Stage T
16:00 - 17:00
We Can Work It Out
Private Vice, Public Virtue: Can you ever do Do Business and Be Good?

Short thesis

Our economic models place “self-interested” right at their centre – in direct opposition to nearly all moral traditions. How do we respond when reality cannot prove true the promise of private vice delivering public virtue? We compromise, compartmentalisation, or pursue doomed attempts to reject, though not resolve, this tension. Let’s time travel to historic corporations and the ancient polis, to envisage a more ambitious and idealistic future for enterprise. 


As humans we have a natural, if not unconflicted, drive to be good. How can this be true for companies, organisations that have become more than an aggregate of their individuals, that we don’t know how to think about in ethically terms? When we do business we might be decent and honest, but are we “being good”? Often, we see commerce and being good as opposites. This is not just knee-jerk cynicism, but deeply rooted in our understanding of both. 

We will explore if political philosophers, as theorists of human interaction, could hold the key to a more human future of work. From historic corporations to the ancient polis, the original Academy, the Corporation of London or the East-India Company, historically there are good reasons why political philosophers and supra-nationals should have a lot more to say to each other than we think.

In the second half, we’ll talk about how we’ve personally responded to the conflicting demands of economics and ethics. Who can we be in such an incoherent world? We may choose to compromise (the “Nice Guy”, seeking solace from harsh commerce in CSR), or compartmentalise (the “Volunteers-at-weekends loan shark”). We might reject the moral critique of the markets (the “Libertarian” stereotype), or reject commerce entirely (the “Drop-out”, secretly financed by mum and dad).

How do we think our own behavior corresponds to these personas? Are we Mr. Softly one day, Ms Leave-it-all-at-the-office another, with some fleeting, illicit flirtations with the runaway hippie or hardened cynic along the way? Is any of it satisfactory?

Today, we often fear powerful corporations eclipsing the role and influence of states. But what if this resemblance was not just something to be feared, but also an opportunity to invest in them the same aspirations as in our political communities? If we were citizens of our work, how would that change the way we talk and think about this subject? What demands will we make of an enlightened enterprise?