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.

“Remember the cat and the kid” (remarks: Central Washington University)


Central Washington University School of  Business and Economics

Seminar: “Business Ethics: Domestic and Global Perspective”

October 25, 1988

(Note: These remarks were prepared for a Central symposium. They were delivered in an edited format.) I’d like to spend the next few minutes on a brief, and I hope rather simple, philosophy journey back to the basics of our fundamental problem in business ethics inAmericatoday. I say “philosophic journey” because I believe that is fundamentally where our ethical malaise begins –in philosophy, in one’s personal philosophy.

We who are engaged in the marketplace tend not to have a philosophic background or, at least, much of an interest in philosophic matters. Our arena of endeavor is not characterized by contemplation, but rather by implementation.  We are a “can do” folk and we operate largely on pragmatic  principles, that is, we do what works. And so philosophic musings are not something to which we easily or readily gravitate.

On the other hand, those who do live in the world of the mind and not the marketplace seldom have an appreciation for the pressures and temptations and thrills of marketplace activity – the sweetness of the victories, or the devastation of marketplace defeat, where defeat is not a genteel parlor game conclusion but rather can mean losing your job, your material possessions, your social circle, your reputation, your self-respect, and perhaps even your life.

Those of us who have walked thefloors at night in what seemed to be a death watch know I don’t overstate the seriousness of marketplace battle.

This is a very special occasion which draws us together today. When many of us leave this place at the end of the day we return to the field of market place combat where some competitor is working to beat our financial brains out. In the time allotted to me, I’d like to gently direct our attention to the subject of philosophy in order that, if nothing else, we begin to be sensitized to the real questions in business ethics.

The standard reference work in philosophy, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, defines “ethics” as the study to answer the central questions of “What do we, or should we mean by ‘good’ and ‘bad’? And, ‘What are the right standards for judging things to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’?” In short, the specific concern of ethics is the distinction between right and wrong, good and bad. One way is better than another. There is a difference between right and wrong and that difference matters. To make ethical decisions is to make judgmental decisions, judgments of value. An ethical decision by its very nature either commends or condemns. A decision, in order to be classified as ethical, must prescribe and not describe. That is, the characteristic verb in ethics is not “is,” as in, “Something is or is not happening”, but rather the characteristic verb in ethics is “ought,” as in “Somethingought or ought not to happen.” There is a right and a wrong, and the study of ethics concerns how we know right from wrong.

It is my conviction that any discussion of ethics, business ethics included, must start with the question “How?” How do we know what is ethical? How do we know what is good; what is right; what is proper; what is noble?

Rudyard Kipling, the British Victorian poet once wrote:

“I keep six honest serving men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What, and Why, and When

and How, and Where, and Who.”

(“The Elephant’s Child”)

In 20th century Americawe have not been generally interested or schooledin the importance of how we know what we know (the study of epistemology). We don’t analyze how we’ve come to believe what we believe. We don’t start at the beginning of the “knowing” process, but rather we start in the middle of the process and make assumptions about value judgments.

This beginning in the middle of philosophy understanding is evident today in almost all of the writings on business ethics. By starting in the middle of the thinking process we must import all kind of value assumptions on which we expect agreement and we then proceed from that point to the mechanical solutions of an ethical code of conduct for the marketplace.

And what happens so very often is that some individuals don’t agree with those value assumptions and so they only give self-serving lip service (i.e., job survival lip service) to ANY ethical code of conduct and violate this ethical code when pressured to do so. Consequently, we have, and will continue to have ethical chaos. For instance, on what basis does one judge the competing claims of a clean and safe work environment with the continuation of jobs and the consequent domestic (family) tranquility, or on what value basis does one judge the competing claims of an acceptable level of occupational risk with technological improvement and job continuance, or on what value system does one judge the competing claims for international  marketing arrangements with domestic marketing arrangements, or what are the ethical imperatives informing one’s view on minimum wage laws and a stable second income market.

John Clute, in his splendid address, quoted Time magazine editor Ezra Bowen’s remark that “you don’t need $30 million to develop a course in ethics to know that there is something inherently wrong with exchanging bags of money in a phone booth.” On what ethical basis does Mr. Bowen make such a conclusive and sweeping moral judgment? On what philosophic basis do we judge competing claims for equity, for fairness, for justice, for honesty and truth?

