Why having a philosopher in the office is good for business

Want to improve your business? Hire a philosopher.

A man thinks during a meeting. But is he thinking deeply enough about what he is about to do?
A man thinks during a meeting. But is he thinking deeply enough about what he is about to do? (Getty Images)

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.


Scandinavia: home of lutefisk, perfect biking trails, and philosophers managing your pension fund. It might be utopia—or not.

The idea of philosophy consultants isn’t limited to the strange lands of Silicon Valley or Scandinavia. Consulting firms which offer philosophic services for businesses can be found in many places. Organizations like the American Philosophical Practitioners Association offer to help companies ask the big questions and make choices that promote more than just short-term profit. Some of the more prominent names in business ethics have worked for the World Economic Forum and have helped to guide discussion on issues that shape the global economy.

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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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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