After a disastrous interview that has gone viral on the internet, the CEO of a major Wall Street financial services company meets a distinguished looking gentleman. Thinking he is the ‘spin doctor’ she’s requested, she escorts him into her office. She discovers he’s actually a venture capitalist who controls 30% of her company’s stock and has reservations about how she’s been running the company lately. As a way of coaxing the CEO to hear him out, he proposes a wager around what the executive just said in an interview: “Business is about making money. We didn’t break any laws! We didn’t lie, cheat, or steal! We didn’t do anything wrong!” The man claims he can get the CEO to recognize that the executive doesn’t really believe this. The terms of the bet are established. They will play two ‘hands.’ The first will address “Business is about making money”; the second, “We didn’t do anything wrong.” The stakes: $400,000. The man says that the CEO may call him Socrates.
What is the ‘job’ of business? The CEO says, “Making money.” Socrates leads the executive through a dialogue about why human societies are organized the way they are. The function of the primary elements of human society is to provide the members of a community with a certain kind of life. Socrates and the CEO debate whether a privately-owned hospital which is extremely profitable because it skimps on patient care is ‘doing its job’ as a business. Socrates argues that the ‘job’ of business is to provide the inhabitants of the community with the goods and services necessary for a decent way of life. He claims that profits are simply the means to that end, not an end in itself.
The CEO objects to Socrates’ position about profits, and the two discuss the relationship between profits and the ‘job’ of business further. The first part of the wager ends in a draw. Socrates returns to the CEO’s earlier comments about the importance of individual freedom. The executive argues for the importance of fostering individual rights in a modern society. Socrates introduces John Rawls’ concept of the ‘veil of ignorance,’ relates it to individual freedom, and proposes it as a test for whether something is fair or reasonable. He applies the ‘veil of ignorance’ to the question of the distribution of wealth and then to the ‘job’ of business. He revisits the ‘bad hospital but good business’ example. They discuss the application of ‘veil of ignorance’ to the question of reasonable limits on individual freedom.
The second part of the wager begins: Has the CEO done anything ‘wrong’? Socrates leads the CEO through a dialogue that starts with their earlier agreement about some key features of the ‘kind of life’ that should be the goal of their imaginary village (fairness, respect, and treating others the way you’d want to be treated) and leads to a practical understanding of ‘ethics’ expressed in two principles: ‘Do no harm’ and ‘Treat others appropriately.’ Socrates offers the image of an ‘ethical yardstick’—something we can use to measure our actions and determine whether they’re right or wrong. One side is marked off in a way that tells us whether we’re doing any harm; the other, marked in a way that tells us whether or not we’re treating others appropriately.
Socrates now directs the conversation to specifics of the CEO’s behavior. Part of treating people appropriately is to keep promises. So, he asks, what did the CEO promise the company? Most importantly, the executive says, to earn a good return for shareholders because of the risk they assume in investing money without any guarantees. Socrates argues that employees invest something even more valuable than money—the days of their lives. Therefore, he claims, they should be seen as important as stockholders.
Socrates continues the discussion of whether or not the CEO kept her promise with the company by shifting the topic to executive compensation. He describes how American CEOs make significantly more than chief executives in other countries. In the United States, CEOs earn about 350 times more than the average worker. By contrast, in the United Kingdom, the ratio is 80:1.
Socrates suggests that part of the problem is that current and former CEOs on board compensation committees fail to see they have a conflict of interest. He claims that such high compensation is a sign that the CEO has broken her promise to make as much money for the company as possible and to treat everyone appropriately at the same time. The unfair pay ratio is a second reason for saying the CEO’s actions have been ethically wrong.
The dialogue continues around the question of whether or not the CEO has done anything that violates the ethical requirement to treat others appropriately. Pointing to the fact that so few women rise to the top tier in corporations or serve on boards of directors, Socrates argues that this is because of a ‘glass ceiling,’ not a talent shortage.
