Aristotle, Covey and Modern Virtues

In discussing those who tell us today how to achieve eudaimonia, the successful life, we can start with Mary Midgley’s approach, that of taking popular works seriously. 33 We can use in this part of the argument, therefore, two books that will be familiar, Steven Covey’s The seven habits of highly successful people and Dale Carnegie’s How to win friends and influence people.
 These two approach the moral virtues end of Aristotle’s spectrum. Covey argues for our rational selves – to be proactive, know what we want to achieve, and to put first things first. In our dealings with others, he asks us to understand first before seeking to understand, to seek solutions that win for all and to build on our relationships.  His seventh habit is to work for continual improvement of these skills. Carnegie starts by stating that we should never criticise, condemn or complain. He then provides over thirty recommendations that all strengthen one’s relationships with other people. Covey evidences a strong desire to interact honestly, openly and constructively with others. Carnegie, on the other hand, initially raises the suspicion that he is advocating manipulation, or at least sycophancy. Nevertheless, his theories have an acceptable ethical objective. If opposing parties, everywhere, set out to avoid criticism, to build empathy, even when each is striving to achieve their own ends, the world will be a less harmful place.

We could consider Covey and Carnegie, with their recipes for achieving social recognition and standing, as Aristotle’s successors.  There is one major difference, though. Neither advocates any skill resembling an Aristotelian intellectual virtue required by people wanting to be successful or influential. Aristotle identified a number of intellectual virtues as necessary for EUDAIMONIA. Aristotle presented eight (depending on how one counted them) intellectual virtues, ranging from scientific knowledge (EPISTEME), to technical skill (TECHNE), to practical common sense (PHRONESIS). It would be easy to support Covey and Carnegie’s belief that effective interpersonal skills are all that is necessary to flourish. We have no greater need, they are suggesting, than to relate openly and without guile with the people around us. No particular excellences are required. As Jonathan Barnes has pointed out, ‘the vast majority of happy people have no outstanding excellences’.  But Aristotle was addressing people who desired to achieve recognition in the political life of the city. For that he advocated a wide set of intellectual virtues. In today’s world, people seek recognition in many social, professional, business, academic, or political fields. They need a wide set of virtues.

The intellectual virtues

There is a multitude of studies and theories set out in the literature that tell us the skills needed to be successful in all walks of life. For people in organisational life they reach from Peter’s and Waterman’s ” In search of excellence” to a range of self-help theories and many works on leadership and management. This section concentrates on the virtues that are required for success in structured organisations, not for any lack of theories on how to succeed in other forms of life, but for the reason that the success in such organisations is measurable, and a number of studies have measured this success. As will also be seen, although the theories and research results vary widely, a number of studies have indicated broadly the types of virtue that are required. These findings have implications for the theories behind virtue ethics.

Two examples will be used initially: the work of Rosabeth Moss Kanter in “The change masters” and others of her writings, along with those of John Kotter. Kanter, Professor of Management at the Harvard Business School, identified forty seven companies with a “most progressive” reputation in their industry. She then matched them with a control group of companies in the same industry and compared the performance of each group over a twenty-year period. She found: “The companies with reputations for progressive human-resource practices were significantly higher in long term profitability and financial growth than their counterparts.” These companies were participative, held respect for individuals, and had fluid boundaries and a free flow of ideas across the organisation. They were innovative, enjoyable places to work, with a high level of employee involvement. The non-progressive companies, on the other hand, were hierarchical, compartmentalised, and operated along strict and formal lines of command. They were not committed to well-established principles of participation, employee commitment and structural flexibility.

John Kotter, with JL Heskett, came up with a supporting set of findings. In a series of studies covering more than 200 large US firms, the authors examined the relationship between corporate culture and business performance. Performance was measured through growth in income, return on investment and growth in stock price. Corporate culture was the extent to which a ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ set of shared values was held throughout the company. The authors found that in ‘unhealthy’ or unadaptive cultures managers cared about themselves, were “self-interested” (instead of being committed to the organisation), and behaved insularly, bureaucratically and even politically. In such an environment, a strong and arrogant culture develops, which “turns people off, particularly those whose personal values include an emphasis on integrity, trust, and a caring for other human beings”. Even though they admitted that adaptive value systems, in written form, sound “hopelessly idealistic”, or even “inappropriately religious”, Kotter and Heskett endorsed such a corporate culture.

