Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Lance Armstrong: How the Mighty (Book) Has Fallen

It's not about the bike.

Lance Armstrong: It’s Not About the Bike.

What are we to make, at this point, of Lance Armstrong’s best-selling 2000 book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life? I have to admit that I never read the book, and my interest in doing so has not increased in the wake of accusations of doping. But why? After all, the book was a best-seller, one by an athlete whom many regard — still regard — as a hero.

The picture above is one I took, of a box of free books a neighbour of mine left outside on the sidewalk. When I ran by one recent Saturday afternoon, only one book remained: Armstrong’s book. Funny but sad, I thought. When I passed again roughly 24 hours later, the box looked exactly the same: just one book, unwanted even for free. I snapped a picture.

(Another perspective on the book’s value: Amazon is still selling the book, for about $11, though you can also buy a used copy via Amazon for just a penny — in other words, for the cost of shipping it.)

The book, as you can surmise from reading any of a number of reviews, tells the story of Armstrong’s rise to prominence in cycling, his battle with and ultimately triumph over cancer, through to his victory at the 1999 Tour de France. It is, in short, the story that made him a hero to so many.

We are now all but certain that Armstrong’s meteoric rise to the pinnacle of the cycling world was aided by pharmaceuticals, a sophisticated and rigorous doping program that he not only stuck to but bullied his teammates into adopting. Should he still be regarded as a hero in any sense? And is his book still worth reading? We all know now that the book left out crucial details, but as far as I’ve heard there’s no reason to doubt the basics: he had cancer, he had surgery, he “beat” the cancer, he trained hard, he won the Tour de France. So the basics of the hero story remain as valid today as they were when the book came out over ten years ago. So why is the book now effectively — literally! — consigned to the trash-heap?

For some, the explanation might be simple personal disillusionment. When a hero falls, he falls really hard. So some who previously lionized Armstrong may not want even to think back upon what they now see as their own naiveté. Others may not want to be ‘inspired’ by someone they see as a liar: perhaps they just don’t want to listen to life lessons and inspiring stories, no matter how useful, told by someone who cheated and then lied about it.

The best answer, I think, lies in the loss of trust. Armstrong’s message was one of hope and courage, and it can only really bring hope and courage to the reader if the reader trusts Armstrong’s words. Armstrong’s message was like that of the kind, experienced physician in whom the cancer patient puts his or her faith. “We’re going to take good care of you,” says the physician. Armstrong’s message: You too can triumph over adversity. Neither messenger can guarantee results: surviving cancer is much more a matter of luck, and good medical care, than it is of gutsy determination. But the other half of the message — the reassurance, the comfort, the message of hope — requires that the patient put their faith in the messenger. And that is the part of his own message that Armstrong so effectively killed.

Moneyball and Business Ethics

I’m finally getting around to reading Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s best-selling ode to the study of baseball statistics (and the source material for the new Brad Pitt movie of the same name). It’s one of the most engaging books I’ve read in a long time — something that won’t surprise those of you who happen to have read The Big Short, Lewis’s lively account of the 2008-2009 financial collapse.

What did surprise me as that Moneyball isn’t really a book about baseball. It’s fundamentally about epistemology. Epistemology is the critical study of knowledge itself — how we get it and how we use it. And though Lewis doesn’t (as far as I can recall) use that word, Moneyball is all about epistemology: the epistemology of baseball, yes, but much more than that. It’s fundamentally about how managers should use information to achieve better outcomes.

Moneyball holds important lessons for business managers generally, but in particular it holds lessons about business ethics. But the messages aren’t the obvious ones you’d expect from a book on baseball — they aren’t about the ethics of labour negotiations, for example, or the incomplete alignment of the twin goals of satisfying your fans and making money.

Three key lessons of the book, as far as I can see, are as follows:

1) The numbers matter. So, don’t guess — measure. In baseball, this means scouts need to look closely at a player’s stats, rather than relying on the fact that he’s got a “nice swing” or a “body made for baseball.” In business, it means measuring actual performance — not just bottom-line financial performance, but social and environmental performance, too, rather than just relying on the vague feeling that your company is “doing OK.”

2) The numbers don’t come out of thin air. The numbers you have available to you aren’t just a feature of the universe around you. The numbers represent what happens to have been measured. The “bottom line” (net income) is no more a natural feature of business than “Earned Run Average” is a natural feature of baseball. Both are artefacts of a particular system, one with a particular history and its own set of biases.

