August 18, 2011

New Book on Humanistic Ethics in Business

Here is an exciting new volume in Palgrave-MacMillan's Humanism in Business series to which I have contributed a chapter. Below are a few key excerpts from my chapter, Wittgenstein and the Challenge of Global Ethics:

"Ideally, by applying rational thought to action, we form good habits. Thus, new positive behaviors gradually become second nature, while bad habits are gradually stamped out. Eventually, we no longer have to think very much at all in order to embody a deeper ethical consciousness. Instead, we naturally desire and do the right thing, experiencing little or no temptation to regress into old habits. This is the ultimate goal of virtue ethics, namely, to reach complete happiness through self-actualizing activities.

Perhaps the greatest force compelling persons to change their behavior on ethical grounds is the realization that their behavior is somehow causing, facilitating, or ignoring some significant harm.  We look into another’s suffering eyes and we, in a sense, see ourselves. This is compelling for it is immediately experienced via our basic nature as social beings. And this is what is truly at the heart of ethics for Wittgenstein. For as he says, at various occasions:

“What is essential for us is, after all, spontaneous agreement, spontaneous sympathy” (1967, §667).
“Instinct comes first, reasoning second” (1967, §689).
So perhaps the greatest part of being ethical is simply to become conscious of the interest of those around us. And this has always been, and will ever be so. But the particular challenge of globality is specific to our age. For how can one see into another’s suffering eyes when those who are made to suffer are potentially out of sight on the other side of the planet? Or perhaps they might be future generations (if not one’s own) in any of myriad possible worlds transformed by global ecological calamity resulting from unbridled resource depletion. When each person’s actions taken in isolation have no clear and measurable negative effect on anyone in particular, everyone is much less likely to take responsibility for the collective result that billions of other people’s actions taken together may cause.

Essentially, this is what I take to be the Wittgensteinian challenge of global ethics. While applied ethicists may at times succeed in making compelling philosophical arguments for increased personal and corporate responsibility and government regulation, these can often be rather abstract. Their theoretically-based arguments do not compel us the way, say, the sad eyes of a child do who is denied an education based on her race. Similarly, if one litters by carelessly discarding a plastic bag on the sidewalk, there is a clear and immediate negative consequence to that action, namely, to the beauty of the neighborhood. In such cases, negative impacts are clearly felt in concrete human terms. A mere modicum of self-reflection aided by a degree of social pressure can suffice to eventually bring even the most callous to effect a corrective behavioral change.