The Kotter and Kanter studies give results only from large US corporations. It is a large leap to apply the results from their samples to organised groups everywhere, including the public or non-profit sectors. But the studies do suggest that an organisational culture that cares for the people within its boundaries produces some measure of eudaimonia, or fulfillment, both for the leaders and the led. All Kanter’s and Kotter’s virtues are ethical virtues. It could be argued, however, that they are also self-regarding as well as other-regarding, for they benefit both sides of the organisational structure. They are certainly not virtues concerned solely with benefiting others. They do describe, however, intellectual virtues that require skills at working with people in organisations.

Aristotle’s justice as fairness, the only virtue he claimed as other-regarding, is not far removed from one that appears repeatedly in the organisational literature: integrity. It is not always precisely defined, but usually stated as a major virtue and sometimes the only virtue by modern writers on organisational behaviour. Peter Drucker, for instance, in his classic “Management”, advocates personal integrity as the sole ethical requirement. He regards it as an aspect of character. In his words, it is not through an answer to the question, “who is right”, but through “what is right” that he defines integrity. He places the emphasis on the action, not the person. His integrity is again a both-regarding virtue. Treat with integrity those with whom you deal and you will likely benefit. However, his listing of the other capabilities – the intellectual virtues that are required to rise through an organisation – are covered in many publications.

The intellectual virtues to which we should aspire are difficult to identify. We could, for instance, argue that ability with words, written or spoken, was a necessary intellectual virtue. After all, the words of Aristotle and his compatriots have had an impact for more than two thousand years. We could also adopt Kotter, and argue for a commitment to life-long learning as a virtue that brings eudaimonia. When we include the work of other theorists, for example Kenneth Blanchard and Warren Bennis, the search for the desirable intellectual virtues is unlikely to reach any agreed conclusion. But it does seem axiomatic that a person seeking to flourish would need skills or knowledge additional to that suggested by Covey and Carnegie, or additional to any solely moral virtues.

Virtue ethics today

In examining where virtue ethics has reached today, one obvious development is that numerous virtues that display a caring for the well-being of others and an unwillingness to cause harm, have been added to Aristotle’s list. David Hume has over sixty. Robert Solomon provides almost thirty in total: honesty, loyalty, sincerity, courage, reliability, trustworthiness, benevolence, sensitivity, helpfulness, cooperativeness, civility, decency, modesty, openness, cheerfulness, amiability, tolerance, reasonableness, tactfulness, wittiness, gracefulness, liveliness, magnanimity, persistence, prudence, resourcefulness, cool-headedness, warmth, hospitality. Many of these virtues are related to Aristotle’s original list. They will assist us in developing successful personal relations with others. Many of them, however, reach beyond Aristotle.

Today’s virtue ethicists have, almost without exception, introduced several additional characteristics that have regard for other people: virtues such honesty, benevolence, helpfulness, and so on. Most modern supporters of virtue ethics also see these other-regarding traits as necessary for eudaimonia. MacIntyre argues that “The Ethics shows us what form and style of life are necessary to happiness.” Hursthouse’s ‘neo-Aristotelianism’ is illustrated by many other-regarding and self-regarding virtues, and she defines a virtue “as a character trait that a human being needs to flourish or live well”. It can be argued reasonably successfully, therefore, that in one sense today’s virtue ethicists have taken their virtues further than Aristotle. It can also be argued, however, that if one version of eudaimonia, as it will be for many, is to contribute to or even reach a position of influence in a social organisation, most modern texts would also require a range of intellectual virtues over and above integrity-related virtues. For the most part, as discussed below, these virtues are not a part of the virtue ethics thesis. It can also be argued, as also in the following paragraphs, that by its nature virtue ethics is not a tool for making useful decisions in difficult ethical situations.