Next, he objects to the fact that the CEO also serves as Chair of the Board. He argues that this is a conflict of interest and undermines the board’s responsibility to exercise oversight of the company’s management.
Shifting to whether or not the principle of do no harm has been violated, Socrates rejects the idea that the financial meltdown was an ‘act of God.’ He sees it, instead, as the result of greed, short term thinking, and negligence which produced considerable harm through the resulting recession and the loss of jobs, homes, and people’s money.
Socrates argues that all of this shows that the CEO’s statement that she “did nothing wrong” was incorrect. The CEO concedes the second hand. Socrates signals that he is willing to give her a chance to make back the money she’s just lost.
Socrates explains that all the CEO has to do to keep the money is to finish the conversation. The discussion will be about how she should operate in the future. First, Socrates suggests that the CEO’s ethics and compliance office doesn’t play a strong enough role in evaluating strategic decisions. Next, pointing out that ethical analysis is as technically sophisticated as financial analysis, he encourages the CEO herself—as well as other senior managers and board members—to become proficient in the relevant technical skills. Socrates then suggests some ways that the CEO might integrate ethics more effectively into the company’s day to day operations. In particular, he suggests that at each company meeting, the following questions get asked: When we look at our mission statement and list of company values, are we keeping our promise? Do our actions match what our words say we’re committed to? Are we treating everyone involved in this matter appropriately? Is there anyone who will get hurt or could get hurt by what we’re doing? Are we keeping the risk of harm at a reasonable level?
When the CEO turns around, Socrates isn’t there.
The CEO makes a major gaff at a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C. Once again, it goes viral on the internet. Socrates reappears as the driver of her limousine and takes her to his beach house in Maryland for another series of conversations. He says that some of the comments she just made show that she is still blind to the ethical dimensions of a number of issues.
Socrates suggests that the CEO’s bank bears some responsibility for the negative consequences that come from the actions of some of the bank’s client companies: a company that manufactured one of the weapons used in a school massacre; a company that’s very profitable, was very generous with its senior executives, but insisted its union employees take a pay freeze; and a petroleum company that spent millions of dollars of its profits to derail anything to do increasing public awareness about the threat of global climate change. He also objects to public statements the CEO has made about climate change (“the threat has been exaggerated”) and the economy (“wealth inevitably trickles down”).
Socrates reveals that the real reason behind this new conversation is that he wants to recommend the CEO for a new position. But first he needs to reassure himself about her abilities. Socrates says that their initial roles in this discussion will be that Socrates will take a skeptical attitude about business ethics and the CEO must show where he’s wrong. Socrates begins by arguing that ethics in general is “rubbish.” He endorses the ‘emotive theory of ethics.’ He rejects ethics as an arbitrary and subjective way that people use to feel better about themselves. He goes on to explain why he thinks that grounding ethics in cultural norms, laws, or religions makes no sense. One of his central points is that there is so much disagreement in these perspectives.
Socrates continues his critique of ethics, grounding his comments in the idea that, in the world of nature, the strong dominate the weak. The weak use concepts like fairness, respect, and equality to make a virtue of their own weaknesses. The CEO recognized this as the same argument Callicles offers in Plato’s Gorgias—that the law of nature is that the strong prevail. He says that the weak, in response, concoct conventional ideas of morality and virtues like compassion and moderation and band together to rein in their superiors. Plato’s Socrates replies with the idea that ‘vice harms the doer.’ That is, when ‘superior’ people like Callicles operate without any restraint, they ultimately pay a serious penalty—their ability to be satisfied or to stop themselves is compromised.
The CEO points out that ‘vice harms the doer’ can be seen in contemporary cases of very talented people who become embroiled in scandal and destroy their lives through seriously compromised cognitive and affective abilities. Put more prosaically, they’re undone by their own greed and stupidity. The CEO and Socrates reflect on the syndrome and its causes. Socrates points out the similarities between the phenomenon they’ve been discussing and addiction. Wondering about the origin of a mechanism in humans in which ‘vice harms the doer,’ Socrates engages in speculation from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.
