If Aristotle Ran General Motors

This is a review “If Aristotle Ran General Motors” by Tom Morris that I originally wrote for my Administrative Ethics course with Dr. Hank Edmondson in Fall 2009.  Although it was written in 1998, this book remains, in my mind, one of the best resources for explaining ethical theory in relatable and understandable terms.  

The somewhat ruthless corporate world would, at first glance, seem to be the last entity which would seem willing to integrate the principles of ancient philosophy.  However, Tom Morris makes the integration of these two seemingly conflicting interests his goal in If Aristotle Ran General Motors.[1] Morris is well qualified for this challenge.  Holding doctorate degrees in both philosophy and religious studies from Yale University in addition to several other honorary doctorates, he spent fifteen years as a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.[2]  He has been featured in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Readers’ Digest, and USA Today[3].  He currently serves as the chair of the Morris Institute of Human Values in Wilmington, North Carolina.[4]

The book begins with the assertion that:

The newest problems we face can’t be solved without the most ancient wisdom we have.  It’s time for a wake-up call to summon us all to the enterprise of a little collective philosophy.  We’ve come to a juncture in a history when we need to understand the human condition more deeply than ever before and apply that understanding to the way we live and do business every day; the people we live with and do business with will not be satisfied with anything less.[5]

So, what is the ancient wisdom which needs to be applied to the newest of problems, be they personal, professional, or public policy?  Morris points to four separate “dimensions of the human experience” which have four goals: truth, beauty, goodness, and unity.[6]

Truth is nearly universally recognized as being powerful, to the extent that “even people who lie to you indicate in a backward sort of way their partial, and deeply flawed, recognition of at least some power of the truth; they think of it as too powerful to be entrusted to you.”[7] But, what then is truth?  What is known and communicated about certain fact is likened to a roadmap.  Truth is when that roadmap corresponds directly to what is actually there. “It [truth] is the relationship of accuracy that holds between a good map and the territory it represents.”[8]  Morris continues to explain that in order for one individual to trust another, truth must always be present.  Trust, in turn, is the “absolute necessity for truly effective interpersonal activity.”[9]

Without all the facts relevant to their jobs, people feel lost and sense a lack of control over their lives and destinies.  Nature does abhor this kind of vacuum.  Human beings can’t stand to feel helpless, so to compensate, they latch on to the first notion around that looks like relevant fact.  And then the speculation or gossip spreads like fire, consuming the hearts and minds of the people it touches.

Human beings can’t do without truth.  If they don’t have the genuine article, they’ll fall for anything that passes for it.  And this can create serious problems for any company. [10]

Furthermore, once the truth-based trust is lost through deception, “nothing short of divine intervention can rebuild the relationship and create a positive result.”[11] Therefore, “lying is one of the most dangerously corrosive and subtly destabilizing activities to be found in human life.”[12]

So, the truth is important to relationships with others, be they personal relationships or professional relationships.  That has, at this point, been well established.  What then about beauty?  Its purpose is well understood in the personal realm, but does it fit into business? Beauty “refreshes, restores, and inspires.”[13]  It then may be reasonably inferred that employees who are surrounded by beauty will be refreshed and inspired, and overall productivity will increase.  John Muir is quoted as saying, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”[14]  While aesthetics is one dimension of beauty in the workplace, there is another which is even more necessary. 

Workers do not simply need to be surrounded by beauty, but they need to create beauty as well.  While, it may seem like this would be limited to those in artistic occupations, anyone can create beauty in the workplace.  Beauty depends on what is valued.  If an employee values the product he or she is producing, they are producing beauty.  “There is beauty in providing acknowledged excellence of quality in a service or product.”[15]

So then, that leaves goodness.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau defined goodness as “only beauty put into practice.”[16]

Like truth and beauty, goodness is the soil within which the soul can grow and flourish.  Without it, human beings wither and harden and spiritually die.   Goodness is a necessary condition for healthy relationships and for thriving community.  Morality is not about deprivation, denial, and artificial constraint; quite to the contrary, it is about ultimately living as well as human beings are capable of living.[17]

At its core, goodness is the heart of ethics.  Every different viewpoint seeks to explain one central question.  While the paths to the goal may differ with each different philosophy, the eventual goal is “spiritually healthy people in socially harmonious relationships.”[18]  If a group of people, no matter the size, are working together for a common goal, the result will be much more powerful than if each individual was working on his or her own.  “The harmony of guitar strings vibrating together produces what no particular string could give rise to alone.  Socially harmonious relationships among human peoples can be likewise uniquely productive.”[19]

This leads to the last dimension, that of unity.  Unity fulfils the spiritual desires of an individual.  Morris refers to unity as the “ultimate target of the spiritual dimension.”[20]  He acknowledges “Alienation and the adversarial mindset are everywhere.”  Yet, “this is not a spiritual state of being.  It is, rather, the antithesis of what spirituality aspires to realize.”[21]

So, how does one move towards unity?  Eliel Sarrinen, an architect, offers some insight: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan”[22] The same principle can apply to individuals.  How should one act at home, at work, at worship?  They are all interconnected and individuals must be the same person at all three locations, even though different aspects of their personality may emerge.

This concentration on unity is not to disparage individualism.  Instead, it works to take the strengths of each individual in the group and combine these strengths into a group force which is powerful beyond the imagination of any individual.  Working together towards a common goal, while preserving individual identity is the true purpose of unity.  Homer wrote, “Not in vain the weakest, if their force unite.”[23]  A shared purpose will unite, and inspire individuals to set aside smaller differences, which can weaken the organization. 

