Why having a philosopher in the office is good for business
Want to improve your business? Hire a philosopher.
There is a story about Thales, the first philosopher, getting rich merely to prove that philosophers had business sense. The people of Miletus thought that philosophy was useless and asked him how he was still poor if he was so smart. He made a bet with them, saying he would be rich inside of a year. He proceeded to invent futures contracts and made a fortune in olive oil production.
Today, the stereotype of the philosopher who is wise but utterly useless in practical affairs endures. While some philosophers were rich, either by inheritance, lucky breaks, or rigging the lottery like Voltaire, the best-known philosophers were broke. What could a philosopher have to offer a modern business?
As it turns out, they have a lot to offer.
Google has its in-house philosopher Luciano Floridi and previously had Damon Horowitz in the same role. These philosophers ask the big questions that relate to the business operations of the company. “Should our search engine factor truth into the results?” is one such question. “How do we decide what that truth is?” is another. The resident philosopher also helps with more directly business-oriented questions of how to handle new regulations.
In Norway, social democratic and moralizing as it is, a philosopher helps to manage the Government Pension Fund. The Norwegian government had been debating how to properly invest the profits from the national oil company in a way that both assured financial security and moral responsibility for some time. They decided that the best way to guarantee both was to have a philosopher on hand to help with the ethical questions that would undoubtedly arise when businessmen tried to maximize profit.
While not every moral issue could be solved, the fund divested from arms manufacturers the army still had to make purchases from; the presence of a philosopher helped guide the process in a way that a room full of businesspeople alone could not have. The philosopher in question, Dr. Henrik Syse, continues to work in academia and remains a very public intellectual.
But, why should businesses do this at all?
A boardroom filled with nothing but businesspeople might have a hard time trying to solve an ethical problem without unduly erring towards their profit. A philosopher in the room would at least give voice to ethical issues and concerns other than the maximization of income.
Similarly, groupthink, the phenomenon of otherwise rational groups making horrible decisions because nobody will stick their neck out, is a real and historically problematic thing which can be avoided by having a person trained in asking tough questions in the room.
It’s good business to have a philosopher on hand.
A meta-analysis of studies shows that there is a positive correlation between how a business approaches social and environmental issues, commonly under the banner of corporate social responsibility, and profit. The presence of a person who knows how to ask the right questions and worry about something other than profit is a vital part of being able to take advantage of that correlation.
In our modern age, where the rapid pace of technological advances can outpace our regulations, a resident philosopher can help a business address issues of privacy, artificial intelligence, data collection, and how those things relate to their values in lieu of official guidelines. Failures on these fronts are well known, and a little guidance on these issues might have helped.
So, will there soon be a slew of in-house philosophers at fortune 500 companies? Perhaps not right away, but the benefits of having a philosophic check-up every now and again are becoming more evident. The age of the philosopher CEO might be far off, but it doesn't sound as absurd as it might have before.
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The 21st century is experiencing an Asianization of politics, business, and culture.
- Our theories about the world, even about history or the geopolitics of the present, tend to be shaped by Anglo perspectives of the Western industrial democracies, particularly those in the United States and the United Kingdom.
- The West, however, is not united. Canada, for instance, acts in many ways that are not in line with American or British policies, especially in regard to populism. Even if it were united, though, it would not represent most of the world's population.
- European ideas, such as parliamentary democracy and civil service, spread across the world in the 19th century. In the 20th century, American values such as entrepreneurialism went global. In the 21st century, however, what we're seeing now is an Asianization — an Asian confidence that they can determine their own political systems, their own models, and adapt to their own circumstances.
They didn't know it, but the rituals of Iron Age Scandinavians turned their iron into steel.
- Iron Age Scandinavians only had access to poor quality iron, which put them at a tactical disadvantage against their neighbors.
- To strengthen their swords, smiths used the bones of their dead ancestors and animals, hoping to transfer the spirit into their blades.
- They couldn't have known that in so doing, they actually were forging a rudimentary form of steel.
Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?
- Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
- The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
- If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
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