This chapter is a continuation of the CEO’s attempt to demonstrate an objective, rational, logical foundation to ethics. Returning to the example of the simple ‘village’ from their earlier conversation, the CEO focuses on the goal of providing the villagers with a particular ‘kind of life’ or ‘quality of life.’ In an attempt to define these ideas more precisely, the CEO grounds them in the notion of a rudimentary sense of satisfaction with life—that is, the experience people have when their most basic needs are met. This will be the foundation of her defense of ethics. She claims that these needs have an objective basis, because they are the conditions necessary in order for any human being to grow, develop, or flourish in a healthy way. These needs are both tangible and intangible.
This chapter is a further continuation of the CEO’s attempt to demonstrate an objective, rational, logical foundation to ethics. As a way of explaining the relationship between ‘basic human needs’ and a ‘decent life,’ she appeals to utopian theory—specifically, B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two. She claims that the basic assumption of utopian theory is that human beings are all configured in a way that determines the conditions that have to be met in order for us to have a life that is even rudimentarily satisfying. She is using this claim as a foundation for ethics. She differentiates between tangible and intangible needs, considers what life would be like without having them satisfied and offers her daughter’s “TJS” (“that just sucks”) criterion.
Socrates asks how any of this connects with ethics. The CEO answers, “When we say that an action is ethically negative—wrong, bad, ethically unjustifiable, whatever language you like to use—that’s shorthand for saying that the action prevents or at least makes more difficult our getting one of these basic needs met. Conversely, to say that an action is ethically positive—right, good, ethically defensible—that’s shorthand for saying the action promotes or protects the satisfaction of these basic needs.”
The CEO summarizes her argument for why “ethics isn’t rubbish” and gives a brief explanation for why “business ethics isn’t rubbish.”
The second day at Socrates’ beach house begins with a review of the CEO’s defense of business ethics. She and Socrates explicitly reject the idea that there can be a separate set of rules about right and wrong for business. The CEO distinguishes between ‘maximum profits’ and ‘optimum profits,’ and she argues that the latter is most in keeping with the ‘job’ of business. She backs up her claim by discussing the case of Apple and Proview. First, she summarizes John Stuart Mill’s teleological approach to ethics (the ethical character of an action is determined by its consequences; utilitarianism; pleasure and pain; the importance of qualitative differences; treating others as an end and never simply as a means). When she applies this perspective to the Apple/Proview case, she argues that the long term costs of deception in business outweigh the benefits.
After reviewing the value of Mill’s approach, Socrates says two surprising things. First, he argues that it’s important not to think that good ethics always gets rewarded with profits. Second, he cites examples of high quality good being produced by questionable means. This leads him to conclude that any defense of the idea that ‘business ethics isn’t rubbish’ that relies only on utilitarianism won’t work.
The discussion now shifts to the competing, deontological perspective on ethics by Immanuel Kant. The CEO outlines Kant’s main ideas (the ethical character of an action is determined by its intrinsic character; ethics based on reason alone; freedom, autonomy, and dignity) and offers his discussion of the ‘false promise’ as relevant to the Apple/Proview case. Socrates replies that the CEO’s analysis ignores two elements of Kant’s thinking: his charge to treat people “never simply as a means”; and his claim that his principles apply “whether in your own person or in the person as another.” He draws out the implications of these points: Is it possible to treat someone both as a means and an end? Are there limitations on how we can treat ourselves?
Socrates explains the significance of the fact that Kant bases his ethics on reason alone. Using Kant’s example of the false promise, Socrates shows that the formal, logical problem with a lie is that it is a contradiction. He explains that the importance of a purely rational standard has to do with which kind of evidence to trust when we make decisions. He briefly reviews the epistemological approaches of empiricism and rationalism. Returning to Kant’s example of the false promise, Socrates illustrates Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative that says, ‘act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.’ He then has the CEO apply this approach to the Apple/Proview case.
