Towards Better Democracy

Good words, well written, better the world. Good literature betters the world immeasurably.

A strange experience?


Three Thursday ago I met with a new client. It is rare that one should wish to write on the blog on what was ostensibly a business transaction. But on this particular occassion there was a little more to it than that. Perhaps there might be something of interest to readers of the blog. Perhaps not.

In my capacity as a consulting engineer I have been searching for some engineering writing assignments. Through a friend I met a foreign national who is highly placed within one of the international companies headquared in Houston.

That Thursday three weeks ago we met inside the building he works in at the cafe on the lower to ground floor. I had parked outside on the curb. Downtown Houston is a nightmare to find parking in so I was fortuante. The meter worked seamlessly, thank goodness. No fumbling and frustration.

The meeting lasted an hour. My client wished me to prepare a series of what I term modules, each focusing on a particular aspect of American Corporate Excellence (CE). His identification of CE differed in name from mine but the elements he outlined match what is commonly referred to as alternatively Business Excellence.

The head item of the list of elements is Ethics, Business Ethics. He pointed out that for a corporation to not have ethics as their leading measure of excellence was for it to not be possible to have any CE at all. More of this shortly.

I think I am writing here because I am familiar with Corporate Excellence but have never had cause to consider what is entailed for a coporation to put it into effect. The base of CE is best business practise, recognizing that only by this means can companies consistently maintain profits at a reasonable or high level. Corporate Excellence is good or business.

What I found facinated me is this question of ethics, not simply business ethics but ethics within the whole societal scale, staring with government. If ethics are not practiced by government then the whole corporate culure of the country will be inflected by the lack of ethics. Commonly, the obverse of ethics is corruption. Companies domiciled in such a country are forced by circumstance to adopt unethical behaviour to a lesser or greater extent. This is why the government of the US and other Western European countries have prohibitions on their companies doing business or setting up to do business within those countries which are egregrious in the extent of the corruption existing and practiced in those countries. At the very least, limitations will be imposed by the governments of those countries whose have companies operating in such places. The offending country is usually ruled by one or more despots.

As is my practice I began some background reading to allow me to write intelligently on what my client had requested of me.

My starting place was:

Blackwell’s Companions to Philosophy: A Companion to Ethics, edited by Peter Singer. Section 31, Business Ethics is written by Robert Solomon. Under the heading A Brief Hiztory of Business Ethics, I found the following sentence:

Aristotle … differentiated two different senses of what we call economics; one of them, oikonomikos, or household trading … he approved of …the other, chrematisike, business for profit …

He despisedthe second and held the first to be essential to the good working of “a modestly complex society.”(Solomon)

I haven’t a clue what household trading is nor did I pursue a line of inquiry into it since it was irrelevant to my purpose. The latter though is of intense interest.

Beginning in 1776, with the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, business for profit became the basis upon which our world, at least the Western World’s societies, have flourished, and all we see around us is a product of the ideas contained in that book put into effect.

What facinates me is, first that ethics is a concept. Certainly, as humans, we have a sense of justice and what constitutes right and wrong, of the necessity of punishing in some way what are regarded as wrong acts within a particular society in a manner thought appropriate to the transgression. Ethics is, then, a formalisation of the concept of right and wrong, and of the rule of law, the right of a fair trial, and the upholding of human rights.

That significant concepts and ideas contained in a book, such as Adam Smith’s, can be translated into practices in the physical world is stunning. There are many, many examples. But those contained in The Wealth of Nations build to create a whole edifice, which are now concrete and evident all around us. The world we have, and occupy, is unthinkable without modern business as practiced at all levels of our societies, whether Western or not, and to lesser and greater effect, in those countries ruled by dictak. We will ignore some obvious exceptions since those societies are no longer functioning, notably those hewing completely the edicts of Karl Marx, Adam Smith’s only real rival.

The sentence quoted in fragment above set me on my path of study as to what ethics are as practices by corporations.

Another book from my personal library proved to give up fruit. Contempory Philosophy: Contemporary Ethics, written by William Shaw, contains a section devoted to Kant’s Ethics. He and Aristotle are the two foremost writers on the subject. I am now well placed to go out into the wider world of books and the Web to gain more knowledgeof a subject most of us have an innate sense of but are not necessarily well place to articulate on.

But I made a discovery, a significant one for me. I am able to freely work with the concepts that arise when seeking to explore the effect of ethics at play in the world at large. Good government starts, and ends, with good ethics. That good government stems from being seen to operate on the basis of upholding ethics for themselves and for the society which they rule, that of the democratic, for, in other than democracies, ethics, as commonly understood, cannot and is not practiced or otherwise adopted as a practice.

I should not be surprised at this discovery for two reasons: one, this blog is called Towards Better Democracy for good reason. I have a natural instinct to understand and grasp the political, not in a practical sense that I wish ever to be a politician, perish the thought, but as someone who can think and articulate what contitutes the political to the benefit of all.

The other reason is more obvious, though not apparant until I realized it. I am a conceptual artist. I concieve of art in conceptual terms; they are fully realized within me and all that then needs to happen is for me to effect that concept into the physical or digital form. Concepts are concepts, whether in the pursuance of art or simply at the intellectual, cognitive level, ie, the philosophical.

Now, there is a converse to all of the above. This side of the experience is what makes it strange. And doubly interesting. The client had been approached by his native government and asked to identify what constitutes Corporate Excellence in the US and what his country has to do to reach something like the practice in this country. His country lies midway in the scale of corruption in a table compiled by Transparency Interanational, slightly above Brazil, China and India, all of whom share the dubious pleasure of sharing the same score. His country, moreover, is one that is steadfastly moving more and more in a despotic direction, the very direction it should not be taking if it has any serious intentions of adopting something like American best business practices.

The client had, after all,  already stated that without ethics, no Corporate Excellence is possible. Why then did he engage on a mission impossible. Solomon speaks of the Adam Smith way being adopted as the new orthodoxy. My client is preaching to a body devoutly disavowing that set of belieifs, where the rule of law is paramount and the pursuit of profit is made in an atmostphere unencumbered by the pythons of corruption.

No strange part of what I relate is connected with the fact that that client and I parted ways on failing to agree commercial terms. Now, that’s capitalism. Nothing strange in the ways of normal business transations.

Malcolm D B Munro
Modany 23 October, 2017

 

 

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