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Moral Moments

Unprincipled Principles

by Joel Marks

“I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any subject.” That was Ezra Cornell’s motto for my alma mater, and it seems an apt characterization of the university where I am currently employed. A student can prepare for a career in resort management, engineering, interior design, accounting, music, law enforcement, you name it. But what would the founders of these two institutions have thought of a course called ‘Arson for Profit’?

I kid you not: We have it on the books. Any undergraduate who has met the academic prerequisites can sign up for FS409 in our program in ‘fire science’.

Naturally, the course is intended for prospective arson investigators, who can learn all the tricks of the trade for detecting whether a fire was deliberately set for nefarious purposes, discovering who did it, and establishing a chain of evidence for effective prosecution in a court of law. But wouldn’t this also be the perfect course to sign up for if you were a prospective arsonist? It’s certainly not unheard of for a firefighter to be caught torching a building. My point is not to indict academic programs in fire science; the increasing professionalization of many occupations is highly welcome. However, the example suggests how malfeasance, with the help of higher education, can creep into every aspect of public and business life.

I realized this anew when I was invited to speak before a class in marketing, which is another of our degree programs. The regular instructor is a colleague who appreciates the kind of ethical perspective I can bring as a philosopher. There are endless ways I could have approached this assignment, but I took my cue from the title of the course: ‘Principles of Marketing.’ It made me think to ask the students, “Is marketing principled?” After all, a subject matter can have principles in the sense of being codified, without being principled in the sense of being ethical. For example, I’m sure a manual of the Principles of Effective Torture could be found on the Internet. Many of the students inferred at once that the answer to my question about marketing principles was obvious: no. Just look at the ways in which everything under the sun has been marketed; obviously it need not be done in a principled fashion.

Is that obvious? I made the suggestion, which may sound downright loony in light of the evidence, that perhaps marketing is by definition principled. My inspiration for this judgement is Immanuel Kant. While not noted for an accessible writing style, Kant did have the acuity to see right to the heart of a matter. In his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), he states, “All sciences have a practical part consisting of problems saying that some end is possible for us, and of imperatives telling us how it can be attained.” In simpler terms, he’s saying: Any body of knowledge consists of an end and a means.

Let us apply this dichotomy to marketing. The students have signed up for a course in order to learn how to market effectively. But to what end? There seem to be two main attitudes toward that question. One is that the answer is obvious: The purpose of marketing is to sell things and to make money. The other attitude is that the purpose of marketing is irrelevant: Each person comes to the program and course with his or her own plans, and these need not even concern the acquisition of marketing expertise as such. My proposal, which I believe would also be Kant’s, is that neither of these attitudes captures the significance of the end to the means for marketing. A field of knowledge or a professional endeavor is defined by both the means and the end; hence both deserve scrutiny. If students will pore over books to learn How To Achieve X, then they should also take a hard look at What X Is.

It is at this point that ‘Arson for Profit’ becomes supremely relevant. That course is presumably all about means: how to detect and prosecute criminal activity. It is therefore assumed that the end is good in an ethical sense. When I ask fire science students to articulate the end, purpose or raison d’etre of their field, they eventually generalize to something like, “The safety and welfare of society.” That seems right. If the end were not such, then I presume we would not even be offering such a program at the university. As we have seen, someone could use the very same knowledge of means to achieve a very different end, such as personal profit via destructive, dangerous, reckless activity. But we would not call that firefighting. We have a separate name for it: arson.

Thus I clinch my case about marketing or any other field suitable for college instruction: It will not be just the means but also some good end that constitute the field itself. Therefore, if you employed the ‘principles of marketing’ in an unprincipled way, you would not be doing marketing. We have another term for it: fraud. Kant gives the example of a doctor and a poisoner, who use the identical knowledge to achieve their divergent ends. We would say that one is practicing medicine, the other, murder.

So there you have a diagnosis of what has gone wrong in so many businesses and professions – due in large part to what has gone wrong in higher education: We have come to treat fields of endeavor as if they were simply about means, while either assuming or neglecting the ends. But the unexamined end is not worth pursuing. Therefore, ‘business ethics’ is not an oxymoron: ‘unethical profession’ is.

© Joel Marks 2006

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. www.moralmoments.com

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