Socrates shifts the topic to responsibility. Specifically, he asks whether the CEO and/or her bank have any moral responsibility for any harm that can be connected with the actions of the bank’s client companies. The first example he raises is a gun company that manufactured a weapon used in a massacre of school children. The CEO has participated in meetings on Capitol Hill in which the gun company has lobbied against gun control legislation. Socrates’ perspective is simple and straightforward. The bank’s actions are part of a causal chain that ended with mass murder of children. Because the bank facilitated the production and sale of these weapons, it shares at least some responsibility for the tragic outcome. The CEO rejects this position, arguing that if her bank didn’t do business with this company, another bank would. The only difference in the outcome would be that the bank’s stakeholders would be hurt. Socrates also objects to the fact that the gun company CEO threatened to close part of its operation if the Senator voted the wrong way. Socrates calls this extortion, while the CEO sees it as an appropriate use of leverage to protect jobs and profits. For Socrates, this is just one example of how corporate resources can be used in a way that undermines the overall ‘job’ of the ‘village.’
Socrates continues his argument that the bank shares some responsibility for the consequences of the gun company’s actions. He offers what he considers to be a simple set of criteria for responsibility: knowing what we’re doing, freely choosing what we do, and understanding the likely consequences of our actions.
Relying on Mill’s perspective, the CEO again points out that if her bank didn’t handle the gun company’s business, another bank would. She’ll agree with Socrates point of view only if her bank’s actions are powerful enough to make a practical difference. That is, she says, “I’ll agree I share some of the responsibility if you can say, ‘If I do A, then B will happen, but that if I don’t do A, then B won’t happen.’ ” Socrates uses symbolic logic to represent her argument, and then a truth table to show that her argument is invalid.
He next has her apply Kant’s ‘maxim/universal law of nature’ approach to the issue, suggesting this also shows her argument fails to pass muster. Then, relying on Mill’s idea about the qualitative differences in pleasures and pains, Socrates asks the CEO to imagine her own daughter being killed in a school shooting. His point is that the high quality of the pain produced by such a tragedy outweighs whatever larger amount of identifiable lower quality benefits involved.
After the CEO reflects on Goldman Sachs and corporate culture, Socrates turns her attention to another one of the bank’s clients—Caterpillar. This is a highly successful company. But while its executives were generously rewarded, lower-level employees have experienced wage freezes, pension freezes—even pay cuts. Socrates asks, “If the ‘job of business’ isn’t to make money, but to do its share in supporting the ‘kind of life’ we want in the village, do practices like this do so?”
In approaching this question, Socrates introduces the novel idea of “return on infrastructure.” He argues that citizens who authorize the use of public money to provide for a community’s infrastructure—ways to protect health and safety, public utilities, means of communication, transportation, education, and social stability—would do so only with an understanding the money is used to benefit everyone in the community and provide the ‘kind of life’ the community aims for. That is, Socrates claims that no one would agree that after public money has built an infrastructure, it would be fine for businesses to become so successful they could leave the community, while leaving the citizens of that community to deal with the consequences. The CEO replies this is simply the way global business operates.
Socrates brings his focus back to Caterpillar. He recounts the history of the company. While pointing out how successful the company has been, he expresses some reservations about how they operate. Socrates points out that his concern is whether or not Caterpillar has delivered an appropriate ‘return on infrastructure’ connected with the public infrastructure on which their success has been based—particularly the benefits they’ve received from the United States having such a strong (and expensive) military. Citing the company’s anti-union stance, Socrates then changes the subject and tells about his great-grandfather’s experience working for Pinkerton during labor strife in the 19th century. Returning to Caterpillar’s general strategy, he again asks whether they deliver an appropriate ‘return on infrastructure.’ He explains, “I do not believe that the municipalities that Caterpillar left would think the company gave them a reasonable return on infrastructure, contributed appropriately to the ‘kind of life’ we all would like, and treated everyone involved—especially employees—with fairness and respect for their dignity. I’m sure the company’s actions were all legal, but—given the perspective we’ve been taking—I think there are too many ways the company is not doing its ‘job.’ And, in my opinion, that means it’s not operating according to the highest ethical standards.”