The point is, without an agreement, a consensus, or an absolute standard or criteria for defining moral imperatives (those moral qualities that are supreme), we are left with either individuals doing their own defining, or a powerful elite defining morals for the rest of us, or the majority defining the moral code or even a minority defining the moral system for the majority.

All of this brings me to the title of my remarks today and that is:


Long before the ethical problems of the 20th century, there lived an English philosopher and moralist who is generally considered the first great classical or modern political philosopher. This fellow was also the first great modern moralist, that is, one who justifies obedience to moral rules on a purely secular basis, and not on a religious basis. He believed that morality is to be arrived at naturally by all persons of reasonableness through common experiences and observations and reasoning. This philosopher’s name was Thomas Hobbes and he lived in the 17th century. For the purpose of our gathering here today I’m not so concerned about his political philosophy, although his political reasoning developed the “social contract” theory which was later expanded by John Locke helping to justify the American Revolution. I want, rather, to briefly focus on Hobbes as a moral philosopher, as a developer of a system of values very much in vogue today.

Hobbes argued in his massive work, Leviathan(1650), that there was no “ultimate aim” to life, nor a “greatest good” to be rendered by an individual. One’s life goal was simply to pursue happiness through selfishness, just like the currently popular song from the movie “Cocktails” entitled “Don’t Worry, be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin. Individuals are necessarily selfish for preservation and therefore they will, and should, act only to advance their own self-interest.

Hobbes maintained that things or actions have no intrinsic worth except as they advance one’s self-interest. There is a total absence of obligation or moral imperatives. Robert Ringer, in his best selling book a few years ago, Looking Out for Number 1, was a modern Hobbesian. At one point Hobbes writes,

“Happiness is a continual progress of desire from one object to another, the attaining of one object being merely a stage on the way to the attaining of another object. The reason for this is that the object of a person’s desire is not simply to enjoy something only once but also to assure that the object can be possessed whenever it is desired again in the future.” Hobbes believed that persons have an inclination for perpetual and restless desire for personal power which stops only in death! And the reason for this constant lusting after personal power is that the individual has no assurance that the present ability to live well will last without acquiring more personal power to live well. Michael Korda, in his fascinating book, Power, published a couple of years ago echoes this 17th century theme. See also, Anthony Robbins’ Unlimited Power: The Key to Peak Personal Achievement. Hobbes was the first YUPPIE philosopher!

I want now to bring up another philosopher who wrote about 50 years earlier inFrance—John Calvin. Calvin is chiefly remembered today as a churchman, as a philosopher of the Protestant Reformation. But in fact, he was a trained philosopher and jurist who had a commanding knowledge of Latin and Greek thought and literature. Calvin was not a moralist in the sense Hobbes was, but rather he was acutely religious, holding that all moral rules find their basis in a divinely revealed set of philosophicpropositions contained in Judeo-Christian Scriptures.

John Calvin’s view of a moral system is radically different from his English near-contemporary, Hobbes, who believed an ethical foundation can be developed by excluding God. Calvin depends on God to reveal ethical principles to distinguish between right and wrong. Preeminently contained in the Judeo-Christian 10 commandments, this revealed ethical base is universal and eternal because it comes from the mind of a universal and eternal God. Calvin writes that this moral code forbids us “to pant after the possessions of others.” Furthermore, this code commands us to strive to help every person to keep their own possessions. At one place in his seminal philosophic work, The Institutes of Christian Religion,he writes, “Let this be our constant aim: faithfully to help all men by our counsel and aid to keep what is theirs, in so far as we can; but if we have to deal with faithless and deceitful men, let us be prepared to give up something of our own rather than contend with them. And not this alone: but let us share the necessity of those whom we see pressed by the difficulty of affairs, assisting them in their need with our abundance.”

The fundamental difference between Hobbes and Calvin, for our purposes today, is that Hobbes believed in a changing moral code depending on the circumstances and the self-interest of the individual, whereas Calvin believed human beings have been given an absolute and understandable rule of conduct by a perfect God. Because Calvin believed that the individual was to look first to the other person’s legitimate welfare, and to trust God to sustain their needs, then clinging to material prosperity, or as Calvin said, “madly scraping together whatever feeds our avarice” is not only unnecessary, but evil. Hobbes, on the other hand, taught that one ought to pursue one’s own selfish interest. One ought to do what brings one the most pleasure or satisfaction at any given time. The only thing that will stop one from harmfully using others in the quest for selfish happiness is a “Leviathan” (cf, Job 41:1), that is, a huge beast, an absolute legal authority; in Hobbes’ time, a king; in our time, a dictator or a power elite.

