Virtuosity in Business

Virtuosity in Business shows how ethics is crucial to every aspect of business. The book applies the philosophical concept of virtue to the competitive realm of the marketplace, and argues that ethical firms are guided by the invisible law of virtuosity, which discourages misconduct and rewards good corporate citizenship.

Virtuosity in Business
Invisible Law Guiding the Invisible Hand

Kevin T. Jackson

2011 | 376 pages | Cloth $79.95
Business | Philosophy
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Table of Contents


1 Virtue and Character
2 Authenticity and Freedom
3 The Art of Business
4 Trust, Personhood, and the Soul of an Enterprise
5 Discerning a Higher Law
6 Polycentered Phronēsis
7 Moral-Cultural Undertones of the Financial Crisis
8 Symphony of Soft Law
9 Theme and Variations


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


We shall judge the work of art as the living vehicle of a hidden truth to which both the work and we ourselves are together subject, and which is the measure at once of the work and of our mind. Under such circumstances we truly judge because we do not set ourselves up as judges but strive to be obedient to that which the work may teach us.
—Jacques Maritain, The Range of Reason

Assuming a philosophical perspective on the field of business ethics reveals pressing and universal issues that, although connected to business and economics, are neither exclusively economic, nor completely related to business in their nature and origin. One of the principal concerns in this book is with the moral and intellectual health of the wider culture within which the global economy and today's business enterprises operate.

It is within this spirit that Virtuosity in Business undertakes to show that inattention to ethics has been the overriding problem for business and that attention to it is the only enduring solution. The target of my concern is real, full-blooded ethics. The brand of moral realism that I set forth is opposed to relativism and its postmodern next of kin. Throughout the text I affirm this thesis, defend it, and seek to bring out its far-reaching implications for a broad range of topics in the face of scientism and other current intellectual ills. I draw inspiration not just from Aristotle and other ancients, but also from Aquinas and fellow propounders of the natural law tradition, existentialism, legal studies, and various other disciplines extending from economics and political philosophy all the way to musicology. My aim is to deepen the reader's awareness of how ethics is crucial to virtually everything that business touches.

In some parts of the book I highlight the importance of the intellectual and moral formation of businesspeople and other professionals who are closely connected to them. I believe that the task of educating future business leaders is severely hampered by widespread intellectual weaknesses not only in schools of business but in other institutions of learning as well. These weaknesses are simultaneously causes and effects of various intellectual vices, methodologies, and ideologies that are hostile to, and incompatible with, a proper understanding of human nature and its relationship to business and economics.

At the same time, the concept of virtuosity developed in this book extends boldly beyond the sometimes pedantic treatment of moral virtue delivered by academics who are perhaps well trained in moral philosophy yet nevertheless uninformed about or excessively skeptical of how virtue realistically applies in the highly competitive world of business. Virtuosity, I maintain, is not simply about exhorting business actors to display excellence in "doing the right thing." When considered in the context of a market economy, virtuosity is equally connected with performance, competition, success, and the creation of value for oneself and others. For this reason, at various junctures the book presents the model of musical virtuosity as an analogy for deepening our understanding of, and quest for cultivating, virtue in business.

The book pays homage to the worth and dignity of philosophy not only for understanding the significance of business as a human endeavor but also for conducting business successfully. It is an exhortation to businesspeople of all kinds and in all countries to think more broadly, to think bigger and deeper. By stressing the profound importance of philosophy for business and economics, I insist on the role of the field of business ethics as a scholarly and intellectual discipline that must be firmly rooted in questions of truth, goodness, and even beauty.

I am seeking to promote a proper understanding of the relationship between business and the wider moral and intellectual culture not primarily for the sake of solving an intriguing intellectual problem but because in a very real way the salvation of our civilization is at stake. It is of vital importance that business ethics be equipped to vigorously defend the ability of human reason to know the truth. A firm confidence in reason has been an integral part of the Western philosophical tradition, but it stands in special need of reaffirmation today. I believe that at least part of the reason for this is connected with the global financial crisis. In general, economic crises tend to be accompanied by disturbing perplexity regarding values, not only financial ones but moral, epistemological, and aesthetic ones as well. This feature renders such crises particularly disquieting not just within financial institutions, but throughout the wider culture as well. Accordingly, it is understandable that people would look to philosophy, which examines fundamental assumptions, in an effort to restore their basic sense of comprehension about the world. In the face of widespread and fundamental doubt about financial affairs, we begin to reconsider what the twentieth-century American composer (and life-insurance entrepreneur) Charles Ives saw as perennial issues of our existence, the unanswered questions: Who am I? Where I did come from? Why are we here? Where ought we to be going?

A lack of confidence in one's ability to know the truth has serious consequences both for our economic life and for the wider culture. Without objective truth, people are simply adrift. Given human weakness and the strength of human passions, this understandably ushers in crisis and tragedy. The recent global financial crisis has been due in no small part to reason basically abandoning the pursuit of ultimate and objective truth. The result has been a pervasive skepticism and relativism, which, if not stemmed, will lead not to the advancement of humanity but, instead, to yet more of the despair and irrationality that has attended the catastrophic erosion of economic value.