3) Numbers can lead you astray. Managing based on the numbers someone else more-or-less arbitrarily decided to keep track of can result in disaster. This is especially the case when those decisions are rooted in idiosyncratic interests or biases. Lewis points out, for instance, that early baseball stats didn’t bother to record the number of walks a batter earned — mostly because one of the early promoters of baseball stats, a journalist named Henry Chadwick, happened to be a fan of cricket, a sport where there’s just no such thing as a ‘walk.’ Chadwick decided not to keep track of how many walks a batter achieved. The result was that there was no way to track which batters had the good judgment to watch a high-and-inside fastball sail past instead of swinging at it. It matters to their performance, but for a time there was no way for coaches to include it in their management strategies. The exact same point can be made about various elements of social and environmental reporting.

The overarching lesson, here, is about the need for (pardon the pun) a measured approach to the use of numbers in business. Numbers matter, and they matter a lot. The old saw that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” is surely a vast overgeneralization, but one that contains a kernel of truth. But what matters even more than the numbers is knowing what the numbers mean, and what they can and cannot tell you.

Managing for Stakeholders (Book Review)

Managing for Stakeholders: Survival, Reputation and SuccessA couple of years ago, the editors of Business Ethics Quarterly asked me to write a feature-length review of Managing for Stakeholders: Survival, Reputation, Success (2007), by R. Edward Freeman, Jeffrey S. Harrison, and Andrew C. Wicks. It was a daunting task. The book was a highly anticipated one — the lead author of the book, Ed Freeman, is the man who imported the term “stakeholder” into the world of business ethics back in 1984, in his much-cited (and recently re-issued) book Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach. Further, Managing for Stakeholders is a book aimed specifically at a non-academic audience, and yet I was being hasked to review it for a scholarly journal. The 4500-word result appeared in the October, 2009 issue of BEQ (Vol. 19, No. 4).

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a stakeholder in a company is roughly any person or group that can affect, or be affected by, that company’s operations. It’s a useful concept, though its real contribution to business ethics is up for debate. Freeman’s key insight, nearly 30 years ago, was that business managers have obligations to a range of stakeholders (rather than just to shareholders), and that hence the manager’s job is to balance the interests of various stakeholders. But identifying someone as a stakeholder just means, ethically, that they matter — somehow. That still leaves unanswered a whole range of harder questions about how to balance the interests of various stakeholder groups when those interests conflict.

So, here’s a brief summary of my review of Managing for Stakeholders:

On the plus side:

1) The book’s authors express their intention to tell “a new narrative” about business, one according to which a manager’s legitimate social role goes beyond short-term profit-making. They’re right. We desperately need such a narrative.

2) The authors of Managing for Stakeholders aim their message directly at managers, rather than at other scholars, and they try hard to make it a narrative that managers, themselves, can take up and consider their own. In other words, their book isn’t just about managers, it is for managers.

3) The book wisely encourages managers to seek out what might colloquially be referred to as “win-win” solutions. Creating value for all, when possible, is both wise and ethically good.

On the minus side:

1) The authors of Managing for Stakeholders portray, as the “standard” view to which their view is intended to be an alternative, a view of managerial capitalism that I doubt anyone actually holds. According to them, the “standard” view (held by managers and scholars) is that the goal of capitalism is only to generate value for shareholders, and that other stakeholders need not even be considered. This is of course false.

2) The authors of Managing for Stakeholders try very hard to deny that there is any real conflict between the interests of different stakeholders. They’re right to point out that commerce is a cooperative game from which all voluntary participants ought to benefit; what’s in the interest of one stakeholder needn’t automatically be against the interests of another. But that’s not to say that there’s never any conflict at all.

3) Managing for Stakeholders also seems to assume that the mindset of managers is all that matters — it contains no discussion of corporate culture, and no discussion of the requirements of good corporate governance or the dictates of corporate law.

4) The authors slide from the very reasonable claim that managers ought to manage stakeholder relationships to the the much-less-plausible claim that managers ought to manage the corporation for stakeholders. The latter claim is one that many others believe, but it needs support, and it certainly shouldn’t be confused with the former claim.

5) The book also make a faulty leap of logic in jumping from the very sane claim that business is in some sense about creating value for all to the much-less reasonable claim that it is the role of individual managers to ensure value for all concerned. The latter claim puts a lot of pressure on the very managers these authors seek to help, as well as implying what is likely a violation of employment contracts and committing the fallacy of division.

But the biggest problem with Managing for Stakeholders, I argue in my review, was that it was unlikely to serve well its intended audience, namely managers. For example, the authors of the book steadfastly refuse to cite any social science (including economic) literature to back up their many empirical claims. This is surely a result of their well-intentioned populist approach, but the result is that many claims go unsupported, and managers who want to learn more are left with nowhere to turn. And by telling managers that a “simple” change of mind-set is all that is needed, the book fails to make good on the now decades-old promise to turn the term “stakeholder” from a mere category word into a useful tool for ethical decision-making.

