Business Ethics and Aristotle’s Idea of a “We-Self”

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In a previous post I noted how Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle viewed productivity, loyalty, and ethics as interrelated.  Businesses are well-advised to draw from the insights of these philosophers in cultivating: (1)  truth, (2) a “we-self”, and (3) creative acts of good will.  In this post we’ll look at what it means to cultivate a “we-self”.

I know the phrase “we-self” may seem odd.  But there’s not a better term for the idea that Aristotle introduced many years ago.  Aristotle talked about how, for a parent, a child can become “another self” to the parent.  And within a genuine friendship a friend becomes “another self” to us.

What Aristotle saw is how, within healthy and deep relationships, other people’s joys can become our own joys; and other people’s sorrows can become our own sorrows.  In short, in a deep and healthy relationship, the well-being of all parties ends up rising and falling together.  We become a sort of “we-self”.

Aristotle had a great description of the city-state—and the same description applies to any organization, such as a business.  His description was “a partnership for living well.”  This does not point to merely a list of individuals whose own lives are each going well for them individually.  Rather, it’s the idea that we are sharing in a well-being together.  It’s the idea that each of our lives is only going to go well for us as individuals in the long-term if we all develop the mentality that we share as a group in a well-being that is either going to rise or fall together.

It’s worth noting that this mentality runs contrary to most of what we see in everyday life.  Most things we look at in everyday life operate as a zero-sum game: somebody wins only as somebody else loses.  Sporting events are like this; elections are like this; even reality TV shows are like this, where judges and the viewing public vote for the winner among the contestants.  The problem is: This way of doing things runs counter to a “we-self” mentality.  And so a company will have to actively work to cultivate this (counter-cultural) we-self mentality.

I think Aristotle saw that that there are devastating, long-term effects when we fail to pursue a “we-self” environment.  Suppose you and I are both working in a company.  And suppose you witness me lying to, or showing a lack of concern for, another employee or a customer or some stakeholder in the company.  I laughingly say to you, “Well, that’s a bad deal for them, but it’s great for us!”

What I’ve just communicated to you is that I’m trying to advance my own well-being—even if there’s a trade-off in the deal and someone else in our network of relationships is made worse off.  What I’ve communicated to you if that, if I ever have the chance to advance myself, even if you’re made worse off in the process, then I’ve got no qualms about doing it.  And this works directly against group loyalty, against the free sharing of ideas, against Aristotle’s model of a “partnership for living well”.

On the positive side, when there is an environment of a we-self, businesses can take advantage of the naturally expanding tendency of a we-self.  Think about circles of people where there is true, mutually beneficial self-giving and (dare I say it?) love.  People in these circles naturally want to expand them.  Married couples tend to want to have children.  Healthy Bible study groups tend to want to reach out to others.  Members of a sky-diving club tend to want more of their friends to come experience the camaraderie.

Within a company, if there are opportunities and incentives to form mutually-beneficial partnerships with other employees, with customers, with other stakeholders, there will always be a natural tendency for people to look for ways to expand these partnerships and include others.  A wise company (or small group or church) that focuses on creating a true atmosphere of a we-self—where everyone’s well-being is tied together through mutually-beneficial partnerships—won’t have to work so hard to “try to grow”.  There’s again a natural tendency of a we-self to expand.

So the challenge for businesses is to find ways to cultivate a we-self atmosphere.  This may involve looking at such issues as pay incentives, advancement criteria, even a company’s overall business model.

On a side not, the more you see your own well-being tied to other people’s well-being, the harder it becomes to act unethically toward them.  So again we see the insight that ethics, loyalty, and long-term productivity are ultimately tied together.

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Kevin Kinghorn serves as editor of the Faith and Work Collective blog. He is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary. His undergraduate work (Emory) was in economics and political science. His graduate work (Asbury; Yale; Oxford) and current teaching has focused on topics within philosophy of religion and moral philosophy. He lives in Mt. Sterling, KY, where he and his wife Barbara work toward community transformation, providing music and art opportunities for children.

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