At La Quinta Real (the royal manor), a Mexican resort hotel with a restorative view and not so restorative food, I was standing in a swimming pool with a Los Angeles portfolio manager (investment adviser). He asked me, convivially, what I wrote about.
“Ethics,” I said.
He had a way of quickly responding to this. Ethics was much discussed in his business. Ethics in the sense of “compliance”: with regulations pertaining to the capital markets, investment advisers and so forth. But also ethics in a more general sense, meaning something close to honesty. That is, business offers businesspeople many opportunities to cheat, shade the truth and so forth, and a great deal of the money made by businesspeople comes from shady dealings. So the ethical questions become: To what extent should or can a businessperson be honest and what would be the gains and losses of such behavior?
I explained to my pool companion, Greg, that I was not uninterested in the subject of business ethics (and of dishonesty), but that in my writing the word “ethics” pointed to a more basic question: How should “I” live? What should I do with my life? In general or, say, right now, as I am recording this pool conversation in my computer and having a second cup of coffee and putting off working on a larger piece, or checking my e-mail, or asking one of my old psychotherapists if he has some time to see me again, or talking with the manager of the café about our imperfect romantic relationships and the vaguely Buddhist approaches to therapy that interest her, or . . .
In the pool Greg moved promptly from my description of my approach to ethics to a request for a prescription. So what did I think people should do? “What should I do?”
These were perfectly good questions, but they brought me up short. Or I might say that they caught me by surprise. My writings inevitably, ineluctably, propose and champion certain ways of living, of spending one’s time. First and foremost they propose devoting a fair amount of time to reading explorations of ethics and reflecting on these. But I felt, there in the warm, sun-shimmering water, that I was afraid of owning up to or of taking responsibility for this aspect of my work. The sense in which I was, I am, telling people—most of whom I have never even met—what to do with their time, their lives.
A bit disingenuously I proposed to Greg that I was not interested in telling him or anyone else what to do. My goal, my hope, was to spur people to ruminate, to wonder, to ask their own questions. (I must note the connection here to an idea in some of Plato’s dialogues, and of the dialogues as a whole, that we may most nearly approach “the good”—the right way to live—when we are exploring with others, in conversation, what the good might be.)
The nice part of all this is how enthusiastically Greg responded to my approach. As the conversation continued and touched on many other things—our sons, sexual relations, cowardice and courage—and as I would make my proposals or ask my questions, Greg would make comments like—“Now this is something I’d like to ruminate about!”
The phrase “each one teach one” has been used in connection with recent literacy campaigns, but apparently the phrase was born on American slave plantations. When a slave learned or was taught to read, it became his duty to teach someone else. Thus the phrase. I would not like to say, however, that in that royal pool I taught Greg more than he taught me.
As regards spurring others to ruminate
I would call attention to a blog post by Montaigbakhtinian reader Nina Mishkin: Some thoughts (if you can call them that) about sex. The post was spurred, not only by the release of the movie 50 Shades of Grey, but also, at least in part, by an e-mail dialogue Nina and I had had about the erotic life of elderly people, another subject about which I, now 60, am hardly disinterested.
I would also use this opportunity to recall what Plato’s Socrates says in The Republic regarding courage or bravery: ἀνδρεία. Here glossing and abridging from pages 429c-d, or taking these words from Socrates’s mouth:
A kind of conservation is what I mean by bravery. The conservation—amid pain and pleasure, desire and fear—of what one has learned.
Other posts touching on business ethics include Stealin’, Stealin’ and Ethics of our twenty-first century. Both of these pieces will appear in my collection Surviving the Twenty-First Century, due out soon from Serving House Books.
I came to see Nina’s name in lights and I was not disappointed. Nice to find your blog, William.
Glad you stopped by, Cynthia.
I agree, Nina, Greg’s personality or professional charm played a large role in his responsiveness to the conversation. I also believe, however, that human beings are quite capable of responding differently to different circumstances. If you give them a few beers and a loud TV, they’re one way. If you have a quiet philosophical chat, they’re another way and may prove surprisingly capable of philosophical exploration. Another Platonic point, btw — i.e. in The Meno, famously, Socrates gets a slave boy doing geometry.
Purey by way of philosophical chat, William, and not to be contentious: As to your first point, nolo contendere. However, as to your second point, since the Greeks recruited their slave population from the conquered peoples of other nations, it should come as no surprise that a slave boy could be responsive to and capable of mastering geometry lessons — or even advanced algebra or calculus, had Socrates taken the time to lead him down those paths. I do not take this to mean that quiet philosophical chats, in luxurious hotel pools or elsewhere, even if they result in subsequent midnight ruminations, can significantly alter profit-making daytime behavior in the great majority of us enmeshed in (enslaved by?) a corporate capitalist culture.
How can I not click “like,” William? Thank you so much. (Although I very much doubt my post stimulated rumination in any of its readers other than you, whatever else it may have stimulated.)
With respect to portfolio managers/investment advisers, however, I tend to be far more suspicious of enthusiastic responses from persons whose business it is to deal with other people’s money than you seem to have been. (I met many of them in my former lawyer life; they were all professionally charming and seemed very sincere.) Unless Greg was a rare outlier among his kind, I’m sure he genuinely enjoyed his conversation with you while on vacation but will not ruminate much about how to live once he gets back to his desk and balance sheets. Perhaps my cynicism is the bravery I developed through conservation of what I learned while becoming elderly. But I’m glad at least most of your vacation was restorative and inspiring, even if the food could have been better.