For the final day of the conversation, Socrates has arranged for two college students to join him and the CEO. Because Socrates thinks that some of the CEO’s actions are undermining the quality of life people like Natalie and Sergio will be able to enjoy in the future, he wants representatives of their generation to take part.
The first topic Socrates brings up is global climate change. Again, he has complaints about the CEO’s support for a client company. In this case, it’s ExxonMobil’s financial support for individuals and organizations that denied that there was an urgent need to take action. And unlike the gun issue, the CEO has been very public in her skepticism about climate change. The discussion starts with Sergio outlining the scientific evidence behind the claim that the planet is warming and that humans are primarily responsible. Socrates points to ExxonMobil’s actions that were designed to foster skepticism about the scientific consensus. And while he understands the business concerns that would lead the company to do that, he nonetheless argues that the company’s defense of its financial interests and the public statements by the CEO violated the basic ethical principles of ‘do no harm’ and ‘treat others appropriately.’
Socrates asks Sergio to review the military implications of climate change that led his team to their topic in the business ethics competition: “One of the consequences of a warmer Arctic region is that corporations from a variety of industries—and from various nations—will be competing for the new resources. Given the strong likelihood of military conflict, what ethical responsibility do these companies have for preventing any possible harm?” The CEO initially reacts with skepticism that there could be a link between climate change and increased terrorism. Sergio details the ways that sea level rise, ice melting, precipitation, drought, extreme weather, and higher temperatures will produce population migrations, shortages of food and water, disease, damage to infrastructure, and social disruption. This will result in the military being involved in direct action, support to keep civil order, humanitarian assistance and dealing with civil unrest, political extremism, or terrorism. Accepting Sergio’s argument, the CEO points out the direct impact of this on business by noting that virtually every industry will be seriously affected in some way.
Wanting to see what the CEO has retained from their earlier discussion, Socrates then challenges her to come up with an objective ethical analysis of her actions and ExxonMobil’s. He asks: What makes the issues we’re talking about qualify as ethical issues? Did the actions in question produce more good than harm? What’s the intrinsic ethical character of the actions? She produces an analysis that applies the primary insights of Mill and Kant.
The conversation concludes with Socrates giving Sergio the opportunity to ask the CEO one specific question. After going back to the most important parts of the data, he asks, “With evidence so compelling and with so much at stake, why didn’t people of your generation care enough about your kids and grandkids to consider that you might be wrong?”
Socrates shifts the topic to another area in which he has reservations about the CEO’s actions. In this case, he points to statements the CEO has made about the workings of the economy. She has argued that the wealth created from business activity will inevitably spread through the rest of society. “A rising tide floats all boats.” Socrates claims this is simply not true, and he turns things over to Natalie, whose assignment was to determine whether the economy is doing its ‘job.’ She reviews data about GDP, unemployment, corporate profits, wages, the increased concentration of wealth at the top of the economy, and income disparity. Her conclusion: “According to standard markers—GDP, Dow Jones, corporate profits—we’ve had a strong economy over the last 50 to 60 years. However, the benefits have been concentrated at the very top.” The discussion concludes by Socrates shifting the focus to “quality of life.”
Socrates calls up data that challenges the idea that the United States is the “best country on Earth.” He cites statistics on poverty in the United States and comparisons among many nations on life satisfaction and prosperity. Figures on tax revenue as percentage of GDP lead him to the conclusion that countries with higher percentages than the United States also have higher quality of life. Shifting focus to the U.S. deficit, Socrates argues that the problem hasn’t been government overspending, but not taking in enough revenue from wealthy individuals and corporations to cover the costs of government. He points out that some major corporations pay nothing in federal taxes.
The CEO objects that missing from the data which has been presented is anything about the freedom that capitalism in America gives us. Socrates replies that, in his opinion, the concentration of private wealth jeopardizes freedom because of the way that wealth translates into power in capitalism.