Contest: Critical Thinking and Business Ethics

Power of Critical Thinking, 2nd Canadian EditionCritical thinking is essential to the study of business ethics. In its simplest form, critical thinking just means subjecting our own beliefs, and other people’s beliefs, to critical scrutiny, to figure out which beliefs are well-founded and which are not, in order to try to establish which beliefs are worth retaining and which aren’t. It’s about making sure that our beliefs are grounded not just in knee-jerk reactions and prejudices, but in solid arguments. That, basically, is the kind of thinking that I aim to apply to ethical issues in commerce, in this blog.

So, I’m hereby announcing a new contest. All you have to do to win is to author one of the 3 best comments posted on this blog during the month of September (starting today, September 8). The comments should be insightful, on-topic, and of course original. Only comments posted on blog entries that were themselves originally posted during September 2010 will be eligible (i.e., no comments on items I posted in months past).

The prizes: authors of the 3 best comments will each receive a copy of my textbook, “The Power of Critical Thinking.”

I’ll be the sole judge, and my decision shall be final. Should the winner(s) wish to decline the prize, I will donate a copy of the book, in their name, to a library or coffee-shop bookshelf.

The book prizes are courtesy of Oxford University Press Canada.

Addendum: it should go without saying, but a comment doesn’t have to agree with my own point of view in order to count as a good comment in my eyes. Comments that get me to change my mind about something are best of all!

Interview: Andrew Potter and The Authenticity Hoax

My pal Andrew Potter is a public affairs columnist with Maclean’s magazine (Canada’s premier newsweekly) and a features editor with Canadian Business magazine. He also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy.

Andrew’s new book, The Authenticity Hoax, is excellent. I interviewed Andrew recently, about the implications the issues discussed in his book have for a range of topics in Business Ethics.

Chris MacDonald: Your new book, The Authenticity Hoax, is about the way our pursuit of authenticity is in many ways the pursuit of a mirage, and you argue that the pursuit of it is ultimately not just futile, but destructive. You say that one element of that — or is it a result? — is a lack of faith in the market. Presumably that plays out, in part, in a perception that business quite generally is unethical, on some level. Is that one of the deleterious effects of the pursuit of authenticity?

Andrew Potter: According to the theory I offer in the book, the quest for the authentic is largely a reaction to four aspects of the modern world: secularism, liberalism, technology, and the market economy. And I think you’re right, that hostility towards the market is probably the most significant of these. Why is that? That’s a whole other book! Though I think something like the following is at work:

First, markets are inherently alienating, to the extent to which they replace more gregarious and social forms of interaction and mutual benefit (e.g. sharing or gift economies, barter, and so on) with a very impersonal form of exchange. The second point is that the market economy is profit driven. This bothers people for a number of reasons, the most salient of which is that it seems to place greed at the forefront of human relations. Additionally, the quest for “profit” is seen as fundamentally amoral, which is why — as you point out — the mere fact of running a business or working in the private sector is considered unethical. Finally, you can add all the concerns about sustainability and the environment that the market is believed to exacerbate.

The upshot is that we have a deep cultural aversion to buying things on the open market. We think we live in a consumer society, but we don’t. We live in an anti-consumer society, which is why we feel the need to “launder” our consumption through a moral filter. That, I think, is why so much authenticity-seeking takes the form of green- or socially conscious consumerism.

CM: Claims to authenticity are a standard marketing gimmick at this point. In The Authenticity Hoax, you argue that authenticity isn’t the same as truth. Authenticity has more to do with being true to some essence, some deeper self. It strikes me that that makes for some very slippery advertising, including lots of claims that can’t be backed up, but can’t be disproven either. Is authenticity the ultimate marketing gimmick that way?

AP: Absolutely. What advertising and politics have in common is that they are both “bullshit” in the philosophical sense of term (made popular by Harry Frankfurt). What characterizes bullshit is that it isn’t “false”, it is that it isn’t even in the truth-telling game. That is why I think Stephen Colbert was dead on when he coined the term “truthiness” to refer to political discourse — he essentially means that it is bullshit.

What is interesting is that authenticity has the same structure as bullshit, in the following way: from Rousseau to Oprah, the mark of the authentic is not that it reflects from objective truth in the world or fact of the matter. Rather, the authentic is that which is true to how I feel at a given moment, or how things seem to me. As long as the story I tell rings true, that’s authentic.