I believe that the widespread misunderstanding of the relationship between economics (ultimately anchored in truth), ethics (ultimately anchored in goodness), and culture (ultimately anchored in beauty), particularly among those primarily responsible for teaching business, weakens the ability of both business schools and business organizations to cultivate and transmit authentic human values. The "ethics" that corporations and business schools attempt to transmit, when they badly misunderstand the relationship, is "business ethics" only in a weak and defective sense. For example, it may be an agenda for political correctness (motivated from either end of the political spectrum), or it may amount to an effort at "window dressing" to serve the narrow interests of the organization.

I wish to stress the role of philosophy in the theory and practice of business and the need for businesspeople and business academics to be trained rigorously in philosophy. But I do not mean philosophy in the narrow sense that many departments of philosophy take it to be, detached from a broader understanding of human culture. It is not conceptual puzzles and brain-teasers, but rather wellsprings of wisdom that need to be integrated into business education. A syncretic understanding of philosophical thought can help one in constructing a holistic worldview. We ought to be alarmed that indispensable philosophical work is widely neglected—both in business research and in the formation of business leaders—in favor of mathematical and financial modeling approaches to economics; such technocratic approaches are often reductionist and incompatible with the humanistic enterprise of business in whose service they are putatively placed. This is not to say that nonhumanistic fields lack legitimacy, autonomy, and importance as intellectual disciplines in their own right, but rather that there is a threat of possible corruptions of these fields that render them incompatible with the proper end of the economy, which is to serve humanity and not the other way around.

The first of these potential dangers is that the legitimate autonomy of the science of economics can be misinterpreted as liberating it from the overarching requirements of morality—the higher, invisible law that philosophy seeks to reveal (no matter how controversial our interpretations of it may be). What may be termed a scientistic (as opposed to scientific) mind-set can lead people to falsely reckon that if some innovation in business is technically possible, then it is therefore morally permissible.

The second possible danger concerns scientism—a philosophical notion that refuses to accept the validity of any form of knowledge besides positive science. Scientism deems values to be mere byproducts of emotions and relegates the question of the meaning of life to the land of the irrational or illusory. The growing presence of scientism in economic thought reveals both the possibility of philosophical error and the fact that economic philosophy can turn, as it were, antiphilosophical. The positivism at the core of scientism was embraced by philosophers as part of their philosophical mission to instrumentalize reason, to place reason in servitude to the passions. In this manner, positivism attempted to reinvent philosophy, not as the pursuit of wisdom, what we may term the quest for sapiential knowledge, but as a purely analytic kind of venture.

As rationalism took root within Western philosophy, a decoupling of reason and faith ensued, culminating in various forms of nihilism that are prominent within contemporary thought and culture. Nihilism is characterized by an abandonment of meaning and rejection of the objectivity of truth. Life is taken to lack any objective purpose, meaning, or intrinsic value. According to moral nihilism, morality does not exist, and any established moral values are abstract contrivances. In place of objective morality the utilitarian goals of pleasure and power are glorified. Subsequently there are no moral values with which to uphold a rule or logically prefer one action over another. Accordingly, people are viewed as objects that may be manipulated instead of as persons possessing inherent dignity to be honored. Nihilism is seen throughout contemporary culture: in art, entertainment, music, and literature. To transcend nihilism, however, philosophy must return to its initial status as both an analytic and sapiential endeavor.

What does all of this have to do with business ethics? In order to assist in moving economics and business back to playing a more constructive part in the human enterprise, not only must philosophy be restored to its Socratic roots, but also it must help to revivify business ethics in partnership with the panoply of worldly concerns that have attended the economic crisis: restoration of faith in the market, respect for human rights, environmental sustainability, and so on. Ultimately, the global economy has a stake in the renewal of philosophy in both its analytical and sapiential aspirations.

More than one philosophical system can be valuable in the pursuit of both the truth and the understanding of virtuosity within invisible law. While it is true that many scholars of the natural law tradition would grant pride of place to the thought of Thomas Aquinas and other prominent thinkers within that tradition, it is not necessary to confer standing upon any one thinker or group of thinkers as embodying the one true philosophy of natural law. That is so because no historical form of philosophy can legitimately claim to embrace the totality of truth, or can claim to be the complete explanation of the human being, of the world, and of the human being's relationship to the eternal. It is for this reason that I present the broader notion of "invisible law" as a way of avoiding disputes about the "correct" understanding of "natural law." Competing accounts of natural law theory have arisen in part from political and religious agendas seeking to claim legitimacy from it. It is not the aim of this book to advance any such agendas.

