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Corporate authenticity

May 24, 2012

There’s some interesting stuff in this article in Forbes. His points are not new; the economy is broken because the incentive structure is broken, corporations should focus on customers not shareholders (and doing so will benefit shareholders as well), here are some tips for fixing it. One thing jumped out at me, not something he said but the way he said it:

“There is only one valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer.” (some guy, quoted as the epigram to the article)

I want to agree with this, but not for the usual reason that corporations are not people (which they’re not, but they are (fictional) persons). There’s a better explanation. Corporations are (fictional) persons; and person-based ethics apply to them as well, including the Christian “love your neighbor as yourself” (which is not at all the same as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”–that’s a much less radical notion). Of course that concept underlies the whole argument here; Christian ethics are now our default, even when we’re not explicitly thinking ethically.

The article, however, uses other language to justify its moral claim (since after all it’s not just a claim about what would work best, it’s a claim about what’s right). It talks about “authenticity,” a word to which I have developed a strong aversion (Note: This may just be because I’ve recently been reading Martin Heidegger, for whom it’s actually “Eigentlichkeit,” which would be better translated “propriety” or “appropriateness.”; I find the conflation of appropriate with authentic fascinating and rather important, perhaps subject matter for a later post):

We must restore authenticity to the lives of our executives. The expectations market generates inauthenticity in executives, filling their world with encouragements to suspend moral judgment. They receive incentive compensation to which the rational response is to game the system. And since they spend most of their time trading value around rather than building it, they lose perspective on how to contribute to society through their work. Customers become marks to be exploited, employees become disposable cogs, and relationships become only a means to the end of winning a zero-sum game.

Maybe not everyone agrees, but when I read this, the equation of being-myself with being-for-others strikes me as just bizarre. If the point is to encourage people to live being-for-others, why wrap it in the rhetoric of “authenticity”? Not that “authenticity,” i.e. being-myself, is something to avoid; it’s irrelevant. For me to live being-myself correctly I have to live being-better-than-myself. If I live being-just-myself, I’m definitely going to seek what benefits me (i.e. the shareholders–the corporation is its shareholders), not what benefits others (i.e. the customers).

It’s like everyone wants to be Christian, but no one still believes in original sin.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Nick permalink
    May 24, 2012 10:22 am

    I like this, Joey. That was a good post on an interesting article. You should do more political/ economical stuff, if you’re feeling so inclined. However, I’m not sure that I fully understood the significance of the last paragraph. Do you think you could clarify what you mean?

    • May 24, 2012 12:31 pm

      Yeah I guess there’s a lot compressed there. Basically, authenticity only makes sense as a goal if what one naturally is, is good. If evil comes from the world, not oneself, then the way to not be evil us to be true to oneself, a la Pollonius, Rousseau, etc. Traditional Christianity, however, insists on original sin, ie, that what one naturally is, is not good. That’s a scary idea. So talking about authenticity is an attempt to have Christian morality while discarding the disturbing anthropology.

      The question, then, is whether “charity” can really go with”authenticity”, or whether “authenticity” need lead to selfishness. This is both a factual question–if we are indeed fallen, ignoring that fact will stop us from dealing with it–and theoretical one–is the idea of authenticity itself uncharitable, or does it only cause problems when it leads us to ignore sin?

    • May 24, 2012 12:35 pm

      (sorry for the typos in the above. Writing on my phone has it’s difficulties.)

      The really interesting question for me is the last one. Is authenticity a bad idea, or an overemphasized one?

      • Nick permalink
        May 28, 2012 1:04 am

        Ok that makes sense. (Sorry for the delayed response. The blog was suppose to tell me when I got a response, but it didn’t.) Yeah the authenticity question is an interesting one. It reminds me of Chesterton in Orthodoxy, where he talks about the secular virtue of “believe in yourself.” He basically says it’s a stupid virtue because the only people who have complete self-confidence are lunatics. He means actual crazy people. Successful people, he says, rather than believe in themselves, really believe in something else, and distrust themselves. He also talks about how one of the things that got turned around in when Christendom “fell” is that instead of people being skeptical about themselves, and certain of other things, like faith or morals, the reverse has happened. People are “sure” of themselves, where they really shouldn’t be, and skeptical of everything else, including faith and virtue. I don’t know if that is exactly related to your authenticity point, but it reminded me of it.

      • May 28, 2012 1:18 am

        Related, yeah. The authenticity point works on multiple levels, which is why it’s so important–it shows up in these really rarified ontological regions, as in Heidegger, then gets applied to practical ethics.

        Your mentioning skepticism is interesting–the place I’ve seen authenticity coming up most recently is as a (somewhat indirect) response to worries about skepticism, idea being basically that one escapes skepticism by being more confident. It might be productive to say in response that we should be (explicitly) skeptical about ourselves. Hm…

        I actually just finished Jean-Luc Marion’s* book on phenomenology and Heidegger, and so have some thoughts on a good way to respond to the “authenticity” business, but it’s complicated and would take effort to explain in detail… maybe a later post; for now, the basic idea is, the “I” does not exist until after the “me” has been called by, well, whatever does the calling (hint hint it’s God well maybe). So “authenticity” doesn’t make sense as a goal unless I first know what is calling “me” into being (well “being” is the wrong word for technical reasons but yeah).

        And he arrives at this conclusion by countering Heidegger’s Germanic “Angst” with an exquisitely French “boredom.”

        *Jean-Luc Marion: Catholic philosopher/theologian who works within the Continental philosophical tradition (think Heidegger and Derrida). Also my professor this quarter.

  2. Nick permalink
    May 28, 2012 1:29 am

    Yeah, Nathan has mentioned Marion before. Sounds cool. Any suggested reading by him for an amateur?

  3. May 28, 2012 1:38 am

    Prolegomena to Charity is good/maybe relevant to your interests? Not easy reading though.

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