So within the span of about 100 years from 1550 to 1650 we have John Calvin writing in Paris and Thomas Hobbes writing inLondon postulating two radically different ways of looking at how we ought to forma system of values:

Hobbes is saying we can develop a moral code naturally if well-meaning, selfish and rational individuals covenant together for code of conduct, while Calvin is saying that the Judeo-Christian God has delivered to us the moral code to guide our conduct. Hobbes’ moral code springs from within the individual, while Calvin’s moral code comes from an external, independent source. And these two ways of looking at how we construct a knowledge base have run side by side ever since, never touching, however much various philosophers have attempted to bridge the separation. And this epistemological separation, or the Hobbes – Calvin gulf, is at the root of our problem of understanding business ethics today.

Now all this Hobbesian and Calvinistic philosophizing would be easy to disregard and forget except for a guy named Bill Watterson. What Watterson did a couple of years ago was to draw a cartoon strip which features a brash, mischievous 6-year-old kid who (like kids do) fantasies his way through life from situation to situation. This rotten kid has a goofy pet tiger that comes alive in his imagination, which is smarter than the kid and, more often than not, is the victim of the kid’s pranks. The tiger gives the kid a reflection of reality that keeps the boy on just this side of the ragged edge of total self-delusion.

And Watterson has deliberately and wonderfully named his cartoon creatures “Calvin and Hobbes.” Never mind that Watterson’s irony calls the Hobbesian kid, “Calvin,” and the Calvinist cat, “Hobbes.” The point is that the names are brought to our attention and we can see Hobbesianism and Calvinism at work in this cartoon strip. If you haven’t been following their zaniness in your favorite paper then you’re in the minority because, as of last Sunday, Watterson’s two books on Calvin and Hobbes are on the New York Times top ten best selling paperback list inAmerica.

Watterson has done all of us who think about ethics in our marketplace a great service because every week his cartoon characters humorously remind us of the two great systems of value construction, of ethical foundations which control marketplace ethics. My general purpose today is to simply introduce the idea that we must consider the contribution that classical or theoretical or foundational philosophy can make to business life. By raising the moral consciousness of employees and employers, by clarifying the meaning or moral terms, by analyzing moral arguments and by teaching moral truths, the study of philosophy can help us do our jobs better by enabling us to defend our actions more persuasively because we have moral reasons for those actions. My specific purpose follows, and that is to pose the question whether or not the ethical foundation of Hobbes or the ethical foundation of Calvin provides us the best hope for building a consensus ethical system to guide our business decision-making; one is situational, subjective and selfish (Hobbes), one is absolute, objective and selfless (Calvin).

You may be, probably are, asking yourself, “So what if Calvin and Hobbes each represent either an absolute ethical standard with its focus on others or a situational ethical standard with its focus on the individual- All this doesn’t really make any difference in today’s thinking. Case has just been wasting my time.”

If you are thinking like this, let me point your attention to the lead editorial in the Yakima Herald Republic on October 8th by Dave Workman, a syndicated columnist. Workman’s editorial is entitled, “Let’s Review our Values,” and he’s discussing the Brock Adams mess. He quotes a couple of sentences from an editorial in a major Puget Sound daily newspaper thusly: “His (i.e.,Adams) best friends invariable say that Brock Adams is not a saint. Few people are, they say. ButAdams measures well by the norms of life as it is lived in the last quarter of the 20th century, they say.”

Workman responds to this paragraph: “If we really are reduced to measuring behavior by the norms of life as it’s lived in the last quarter of the 20th century, then we’re in trouble, friends. When morality becomes relative, anything can be rationalized as excusable, under the circumstances. So society has always needed moral absolutes – standards of behavior that don’t change from generation to generation. If we throw out the absolutes, nobody will know which rules really apply. Nobody will know, for sure, what is socially and morally acceptable, and what is not. And then, I ask you, what will we have over the Neanderthals.”

Obviously, Calvin and Hobbes are alive and well in the marketplace of ideas in our state. Can we in business afford not to engage the Calvin and the Hobbeses if we really want to be ethically good and moral in our marketplace?

I think not.


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