And that fits in well with advertising, since advertising is all about telling a story. Everyone knows that most advertising is bullshit — for example, that drinking Gatorade won’t make you play like Jordan, or that buying a fancy car won’t make you suddenly appealing to hot women. But what a good brand does is deliver a consistent set of values, a promise or story of some sort, which fits with the idealized narrative of our lives, the story that seems true to us. That is why branding is the quintessential art form in the age of authenticity. Bullshit in, authenticity out!

CM: There’s an irony, of course, in the fact that so many companies are making claims to authenticity in their advertising and PR, since for most people the very term “PR” implies a kind of spin that is the exact opposite of authenticity. But that apparent irony echoes a theme from your previous book, The Rebel Sell (a.k.a. Nation of Rebels), doesn’t it? In that book, you (and co-author Joe Heath) argued that all supposedly counter-cultural movements and themes — things like skateboarding, hip-hop, environmentalism, and now add authenticity — are bound to be co-opted by marketers as soon as those ideas have gathered enough cultural salience. Is that part of what dooms the individual consumer’s pursuit of authenticity?

AP: Yes, that’s exactly right. Chapter four of my book (“Conspicuous Authenticity”) is a deliberate attempt to push the argument from the Rebel Sell ahead a bit, to treat “authenticity” as the successor value (and status good) to “cool”.

We have to be a bit careful though about using the term “co-optation”, because it isn’t clear who is co-opting whom. Both cool-hunting and authenticity-seeking are driven not by marketers but by consumer demand, in particular by the desire for status or distinction. And in both cases, the very act of marketing something as “cool” or as “authentic” undermines its credibility. Authenticity is like charisma — if you have to say you have it, you don’t.

That doesn’t mean marketers can’t exploit the public’s desire for the authentic, but it does mean they have to be careful about the pitch they employ; it can’t be too self-conscious. We all know that “authentic Chinese food” just means chicken balls and chow mein, which is why I actually think that things that are explicitly marketed as “authentic” are mostly harmless. It’s when you when you come across words like “sustainable”, or “organic,” or “local” or “artisanal”, you know you’re in the realm of the truly status-conscious authentic.

CM: I’ve got a special interest in ‘greenwashing.’ It occurs to me now that accusations of greenwashing have something to do with authenticity. When a company engages in greenwashing, they’re typically not lying — they’re not claiming to have done something they haven’t done. They’re telling the truth about something ‘green’ they’ve done, but they’re using that truth to hide some larger truth about dismal environmental performance. When companies greenwash, they’re using the truth to cover up their authentic selves, if you will. Do you think the public is particularly disposed to punish what we might think of as ‘crimes against authenticity?’

AP: I’m not sure. It is certainly true that in extreme cases of corporate bad faith the public reacts badly. The case of BP is a good example; as many people have pointed out, its “Beyond Petroleum” mantra is a very tarnished brand right now, and it is doubtful they’ll be able to renew its polish.

But at the same time, I don’t see any great evidence that the public as a whole is disposed to punish companies for greenwashing. Actually, I think the exact opposite is the case: I think the public is very much disposed towards buying into the weakest of greenwash campaigns. The reason, I think, goes back to the point I made earlier about most of us being fairly ashamed of living in a consumer society. Yet at the same time we like buying stuff, especially stuff that makes us feel good about ourselves and morally virtuous. Even the most half-witted greenwashing campaign is often enough for consumers to give themselves “permission” to buy something they really want.

CM: Let’s talk about a couple of product categories for which claims to authenticity are frequently made.

First, food. You argue that much of the current fascination with organic food, locally-grown food, etc., is best understood as the result of status-seeking. So the idea is basically that food elites start out looking down on everyone who doesn’t eat organic. But then as soon as organic becomes relatively wide-spread, suddenly eating organic doesn’t make you special, and so the food elite has to switch to eating local, or eating raw, or whatever else to separate themselves from the masses. And I find that analysis pretty compelling, myself. But a lot of devotees of organic and local foods are going to reject that analysis, and object that they, at least, are eating organic or local or whatever for the right reasons, not for the kind of status-seeking reasons you suggest. And surely some of them are sincere and are introspecting accurately. Does your analysis allow for that possibility?

AP: Sure. The key point is that these aren’t exclusive motivations. In fact, they can often work in lockstep: You feel virtuous eating organic, but you also want to feel more virtuous than your neighbour (moral one-upmanship is still one-upmanship, after all). And so you try to out-do her by switching to a local diet. And when she matches you and goes local too, you ratchet up the stakes by moving more of your consumption to artisanal goods (e.g. small-batch olive oil, handmade axes, self-butchered swine, and so-on).