The further incompleteness of organisational virtue

Earlier paragraphs have argued that although the ‘how-to-be-successful’ books do advocate virtues, albeit often through an all-embracing virtue such as integrity, they are not enough for resolving difficult ethical decisions. Neither, however, is virtue ethics. There are several examples of ethical conflicts where the virtuous person, the person with integrity, will need help; and where virtue ethics does not provide this help. One of the more obvious is whistleblowing. The conflict is between the virtue of loyalty and the virtue of honesty, or at least of stopping dishonesty. As Simon Illingworth, a police whistleblower, has stated: “Do I tell the truth or do I remain loyal? That’s the hard one.” That conflict is the underlying reason why whistleblower protection legislation has been introduced over recent years in all western countries. Thomas Faunce recognised the conflict, drawing on philosophical arguments going back to the first decade of the last century to define a concept of loyalty that does not create conflict. He used Josiah Royce’s 1908 definition as the promotion of a universal loyalty among human beings. Faunce consistently describes his loyalty as “the relief of individual patient suffering”. This relief is, he says, the telos of a virtue-based foundation for health care whistleblowing.

There are several examples, however, in health and in other fields, where the loyalty to preserving one’s family, or to maintaining the friendship of work colleagues, or to ensuring the continued existence of the organisation, has been the major loyalty. There are many virtuous people who have decided not to blow the whistle. Numerous other ethical decisions illustrate the difficulty of using virtue as a decision making guideline. What is the virtuous level of expenditure on occupational health and safety? Or the extent to which a bridge engineer should check his design calculations? Or the degree to which a government, or an activist, should oppose old growth logging? Oakley and Cocking draw on Hursthouse’s definition, which they claim as central to any form of virtue ethics: “An action is right if and only if it is what an agent with a virtuous character would do in the circumstances.” It is a near-impossible definition to use, for in difficult dilemmas nobody knows what a virtuous character would do. They later admit that a strongly virtuous character may take an issue further than is reasonable: a committed environmentalist, for instance, may make a wrong decision on logging. They counter this common criticism of virtue ethics, however, by stating that this position is an extreme and, in any case, a problem common also to KANTIANISM and different forms of utilitarianism and CONSEQUENTIALISM (pp 31-38). This response is arguable, for there are many variations and combinations of the commonly accepted theories that are used, some of which do help and are widely used in making ethical decisions. In any case, the claim that Kantianism and consequentialism also suffer from the same defects as virtue ethics does not justify the statement that virtue ethics is a superior form to these more widely accepted ethical decision making approaches.

In conclusion

Does that, then, make virtue ethics a largely irrelevant addition to the body of ethical theories that we use in making decisions? The answer has to be no. We cannot seriously reject a guideline that extols virtues such as justice or fairness, or kindness and consideration to others, or even honesty. We also cannot deny a guideline that, at least with some virtues, and in an organisational sense, produces superior organisational performance. For those in a position of influence in these organisations, or for those whose objective is to outshine others in the climb up some form of organisational ladder, some virtues are likely to produce eudaimonia.

I have argued, however, that virtue ethics has built its theories on a false base, and that the true successors to Aristotle’s Ethics are a series of publications that tell us how to be successful in today’s organisational world. Virtue ethicists today do not extend themselves beyond those skills and character traits that strengthen our relationships with others. They do not outline those intellectual virtues that help us bring ourselves or the organisation to a point of complete fulfilment. I have also argued that virtue ethics, in today’s context, provides an incomplete set of ethical guidelines for individual and organisational decision making. It would be, for example, inappropriate as a guideline in a code of ethics. It also does not help resolve some difficult ethical decisions.

In summary then, virtue ethics will not bring a form of fulfilment that will be important to many people. Nor is it an answer when making complex moral decisions. The claims that it makes, therefore, should be treated with great caution. But the concept of behaving virtuously, with consideration and assistance to others, deserves support, for it will still bring many forms of personal and organisational reward.







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