Why Business Ethics Matters

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Why Business Ethics Matters

Wayne Nordness Eastman (2015)

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PREFACE

In Part One of this book, I advance a game-theoretic version of the classical four temperaments perspective on human nature. In Part Two, I offer an understanding of business ethics as a phlegmatic, pragmatic, and practical way of solving social games that is more productive than, but not morally superior to, other ethics animated by more emotionally intense temperaments.

Writing this book has involved a very long journey, in which I have experienced my own versions of the classical repertory of Sanguine, Melancholy, Choleric, and Phlegmatic feelings. Over the years on that journey, I have been inspired by the scholarship of four teachers I have been lucky enough to have known, and who have served as intellectual lodestars. Through them, I have learned, succeeded, failed, and tried again.

Professor Thomas Schelling, who many years later won a well-deserved Nobel Prize, was the first of my four guides at Harvard College in 1973. I felt tremendous enjoyment in my freshman seminar with him that fall.1 I was fascinated and excited by the idea that you could use game theory to understand the world. I loved the 2 × 2 matrices he introduced us to, and the sometimes logical, sometimes psychological exercises he had us do and discuss.

In particular, I was deeply impressed by the disturbing logic of the Prisoner’s Dilemma that Professor Schelling described to us. How could rational egoists escape the trap of following a “dominant strategy” that made both players better off no matter what the other did, yet left them both with a poorer outcome than they could have if they’d only been able to cooperate?

The man with the unfashionable bristly crew cut and glasses who was teaching us was one of the leading strategists of the Cold War era, when thousands of American and Russian missiles were poised to strike the other nation’s cities and people at a moment’s notice. By 1973—thanks in part, I believe, to Professor Schelling’s work—detente was in the air, and nuclear war had become a less omnipresent and frightening prospect than it had been in the early 1960s, when my elementary school classmates and I had hidden under our desks in simulated fallout drills at the time of the Cuban missile crisis.