Morris concludes:

Organizational success and inner-personal satisfaction require significant doses of truth, beauty, goodness, and unity.  These four timeless values are the four foundations of sustainable excellence and human flourishing.  Nothing less will do… 

We need to thrust our roots down as far as possible into the innermost springs of human thought and behavior.  We need to find the most universal and reliable touchstones of sustainable excellence and the most fundamental keys to ultimate motivation.  In the end, it is only the rock-bottom truth about human happiness and fulfillment that will give us enduring foundations for our work together.[24]

This book undertakes a difficult task, and yet manages to accomplish it.  The cold, hard, fact and profit based world of business seems at direct odds with the contemplative and theoretical world of philosophy.  Yet, Morris manages to make the connection in an organized and convincing manner.  Using language typical of the management and leadership genres, If Aristotle Ran General Motors presents a well-rounded overview of philosophical principles and makes clear connections from the ancient wisdom to the modern day problems they would alleviate. 

Pospisil, writing for Industry Week, agrees: 

Morris weaves the observations of numerous philosophers, literary and political figures, and social historians into his text to pique the reader’s interest in applying ancient wisdom and contemporary thought to everyday business problems.[25]

The trend for the merger of philosophy and business has not been lost on major industry publications.  The Economist wrote:

Company executives in search of wisdom are turning from psychotherapy and religion to the cleverest thinkers of all: ancient philosophers. For corporations, philosophy has become the latest management fad.  Tom Morris, author of “If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business”, earns $30,000 an hour-one of the highest fees for a non-celebrity speaker in America–for teaching Socrates and Hegel to the likes of IBM, Campbell Soup, General Electric and Ford.[26]

Beyond being called a “management fad” the book has been seemingly well received.  The Virginia Quarterly Review called the book, “entertaining, full of interesting anecdotes and quotes, and food for thought for anyone whose daily tasks require working with other people.”[27]  The Library Journal summarizes the book as maintaining, “the path to business and personal excellence lies in pursuing the virtues that Aristotle identified as truth, beauty, goodness, and unity” and offering “examples from various businesses to show how well they succeed as a result of their pursuit of these virtues.”[28]  It concludes, “Morris writes with style and humor, which makes this book an enjoyable and thought-provoking one.  His work provides insight into both professional and personal conduct.  Recommended for both public and academic libraries.”[29]

Finally, Training & Development writes:

Morris applies his 15 years’ experience as a philosophy teacher and the writings of history’s wisest thinkers to today’s changing business milieu. Much of the wisdom sprinkled throughout the book is that of-you guessed it-Aristotle. But Morris also includes quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Saint Augustine, Francis Bacon, and many others. 

“The philosophers of the centuries, from Plato and Aristotle to the present day, have left us the equivalent of a huge bank account of wisdom that we can draw on for a wealth of insight applicable to both business and the rest of life. 

Find out why the four timeless virtues-Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity-are relevant to the modern workplace, and learn how to make those qualities the foundation of your everyday business and personal life.[30]

Morris attempts to bridge an interesting divide.  While the recent events in major companies across the country highlight more than ever the need for a renewed interest in the study of ethical behavior, the bridge presented here, while unique, accomplishes the goal in a convincing fashion. 

The wisdom of the ancients (and some not so ancients) applied to modern business problems is a novel approach.  Business, and just about any other form of modern management, typically has a myopic focus.  The only focus is earning a profit.  When financial security is the primary focus, every moral and ethical obligation soon becomes flawed to achieve that end. 

To circumvent this attraction to flawed logic, another focus must be determined.  If an entity, be it an individual or a transnational corporation, shifts its focus from earning a profit, to reaching for the ancient principles found in philosophy – truth, beauty, goodness, and unity – the actions preformed by that entity will still lead to a profit  (at least in most cases) but will do so without violating moral obligations.

This book, in fact, illustrates the need for a liberal arts education.  It is not enough for students to learn how to balance a ledger, or to create a marketing campaign.  These students must be taught to approach each problem they encounter not through the myopic lens of simple profit and self-promotion, but through the multi-faceted, interdisciplinary lens of a liberal arts education. Looking at an issue from a collection of different angles will illuminate the one best course of action.

[1] Morris, Tom. If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business. 1st ed. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997.
[2] Morris Institute of Human Values, “Tom Morris – Biography.”  2008. http://www.morrisinstitute.com/index.php?s=morris&c=tm (accessed September 27, 2009). para.2
[3] Ibid, para.  4
[4] Ibid, para. 2
[5] Morris, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, 3
[6] Ibid, 19-20
[7] Ibid, 26
[8] Ibid, 26
[9] Ibid, 30
[10] Ibid, 30
[11] Ibid, 43
[12] Ibid, 44
[13] Ibid, 70
[14] Ibid, 71
[15] Ibid, 81
[16] Ibid, 116
[17] Ibid, 117
[18] Ibid, 118
[19] Ibid, 119
[20] Ibid, 179
[21] Ibid, 179
[22] Ibid, 181
[23] Ibid, 194
[24] Ibid, 212 – 213
[25] Pospisil, Vivian. “Ethics check.” Industry Week/IW 246, no. 17 (September 15, 1997): 36. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 27, 2009). para. 9
[26] “Socrates, for pleasure and profit.” Economist 355, no. 8176 (June 24, 2000): 75-75. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 27, 2009). para. 1
[27] “Notes on current books: National & international relations.” Virginia Quarterly Review 74, no. 2 (Spring98 1998): 63. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 27, 2009).
[28] Toschik, Joseph C. “Book reviews: Social sciences.” Library Journal 122, no. 15 (September 15, 1997): 83. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 27, 2009).
[29] Ibid
[30] Cohen, Sacha. “Books.” Training & Development 52, no. 1 (January 1998): 70. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 27, 2009).

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.