And this would be a good thing if there were any evidence that these moves actually had the social and environmental benefits that their proponents claim for them. But unfortunately, the evidence is – at best – mixed; the more likely truth is that the one-upmanship angle has completely crowded out the moral calculations.

The more general point is that we need to stop assuming that something that gives us pleasure, or feeds our spiritual needs, will also be morally praiseworthy and environmentally beneficial. That assumption is one of the most tenacious aspects of the authenticity hoax, and it is one that we have no reason to make. There are good and bad practices at the local level, and artisanal consumption has its costs and benefits. Same thing for conventional food production — there are good things and bad things about it. It would be nice if the categories of good versus bad mapped cleanly on to the categories of local versus industrial, but they simply don’t. The belief that they do is nothing more than wishful thinking.

CM: What about alternative therapies? Much of the draw of those products — and at least some of their marketing — seems to revolve around authenticity. People who are attracted to alternative products seem to want to reject modern medicine, which they find alienating, in favour of what they perceive as something more authentic. Now most critics of alternative therapies such as homeopathy primarily object that there just isn’t good evidence that those therapies actually work. But your own analysis provides a further kind of criticism, rooted in the way that those who seek ‘authenticity’ via alternative medicine are engaged in what is more generally an unhealthy rejection of modernity. Is that right?

AP: There is a lot to dislike about modernity, and my argument is not that we should just suck it all up and live with it. My point is rather that modernity is about tradeoffs, and that we need to accept that for the most part, the tradeoffs have been worth making. Yes, some things of value have been lost, but on the whole I think it’s been worth it.

But if there is one part of the pre-modern world that is well lost, it’s the absence of evidence-based medicine. Yet for some bizarre reason, the longer we live and the healthier we get, the more people become convinced that we are poisoning ourselves, and that modern medicine is not the solution to our woes, but part of the cause.

The turn away from the benefits of modern medicine is one of the most disturbing and pernicious aspects of the authenticity hoax. My book has been interpreted by many as an attack on “the left”, but it perplexes me that things like naturopathy, anti-vaccination campaigns, and belief in the health benefits of raw milk are considered “left wing” or “progressive” ideals. As far as I’m concerned, this is part of a highly reactionary political agenda that rejects many of the most unimpeachable benefits of the modern world. We know that naturopathy and homeopathy is a fraud; we know that vaccines don’t cause autism and that public vaccination is the one of the greatest public health initiatives ever; we know that pasteurization has saved countless lives over the years.

But for reasons I cannot fathom, these and many other related benefits are ignored or shunned in favour of an “authentic” lifestyle that is an absolute and utter hoax.

Oxford Handbook of Business Ethics (Reviewed)

Here’s a useful review of an excellent new reference volume: “The Oxford Handbook of Business Ethics, Reviewed by Matt Zwolinski, University of San Diego”.

I’ll admit right away that I’m biased: I’m co-author of a chapter in the Handbook (the chapter on Conflict of Interest) and Matt has nice things to say about our chapter in his review. But I’m pointing to the review as a way to make a point about the breadth of this thing we call “Business Ethics.”

Regarding the likely audience for the Handbook, Matt says the following:

The book will obviously be of interest to those for whom philosophical business ethics is a main area of interest. But the entries are clear and accessible enough to make the book of special value to at least two other groups: those whose approach to business ethics is not primarily philosophical will find here a useful ‘crash course’ in an alternative methodological approach to their own subject, and those philosophers who are not primarily interested in business ethics will be treated to a volume that makes clear the connection between business ethics and more standard philosophical subjects, and that will almost certainly provide them with new ways of thinking about both business ethics and other topics in value theory and political philosophy that are connected with business ethics in ways they might not have previously recognized.

Matt’s analysis of potential audiences is insightful, but I’d like to propose a further audience, namely those people who have a particular interest in business ethics, but who don’t know they’ve got a particular interest in Business Ethics. The people I have in mind here are the many many management professors, consultants, writers, and activists who have a deep (and sometimes professional) interest in ‘business doing the right thing’, but who do not (for one reason or another) identify with the term “Business Ethics.” That includes at least some professors who teach courses on “Business and Society” or “Corporate Social Responsibility,” and others whose work involves terms like “sustainability,” or “social responsibility” or “corporate accountability.” People working in those areas may, through an unfortunate fluke of language, be intellectually cut-off from mainstream academic Business Ethics, and a volume like the Oxford Handbook could be an excellent remedy for that.

(p.s., for a previous blog entry by me concerning the vocabulary of business ethics, see Barriers to Talking About Doing the Right Thing.)

(You can buy the Handbook via Amazon, here: Oxford Handbook of Business Ethics.)


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