After enjoyment came shame. Like many academically inclined undergraduates in the 1970s who in another era might have gone on for their doctorates, I felt dubious about academic life and went to law school. PhDs were driving taxicabs, or so rumor had it, because the professorial jobs were all taken—and wasn’t the real world the place to be in any case, not the ivory tower? But my dreamy, theorizing side remained strong, and in law school, I encountered the second person who transformed my thinking about games and the world.
Professor Schelling had made the eighteen-year-old me a deep-dyed believer in game theory. Duncan Kennedy—a charismatic, long-haired Harvard Law School professor who was a star in the then-new Critical Legal Studies movement—helped make the somewhat older me a skeptic about standard game theory, and about my earlier enthusiasm. My loss of faith did not come from personal preaching by Duncan, for I never took a class with him, but from his articles, and, perhaps, through some instant mind-meld, from a time I saw him give a talk.2 Post-Duncan, I was still preoccupied with the Prisoner’s Dilemma. But now it was a skeptical, debunking fascination. As I toiled away as a litigator at a Wall Street law firm in the go-go 1980s, I consoled myself with the prospect of collecting my bonus, quitting my job, and writing a genre-busting philosophical novel that would include a critical dissection of game theory. Hoping to make a break from law practice to teaching, I sent out letters to various schools inquiring about job possibilities and describing my novel. No job interviews resulted, but I did get a short anonymous note, postmarked from Michigan, saying that I should take a look at Robert Frank’s Passions within Reason.3
I duly read the book. I was extremely impressed at Bob’s account of how moral emotions could serve strategic functions—for instance, of how blushing could be a reliable signal of a character that was embarrassed by a lie and thus likely to be a trustworthy trading partner. Stimulated by Passions, I read other academic and popular works by Bob that used the Dilemma in a variety of imaginative ways to argue for public polices—for example, for work safety regulations as a good way to control a race to the bottom based on workers caring about their financial position relative to other workers, and hence valuing safety too little.
In the 1990s, my split “Duncan” and “Bob” halves were both productive. With the help of a business law colleague of my father’s, I’d been lucky enough to get an adjunct teaching job at my father’s school that eventually led to a tenure-track job. Faced with publish-or-perish pressure, I buckled down to write two kinds of articles. One kind drew on my “Bob side” to make a game theory–based case against the rat race. For example, I surveyedmy MBA students on their work hour preferences and analyzed the results to support the claim that managers in general, and women managers with children in particular, were trapped in a Dilemma that led them to work longer hours than they preferred. The second kind drew on my “Duncan side” to make a case that logical models usually associated with one political position— the Prisoner’s Dilemma and liberalism, supply–demand curves and freemarket conservatism—could be flipped to tell the opposite side’s story.My split halves had worked fine for writing articles. But I could not make them pull together in 1999 after I got tenure and had a year-long sabbatical, or over the next ten years or so that I struggled futilely with successive versions of what was supposed to be a book on political ideology. There was a division within me. Was I tearing the heart out of ideology, and the fever dreams of believers of all stripes? Or was I supporting ideology, and advancing my own “neither right nor left” ideology? The result was a hypertrophied righteousness module. I was grumpy about my intellectual guides, and righteously angry about my own and everyone’s self-r ighteousness, partly because I couldn’t acknowledge and accept the ashamed, fearful, sad side of myself.
In the last four years or so, I believe I have gotten some way to the balance that so long eluded me. First, reality brought me closer to accepting sadness as a part of my life. The Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in 2010, my sister in Massachusetts called to tell me that my father had had a seizure while driving with my mother, had been diagnosed by the doctors at Newton-Wellesley Hospital with a brain tumor, and would be operated on at Mass General Hospital on Monday. His tumor, we learned after his operation, was an invariably fatal glioblastoma, the same type that killed Teddy Kennedy.
My father died in 2012. One Saturday morning in April he was walking around a pond, his optimistic spirit if not his mind intact. A day and a halfX later he was gone. Sadness remains.
A second reason for possibly moving closer to balance involves a shift in my teaching and research focus over time from business law to business ethics. For me, law, like politics, powerfully stimulates the point–counterpoint, righteousness-first part of myself. Ethics, not so much. Happiness surfaces more easily; competitive fervor is less powerful. Another reason I think I have come closer to balance relates to a fourth intellectual mentor, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. I’ve gotten to know Jon in his new job as a business ethicist at New York University, where he runs a seminar with Bob that I attend. Jon’s work criticizing (and appreciating) righteousness among political believers and all the rest of us helped me to let go of my ambition to write a politics book, and to turn my bookwriting focus toward business ethics.

At long last, forty years after my fall afternoons in Cambridge with Professor Schelling, I am closer, I hope, to the spirit of calm and appreciation of all four of my intellectual mentors that I need to write a book that draws from them. What I have to say combines their modern approaches to games, to social science, and to criticism with a very old understanding of ethics as balance that is found in the classical West and also, in somewhat different versions, in other parts of the world. After reading this book, you will be able to draw on a new way of understanding ethics in general, and business ethics in particular, in terms of temperaments and games. That understanding may, I hope, be of assistance to you in attaining your own version of balance at home and at work.

CONTENTS

List of Figures................................................................................................. ix
Preface ................................................................................................. .........xi
Acknowledgments ..........................................................................................xv
Overview of the Book.....................................................................................xix
Introduction: The Four Temperaments and the Four Games ...........................1
Part I Humors and Games.............................................................................. 19
1 We’re Better Than We Think........................................................................ 21
2 The Harmony Games .................................................................................. 39
3 Opening the Door to the Sanguine.................................................................
4 Bringing Telos Back ......................................................................................93
Part II Business Ethics.....................................................................................117
5 Critical Business Ethics..............................................................................  119
6 Why Business Ethics Matters.......................................................................141
Conclusion ................................................................................................. ....161
Appendices................................................................................................. ....163
Notes................................................................................................................175
References................................................................................................. ......185
Index................................................................................................. ...............197

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