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Business and Philosophy

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At first sight, philosophy and business seem worlds apart. Business is concerned with hard practical decisions, made under competitive pressure, with imperfect knowledge and always with an eye to the bottom line.

Philosophy on the other hand seems to be preoccupied by fascinating, but non-urgent questions about the meaning of life and the nature of values, ruminating on the human condition with no particular end in sight.

However, I think there are some critical areas of intersection and that business can become stronger (which means not only more ethical, but also more fruitful and meaningful) by absorbing some of the lessons of philosophy. There doesn't have to be a divide between profit and value.

The end goal of all rational humans was first and most beautifully defined in the fourth century BC by the philosopher Aristotle as eudaimonia, a word commonly translated as 'flourishing' or 'fulfillment' as opposed to a narrower term like 'happiness.'

Most corporations and businesses, outside of a very tiny minority, are in fact connected through their activities to the goal of eudaimonia/human flourishing. They might be selling sandwiches or airline tickets, but at the end of the day, they are aiming to satisfy and please those they serve.

Of course, businesses don't frame their concerns philosophically. They don't use weird Greek words; they say that their success depends on 'understanding their customers.' And in order to understand them, they typically make use of an armory of market research techniques (interviews, data analysis).

But they are often not thinking deeply and broadly enough about human needs and are therefore flawed in their eventual understanding of their customers. The parameters of their investigations are too cut off from broader cultural, psychological and social scientific insights; their questions are wrongly framed. So they will ask, 'How on earth do we fight off the competition from other hotels?' rather than asking 'Where is the need for hotel rooted in our deeper selves?' They'll wonder how much to discount a holiday package rather than try to work out what people actually need from a trip.

This lack of a philosophical perspective on customer needs routinely deny corporations key advantages. It prevents them from perceiving new market areas; it leaves them to fiddle around with price points and margins.

Let loose on a business, philosophers consider how well a given corporation is catering to the deeper human needs in the areas in which it operates. He or she attempts to give the leaders of a corporation three advantages:

i) a more profound understanding of the ultimate purpose -- what one would call the eudaimonic promise -- of the company.
ii) an understanding of where the company is failing to maximize the potential of its promise.
iii) suggestions of new products, services, brand and communication strategies to align a company more closely with its eudaimonic promise, resulting in a deeper and more loyal engagement with customers.

Let's take a practical example: a hotel. When people stay in a hotel, they hope to have a nice time. And, at a given price point, the hotel management will go to great lengths to remove the obstacles to a happy visit. They aim to provide excellent beds, linen, televisions, concierge services etc.

But, in reality, there are many other kinds of trouble which might spoil a night in a hotel room. One might feel lonely, or lost. One might have a grievous argument with one's spouse. One might stay up far into the night watching movies, only to regret it terribly in the morning. One might drink the contents of the minibar.

Typically, hotels do not particular see these kinds of problems as anything they can address. The hotel only focuses on a very limited range of factors connected with the overall eudaimonic promise.

The full grand promise of the hotel -- if it were properly elaborated -- might go like this: I will emerge from the hotel in the morning as the best version of myself, I will be calm, collected and energized. Currently, a great many obstacles stand in the way of the fulfillment of this promise, but hotels know how to deal with a few of them. They pour their energies into a few areas (linen, number of channels etc.) while neglecting the larger picture.

A hotel chain which sought to deliver on the implicit eudaimonic promise of a night in a hotel would gradually be led to develop a raft of new services and products. It could, for example, decide it needed to offer a minibar for the mind. It might offer counseling as well as massage. It might choose art to adorn its wall with a more purposeful intent.

Hotels are only at the beginning of understanding how to service their clients' deeper needs because they have, until now, operated with far too narrow an understanding of satisfaction.

Or take a bank. On paper, the point of a bank is to keep your money safe and grow it a little year by year. But the full promise of the bank is deeper: it is to promote a good life around money. This is a much bigger story. A bank under philosophical guidance wouldn't stop doing any of the things banks normally do concerning security and income growth. But it would add major new strands to the services it provides. It would assess its clients' needs at the deepest level. It would ask: what would actually help a client flourish in connection with money? It might be that money is a source of difficult family dynamics, it may be that status is a deep (if not openly avowed) concern; it may be that the client wishes to do good in the world but is unsure how to reconcile idealism and realism.

Banks compete for a limited number of clients, and their business is subject to the inescapable fluctuations of investment (which the firm cannot control as much as it would like). The solution to this conundrum is to have a relationship with clients that has a more permanent (less volatile) base: a base that is rooted in an understanding of the clients' psychology and true nature.

Standing far back from modern economies, there are two great themes. Firstly, there is the Higher Needs Project. Individually and collectively we try to make the best of our lives at the psychological end of things; we want to form good, stable relationships; we want to raise children who will like us when they are older, to do work that is meaningful and purposeful, to live in countries with intelligent public discourse, to be surrounded by attractive, dignified buildings and products...

On the other hand, there is the Commercial Project. This is the project of supplying goods and services profitably, within a competitive arena. This is the dominant mechanism of the modern world.

Often it can seem the two projects are entirely at odds, but they can and should overlap: a business is an idea of human satisfaction, put into practice. Profit should be the reward for recognizing a hitherto untapped area of satisfaction.

Letting philosophers into the boardrooms should lead society to more sophisticated account of what businesses should be doing for us, and by definition, should also help the bottom line. The division between the office and the ivory tower has gone on too long.