Case in Point


This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“Socrates and the Small Businessman” (article: The Dairy, journal of Alpha Kappa Psi)

The Dairy, Alpha Kappa Psi
September 1982

Socrates and the small businessman? You’ve got to be kidding! What does a Greek philosopher who lived around 400 B.C. have to do with today’s entrepreneurial world?

I, for one, believe Socrates is more relevant to entrepreneurs right now than he is to perhaps any group of people in our society. And that is because he was concerned with the actions of business people. He was concerned with business ethics. Cicero wrote about him, “Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the heavens.” In fact, this great philosopher (who trained Plato who, in turn, trained Aristotle) had a great deal to say about marketing! That’s right, salesmanship and salespeople.

It must be made clear from the outset: Socrates had a keen appreciation of wealth and the entrepreneurial spirit. He was all too aware of the debilitating effects of poverty. He contends in one of his dialogues that the three greatest professions in society are the physician, the lawyer and the “money maker.” In one soliloquy he reflects, “Consider Socrates, he will say, whether Gorgias (RAC: a fellow Athenian) or any one else can produce any greater good than wealth. Well, you and I say to him, and are you a creator of wealth? Yes, he replies. And who are you? A money maker. And do you consider wealth to be the greatest good of man? Of course, will be his reply. And we shall rejoin: Yes.”

An another point, Socrates is in dialogue with Polus (another Athenian) and he asks, “In respect of a man’s estate do you see any greater evil than poverty?” and Polus answers, “There is no greater evil.” Socrates continues, “Now what art is there which delivers us from poverty? Does not the art of making money?” Polus responds with an unequivocal, “Yes.”

And so it goes. Activity in the marketplace is, according to Socrates, an “art” and worthy of respect. To anyone who is engaged in a small business endeavor, Socrates is a friend and defender He is though, a special friend to those in our society who are attempting to provide jobs, services, and goods in a diligently ethical and integrous manner.

To focus our attention on one aspect of business life which concerned Socrates, let us look at the marketing efforts of the entrepreneur. The great philosopher had a friend called Gorgias who was a Sophist, a rhetorician, a persuader—in short, a super salesman. And a super salesman he was, reputedly the very best in Athens. Gorgias boasted that if he and a physician were debating a public health issue before a lay audience that he, Gorgias, knowing far less medical knowledge than the doctor, could persuade the audience to take his position. At one point Socrates asks him, “The salesman need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who really know?” Gorgias boastfully retorts, “Yes, Socrates, and is not this a great comfort?—not to have learned the other professions, but the profession of persuasion only.” Socrates will later respond to that boast that it is precisely because empty salesmanship is not concerned with the truth but only with “producing a sort of delight and gratification” that it is an “ignoble” pastime and not a fit profession for a “just” citizen.

Socrates condemns contentless salesmanship, that form of persuasion which is concerned mainly with the gratifying experience and not with the true. That is to say, he condemns hucksterism, or the empty-headed spiel of an untrained and uneducated entrepreneur.

Lest we conclude that Socrates may have a high view of the “money maker” but a low view of the marketer, the great philosopher makes a distinction between “genuine” professions and “fraudulent” professions. A “genuine” profession is one in which some genuine benefit to society as a whole is achieved (i.e., wealth). A “fraudulent” profession, on the other hand, is one which disguises itself as genuine but in fact does no good for society, and may even harm society. Those practicing the “fraudulent” profession have as their goal (besides self-enrichment) the primary concern for their customers to derive hedonic pleasure from their services or product whether or not the benefits are real and authentic. Socrates maintained that the marketer need not be “fraudulent” but will be “noble” if the persuasive skill is backed with a body of knowledge which is true and genuinely beneficial to all concerned. A foundational principle of his was that true happiness depends not on material accouterments but on knowingly acting rightly. Socrates writes in one place, “Wisdom and health and wealth and the like you would call goods and their opposites, evils.” So the old Greek was a colleague in arms to those beleaguered small marketing entrepreneurs who take the time, energy and expense of really knowing their product, and the ways of selling that product in the most beneficial manner to society.

Now how does all this apply to those of us selling and counseling in real estate? Well, there are several areas on the ragged-edge of “fraudulency” of which we must be constantly aware. To cite just a couple of dilemmas: inflated claims for real estate appreciation. Do we really have our “rates of appreciation” facts in order on a given piece of property in order to accurately counsel the public? How about projecting a cash flow stream without substantial evidence in order to obtain a higher loan than the project can realistically amortize (this one is cited in “Is the Ethics of Business Changing,” HBR, 1-2/79). We need to be careful not to have the attitude expressed a few years ago by a leader in the advertising profession when he was quoted as saying, “We are opposed to the whole concept of warnings in advertising because our primary purpose is to sell. If we do inform, it is only to sell.” (Jonah Gitlitz, as quoted in Consumer Reports, 9/71).

This brings me to another danger in the real estate profession and that is fraudulent or misleading statements and advertising. That is, advertising and comments made which are not legally fraudulent but which are surely morally fraudulent, for they are designed to lead a customer to a conclusion (resulting in a course of action) which the salesperson knows not to be true. We want that phone to ring! Dr. Burton Leiser has pointed out that in human discourse it is possible to tell the truth “in a misleading way; not saying anything that is false, but not providing all the information that is needed to make an informed decision; in using various devices to make things seem to be what they are not; without saying anything in words at all.” (Liberty, Justice & Morals, 1973).

Every salesperson in our profession must constantly be on guard lest he/she turn a noble, wealth-producing profession into an ignoble, self-serving path of hucksterism.

Is this a needless exhortation? Am I preaching to the already converted? I don’t think so. Well over fifty years ago the leaders of the American real estate industry gave us the National Association of Realtors “Code of Ethics.” One need only to read the code again to see the high standard of ethical conduct we are challenged to observe. But real estate is not the only profession to have codes of ethical business conduct. Indeed it has been estimated that the vast majority of American business firms and associations have codes to identify and encourage high standards of business behavior (“Ethical Codes for Business,” Personnel Administration, 5-6/69). Furthermore, business codes are virtually universally favored by American business. (“Is the Ethics of Business Changing?”, HBR, 1-2/79)The argument can be made that the mere existence of a code of business behavior improves our marketplace ethics because it clarifies what is meant by ethical conduct. Socrates would have been pleased, I think. Our American business codes of conduct stand in the great ethical tradition of the Greek philosopher, who warned us to be ever vigilant of our “money making” activities and marketing behavior.


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