View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Monday, March 15, 2004

Flawed Compass 

Next quarter, I'll be taking something called "Values in a Global Marketplace," a little philosophy, a lot of politics. The course is taught by a one-time Democratic Senate candidate here in the Centennial State. Malcolm "Buie" Seawell. Given that the reading list pre-supposes a great deal, I'm sure this course will feature prominently in this space over the coming 10 weeks.

One of the texts for the course, a small book named The Executive Compass by James "Don't Call Me Peter" O'Toole. It's a way of breaking down ethical decisions into four competing values, placed at the four cardinal points of a compass: liberty, community, efficiency, and equality. The book, and the ideas in it, are based on the Executive Seminar at Mortimer Adler's Aspen Institute, so they rely heavily on classical philosophy.

All very interesting as far as it goes. What's noticeably missing is any reference, any reference at all, to religious thought about these subjects. One could argue that the extensive Jewish legal corpus on business and economic ethics never directly affected the larger Western civilization around it. It's next to impossible to make the same claims about other medieval Christian thinkers, who took up early contract, futures, and currency exchange laws. All of their thinking was based, to some extent or another, on moral and ethical thinking, even if it wasn't as systematic, or articulated in the same language, as Mr. Adler's material.

The same was true of the introductory ethics and law course. For many business students, even at the graduate level, these course represent their introduction to philosophical thought. To deliberately deprive them of at least a discussion of the rich, sophisticated thought of religious thinkers, merely because the grundnorm of their thought came from Jerusalem rather than Athens (or purely from Athens), is an unforgiveable impoverishment of their educations. It is, today, too much to expect an argument from Aquinas to prevail on its own. Still, such arguments embody ideals that need to be taken seriously.

One suspects that Adler himself might have agreed. Towards the end of his life, he became, to all accounts, quite a devout Catholic.

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