Philosophy is Serious Business

A slide from my presentation

A slide from my presentation

On Wednesday I was asked to speak to a group at the Mendoza College of Business at Notre Dame. This was very exciting to me, for a number of reasons. First off, I've been getting more and more into the philosophy of management recently. One of my professors recommended that I read the collected works of Peter Drucker. I'm just a couple chapters in, but I'm hooked. There's so much social philosophy going on in his writings -- ethics, epistemology, even social ontology to some extent -- and it's all grounded in real world recommendations and practices.

My talk was based on a series of slides I made up for the occasion. I also had a handout.

The main objective of my presentation was to argue that business scenarios often raise distinctively ethical and epistemic, and to give them a few philosophical tools to deal with these. To this end, I distinguished between three different types of disagreements:

  • Evidential disagreements are grounded in asymmetries in evidential situation.
  • Cognitive disagreements are grounded in performance errors on the part of one or both disputants.
  • Principled disagreements are grounded in fundamental differences in worldview.

I then detailed two, incompatible options agents can pursue in the face of disagreement in general:

  • Act on the presumption that one’s disputed belief is true
  • Withhold judgment on the disputed belief and act as is appropriate given conditions of uncertainty

Again, the point here was to get them to realize that disagreements in any group setting -- but specifically in business settings -- raise distinctively ethical and epistemic issues. We spoke for some time about different ways in which one might react to disagreements in a business setting, and then I gave them a handout with a series of cases for them to consider and discuss. I'll end with one of those cases, and if folks feel like discussing it in the comments, I'll join in!

Questionable Labor Practices: after 7 grueling rounds of interviews, you're offered a salaried management position in the corporate office of a well-known clothing brand. The pay is nearly double what you now make, and the role you'd be stepping into makes ideal use of your newly honed skill set, and positions you to move directly up the chain of command, so that within 10 years you could be working in the job you'd set as your ultimate career goal. You have no comparable offers. After researching the clothing brand’s manufacturing practices, however, you find that they lag far behind organizations of comparable size in terms of labor standards in overseas factories (where 95% of their products are made). The Economist recently ran a cover story detailing the scope and severity of the problem, This American Life devoted two episodes to detailing the experiences of mistreated workers, and well-respected independent organizations rank the corporation extremely poorly with respect to all the relevant criteria. As a Catholic who strongly identified with to social teachings and traditions of the Church, you feel that justice demands corporations to take on reasonable costs to ensure the safety and quality of the lives of all those working for them (directly, or indirectly). The labor practices described in the media, and by the watchdog organizations, is clearly inconsistent with these standards. When you ask your main contact about these issues, you're told that steps are being take to address the issue, and that -- though it will be no part of your position -- there are many within the corporation who have been charged with improving these labor practices significantly in the next 5-10 years. Question: what do you do? Do you take the job? How, if at all, should your disagreement play a part in this decision?