The “Socrates” in Socrates Comes to Wall Street is a fictional character designed to represent someone in business who takes to heart the Socratic dictum–“the unexamined life is not worth living.” The historical Socrates spent a good deal of time in the agora–the Athenian marketplace. So it seemed appropriate to put our “Socrates” into the center of contemporary business and see what he’d do.

The historical Socrates didn’t hesitate to challenge the Athenians to question everything. Remember that the only wisdom he claimed to have was an awareness of how little he actually knew. Accordingly, since it seems the higher one goes in contemporary corporations, the more we see “superstars” who not only don’t recognize the limits of their expertise but are allergic to humility and self-doubt, it was fitting to pair our “Socrates” with an overconfident CEO from the industry that brought the global economy to the brink of disaster.

Specifically, “Socrates” forces the CEO to question perspectives and practices that are taken as “givens” in most American business schools and corporations. For example:

  • The purpose of a business is to generate maximum profit for shareholders.
  • Wealth generated by business will “trickle down” throughout the rest of the economy to everyone’s benefit. “A rising tide floats all boats.”
  • Contemporary free-market capitalism invariably promotes maximum individual freedom.
  • CEO compensation in the range of hundreds of times more than that of average employees is ethically appropriate.
  • Corporations have very limited responsibility for any harm their actions may bring to people now or in the future.
  • It is ethically acceptable for businesses to keep their tax bill as small as possible, even if it means they pay no taxes at all.
  • Ethics is a largely subjective, even arbitrary matter, rather than a technically sophisticated way to describe actions, their consequences and to assess risk.
  • A rigorous and sophisticated ethical analysis need not be part of decision making in business. Abiding by the law and consulting mission statements, lists of corporate values and one’s corporate ethics office are more than enough to guarantee that a company’s actions are ethical.
  • As long as decisions are made by people of “integrity” who don’t lie, cheat or steal, a business will be operating ethically. 

These beliefs are challenged in this book because they are “common coin” and are rarely questioned in business schools and corporations. The heart of the Socratic challenge is to ask ourselves whether ideas that we’re absolutely certain are true are, in fact, backed up by facts and logic. Moreover, no attitude is so sacred that it is excluded from scrutiny. Indeed, the more sacred it is, the more important the need to examine its validity.