The discussion shifts back to whether or not wealth trickles down, and the CEO describes how this works from an international level. She explains that when a corporation can operate across nations, it’s able to take advantage of lower costs for labor and materials, and to sell products to more markets. People in those countries benefit with new jobs and a better life. Socrates, however, characterizes international business too often as a ‘race to the bottom.’
The discussion ends with Socrates letting Natalie put two questions to the CEO for her to consider: “If you still think that ‘wealth trickles down,’ what’s your evidence?” and “If you end up as the CEO of a major multinational, are you willing to make a solemn promise that you will refuse to participate in anything that looks like a race to the bottom?” Then, referring back to their earlier use of Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ exercise, Socrates adds his own question for her to ponder: “Do you honestly think that any villager would freely agree to a system that created astonishing amounts of wealth and economic power for a small percentage of the villagers as long as some of it was used to create benefits for other villages but that the price would be paid in terms of the ‘kind of life’ our village was organized for in the first place? Wouldn’t that simply be crazy?”
The CEO takes the initiative and asks if the final topic will be Socrates explaining what he’s meant by his incendiary comments about culture wars, class struggle, and cons. Socrates answers that it will, but that in order to do so, they’ll begin by looking at the role of intellectual frameworks, unstated assumptions, and ideologies in determining what we consider facts—in particular, economic facts. Sergio illustrates this phenomenon by showing how Natalie, Wendy, and Socrates unwittingly used false assumptions to draw conclusions about a pod of dolphins they were observing. As a result, their inferences were false, even though they were certain they were objectively describing facts. Socrates’ point is that apparently neutral economic data can tell very different stories, depending on the framework, perspective, or ideology used through which to view them. Socrates claims that the CEO views economic data through the lens of a series of beliefs that are the equivalent of a religion. Natalie was given the assignment ahead of time of identifying the elements of the “Business Creed.” They constitute a conventional description of capitalism, the market, and wealth. However, after looking at the data she discovered about the economy, Natalie decides that most of these ideas are false. She concludes, “By the time I got to the end of my research, this just looked like a giant con to me.”
Illuminating the idea that facts can be interpreted very differently depending on the frame of reference used, Socrates explains how the workings of the economy—and the actions of many businesses—can be seen as being part of a “confidence game”—specifically, a “long con” that can be extended for years. Socrates labels this particular con “The Sheriff of Nottingham” because it “steals from the poor to give to the rich” while claiming that what’s going on is aimed at bringing prosperity to the village. He details the way the con enriches a minority of the village while transferring all of the costs to the majority. He is particularly critical of the ploy in which the villagers are accused of being irresponsible because they ended up with a deficit—when, in reality, the debt is because the rich villagers were able to trick or strong-arm the village to reduce the amount they had to pay in taxes. After Natalie refers to an interview with the CEO of Goldman Sachs in which he says that people must simply “do with less,” Socrates points out a particularly pernicious aspect of the con—the grifters are even treated as experts on what the village should do.
Socrates then asks Natalie and Sergio to report on another assignment he gave them—to come up with an alternative set of beliefs that would, in their mind, guarantee that the economy of the village would ‘do its job’ in securing the ‘kind of life’ they would want people to have. They describe the “Village Creed.” As a final assignment, Socrates asks the CEO to apply Rawls’ exercise again to this new Creed. Would she agree to this from behind the ‘veil of ignorance’? She concedes some of its merits, from an ethical perspective.
As the group heads for Socrates’ beach house, Socrates confesses that the company that asked him to interview the CEO had already decided to offer her the job after their original conversation. Socrates’ assignment was simply to convey the offer.
Socrates reveals the name of the company and the location—London. When the group arrives at his beach house, the CEO’s husband and daughter are there. Socrates has offered the family to stay there so that the CEO can decide whether or not to accept the offer. She does. Once in London, she reflects on her experience with Socrates.