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Can Practical Self-Interest Lead to Higher Ethics?

A recent LinkedIn discussion around ethics started when someone asked participants to list a few ethics books they’d found helpful. I posted several titles, culled from the archives of my Positive Power of Principled Profit newsletter, where I review one book per month on ethics, Green business, or service (scroll down). One of the group members, Professor Allan Elder, wrote back with a long comment; here’s a piece of it:

A recent LinkedIn discussion around ethics started when someone asked participants to list a few ethics
books they’d found helpful. I posted several titles, culled from the
archives of my Positive Power of Principled Profit newsletter, where I review one book per month on ethics, Green business, or service (scroll down).

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One of the group members, Professor Allan Elder, wrote back with a long comment; here’s a piece of it:

The concern I have with all the books you recommend is
they espouse a certain set of behaviors without explaining the
reasoning behind them. For the casual reader (which is nearly all),
this leads to prescription without understanding.

This is my response:

It’s true that my list focuses heavily on books that
talk more about the behavior than the philosophy behind them. A book
like The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid is based on a simple
economic construct: there is money to be made helping the world’s
poorest improve their lives. Yet several of the authors I mention
would, I’m quite sure, be very comfortable showing their roots in Kant
and John Stuart Mill.

I don’t see this as a problem; I actually see it as a strength.
Self-interest can motivate positive changes in behavior, and thus in
society, that more abstract thinking cannot. Those who would never
voluntarily expose themselves to deep philosophical thinking start to
create changes in the culture–and those who find their curiosity
engaged will go deeper.

A practical example from my own life: as a teenager, I got involved
with food co-ops, not because I had any particular consciousness at
that time about the problems caused by our society’s choices in food
policy, but because I was a starving student and it was a way to get
good cheap food. But from that beginning based purely in narrow
self-interest, I grew to understand some of the very complex web of
policy, philosophy, and culture that have caused our food system to be
the way it is. Thirty-five years later, I can talk about food issues on
a much deeper level–but I still recruit people to eat better by
engaging in their own self-interest: better health, better taste, etc.
If they seem open to it, I start bringing in issues like the positive
impact of supporting the local economy (which can then, in turn, open
the door to a larger discussion of ethics issues).

:-)

In short, I think the literature has ample place for books rooted in
either the philosophical or the practical, because different people
will be drawn to the different schemes, and either one is a starting
point for understanding the other

Of course philosophers pay attention to practical matters first,
only they use a fancy word: “Praxis.” I didn’t mention that in my
response.

What do YOU think?