Although diverse philosophical systems may legitimately be embraced by an orientation toward invisible law, and while various systems can contribute to understanding virtuosity, my view of philosophy is not a relativistic one. Neither is it inclined toward ethnocentrism, moral absolutism, and other views that would deny the need for moral conversation, reflection, and analysis. There are false and destructive philosophies, false and dangerous philosophical claims. I would count among them not only scientism and nihilism but also views that ignore the logical requirement of internal coherence and the principle of noncontradiction; ideological intolerance, which brushes aside without reasoned debate all moral standpoints other than one's own; and "vulgar utilitarianism" that sacrifices moral principle to perceived interests and expediency.

Philosophical errors are possible in part because of the weakening of reason itself, by its neglect of virtuosity—that is, the neglect of maintaining the proper balance between truth, beauty, and goodness. In the absence of virtuosity, even those aspects of the moral life that can, in principle, be grasped and understood by reason—for instance, those aspects stressed by a legalistic mind-set—remain hidden from view to some extent. Reason needs virtue to illuminate even those truths to which it has access. But virtue also needs reason.

Many conventional approaches to business ethics tend to make the reading and exegesis of purported norms of business ethics the sole criterion of economic morality. Such approaches offer ever more lists of rules of ethics for guiding business conduct. In consequence, ethics in business is identified with conventional moral rules alone, thus eliminating the role of virtuosity and the need for reflection on the moral life as something that transcends mere collections of rules. The "supreme rule of virtuosity" derives instead from a unity among truth, goodness, and beauty in a reciprocity, which means that none of the three can survive without the others.

Philosophy and other forms of rational inquiry are often indispensable to understanding the full implications of propositions of business ethics. Absent philosophy's contribution, it would in fact be next to impossible to undertake any meaningful and systematic treatment of ideas such as the moral law, conscience, freedom, guilt, and individual responsibility, which are in part disambiguated by philosophical ethics. One cannot simply look up the answers to these questions in a code of conduct. To achieve an adequate understanding of business ethics, one must advert to philosophical truths.

To be effective, business cannot do without philosophy. Philosophical reflection on economic data is often necessary. The human capacity to reason and think abstractly is an extraordinary endowment. Human beings are capable of obtaining true knowledge concerning themselves and the world in which they live. Humans have an innate desire to know the truth about themselves. It is vital that they seek truth. It is only by making a choice to live according to true values that mankind can remain true to its nature and discover genuine happiness. The need to come to terms with the ultimate questions in life is unavoidable. Following in the spirit of ancient philosophy, we can define the human being as that being which seeks truth. Since business is first and foremost a human endeavor, we ought to recognize that homo economicus is not sufficient unto himself, and to set our sights higher, to homo verus.

Although a great deal has been written about the necessity of trust for attaining success in business and other practical affairs of life, there is a much more fundamental way in which we require trust: it is essential that we place trust in other people in our shared quest for such ultimate truths about our existence. We rely on others for knowledge of every kind. It is impossible for anyone to personally examine and verify the truth of everything we depend on to get by in life. From the heritage of innumerable historical facts and scientific experiments to day-to-day practical details communicated from person to person, we must place our trust in others and learn to believe what others tell and teach us, even though not all that we are told and taught is true. In the course of our interactions with others we develop the ability to entrust ourselves to them. For me to be able to believe anything I must be able to place my trust in you. I trust that what you are telling me is the truth. In this way, our beliefs and our knowledge are ultimately grounded in interpersonal relationships of trust.

In his meditations concerning the virtue of faith, Aquinas depicts faith as an intellectual virtue. What he means is that we have a habit of mind according to which we tend to accept some things as true from a variety of grounds: sometimes our acceptance is on the basis of authority, other times we accede because we don't have time to check for ourselves, or because we aren't equipped with the necessary scientific wherewithal from which to obtain the knowledge firsthand.

It is a characteristic of our human nature that we are in pursuit of truth. More than that, we have an inherent need for others. And we depend on a culture to help us on our voyage toward these realities. This goes to show why so much of the financial crisis—which involved such a widespread crippling of confidence in others who were relied upon to provide the truth, for instance about the value of assets—necessarily merges into a wider intellectual and moral crises.

When deeply rooted in experience, cultures show forth the human being's openness to the universal and transcendent. They offer different paths to the truth, which assuredly serve men and women well in revealing values that can make their life ever more human. Insofar as cultures appeal to the values of older traditions, they point—implicitly but authentically—to a vision of things that are enduring in the human spirit. Just as faith cannot do without philosophy, it cannot do without cultures—which are particular and limited. People understand, appropriate, and live the truths of faith in light of particular cultures. Faith is mediated by and through cultural structures even as it necessarily transcends every culture. Truth is both universal and universally longed for. Since the finite reality that we inhabit is incapable of giving us an adequate response to our quest for the meaning of life, we are prompted toward the ideas of beauty, truth, and goodness. Art, music, literature, and philosophy all have a role to play in penetrating the world of appearances to reveal timeless truths. In every human heart there is a desire to know truth, as Socrates said to "know thyself," to arrive at a fullness of truth about ourselves and others.