Business Ethics as Cultivating an Atmosphere of Truth

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Academy of Athens with Plato and Socrates monument.

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 truth.

I still have this recurring tension dream about being back in school. I’m somehow back in high school or college, and there’s a big test coming up. Maybe you’ve had the same kind of dream?

In my dream, if I don’t pass this test then I won’t be able to graduate. My future will be hopelessly lost. But the problem is, I haven’t been to class all semester. In fact, I don’t even know where the classroom is where the test is being administered! (In some of these dreams, I’m also afraid to look for the class because, somehow, I’m in my underwear and I’m having to hide out from everyone. Psychoanalyze that one, will you?)

I know that high schoolers face challenges these days. But I doubt that anyone has ever been in that bad of a worst case scenario when it comes to taking a test! And yet, even though I graduated from high school nearly 30 years ago, I can still have this kind of tension dream.

And now here’s the point of all this. We humans have an amazing ability to conjure up worst case scenarios. And I think the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle understood this. They understood that, in the absence of information, humans will tend to fill the void with all kinds of worst case scenarios—and in general anxieties that can cripple us.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that these early philosophers emphasized the cultivation of truth, as a key to developing a citizenry—or, we could add, a company workforce—who are productive, loyal, and ethically-minded.

Importantly, the cultivation of truth is not the same thing as refraining from lying. A company manager can refrain from lying simply by withholding all information. But this of course creates an information vacuum—which, again, humans tend to fill with worry, mistrust, and so on. Company morale suffers greatly in such an environment.

Socrates is famous for saying that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Part of his insight is that there really are endless benefits that come when we continually explore the truth about who we are and who others are. We learn about each other’s unique perspectives and gifts, about each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Speaking the truth to each other is a matter of trusting each other with information, and empowering others to contribute their own insights.

By contrast, when we mislead others, or even when we fail to allow others scope to voice their views, it’s dehumanizing. If you and I are working together on something, and I shut off the flow of information to you, I communicate that we’re not going to have a genuine, collaborative environment where everyone contributes with openness and integrity.

Unfortunately, there can sometimes be a mentality in businesses (and elsewhere) that information is given on a “need to know basis.” But I think part of Socrates’s insight is that we never need special reason to give truthful information to others. Continually sharing as much information as possible with others should always be the fallback position, the normal course of things.

It’s interesting that when Steve Jobs designed the headquarters of Apple (the physical building), one of his goals was that people from different departments (designers, engineers, salespeople) would have to bump into each other in the normal course of the day—trying to get to the cafeteria or to the bathroom. His idea was that the more you give people from different departments the opportunity casually to share information with one another, the more creative ideas would ultimately emerge. And this is really is just one way of actively seeking to pursue truth: ensuring that the fallback position of daily life is the active sharing of as much information as possible.

Greater productivity will be the inevitable result. Further, the more information you cooperatively share and receive from others, the harder it becomes to act unethically toward them. Ethical decision-making begins to take care of itself. I still love the quote from Iris Murdoch: “At crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.” Much of a company’s background work—in cultivating employee ethical-mindedness, along with loyalty and productivity—will, I think, involve cultivating an atmosphere of truth.

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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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