challenging, even to Philosophy majors.  This is why I made simpler references to Kant’s understanding of Ethics.  A more rigorous discussion of Kant would be difficult in the brevity of a blog.  As you are now aware, my initial submission was to start and demonstrate the value of a reasoned process, so that the exchange focuses on why a moral belief(or position) is supported.  Our dialectic exchange could have easily included experts in fields of study other than Philosophy. I do enjoy dialectic exchange for the sake of enlightenment, but it is “inefficient” in that the process is time-consuming, and I must return to the mundane task of filing my taxes.  Thank you for your insights.




Thought this article looked familiar, this has been posted here before..

Business ethics and most certainly philosophy is something not limited to formal qualifications and should be something WE ALL should be concerned with, and be involved with?

Not happy with workers rights in your company?
Not happy with unethical advertisers?
Not happy with imposed austerity and hardship?
Not happy that people get jobs without the appropriate rubber stamp?

Q : What’s the difference between a leader and a manager?
Q : What’s the difference between experts in ethics?
Q : What makes one a true philosopher?

Integrity, tenacity, audacity, curiosity, observation and a sense of fairness perhaps!

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