If Aristotle Ran General Motors

Very rarely does a book of extraordinary insight, expressed in understandable terms, appear. This is one of those books. In it, Thomas Morris applies to everyday business conditions not only the wisdom of Aristotle but also the thoughts of other great philosophers. In doing so, he demonstrates that the ethical way in business helps the firm, the individual, and the economy in general achieve their goals.

Following Aristotle, Morris first observes that each business organization is essentially comprised of people, and, so, the propriety of their relationships determines the success or failure of their organization. This is unusual for a modern book on business ethics, for bookstore shelves are loaded down with so-called business ethics texts that emphasize only the social context of modern enterprise. Firms are constantly derided for not caring about the environment, the poor, and the like. In contrast, Morris recognizes that each person possesses both an individual life and a life of relationships with others. Ethics, therefore, has something to say about the improvement of the individual person in addition to issues of social concern.

The book’s outline follows the four philosophical transcendentals–truth, beauty, goodness, and unity–and Morris demonstrates how the conscious recognition of each helps an organization operate with excellence and its people live happier lives. These transcendentals are helpful guides because each corresponds to a different dimension of human experience. As he explains, the intellectual dimension aims at truth, the aesthetic dimension at beauty, the moral dimension at goodness, and the spiritual dimension at unity. In Morris’s words, “I have become convinced that these four dimensions of experience, and these four foundations of excellence, provide us with the key to both rediscovering personal satisfaction at work and reinventing corporate spirit in our time. They are the key to sustainable corporate excellence because they are the foundations of corporate fulfillment, and they have that status because they are the deepest touchstones for ultimate individual fulfillment and happiness.”

The first section deals with truth–not unusual for a follower of Saint Thomas and Aristotle, since both teach that the beginning of any endeavor starts with the recognition of being, or truth. Truth, Morris points out, is the foundation of all human partnerships, and business is essentially human partnerships.

But truth, though foundational, is not enough. Human beings must also have something attractive to motivate them; hence, the need for beauty. Morris argues that workplaces that reflect beauty are more productive and have happier employees. Further, beauty raises the consciousness of employees and gives them a sense of being cared about. Providing a beautiful workplace, however, is an essentially passive activity, though it will transfer itself into the beauty of performance. As Morris points out, “In the act of the performance itself … there is a kind of beauty that can be experienced only by the performer, from the kinesthetic sense of her own movement to the inner awareness of artistic ‘making’ as the ancient Greeks might have said. The relevance of this to the business world is extremely important.” It is this application of both active and passive beauty to the commercial world that transforms business into a beautiful act. In Morris’s words, “The structures of business are, then, some of our most basic tools for the performance art of life. This is the beauty of business.”

Doing beautiful things in a beautiful environment, though, is still not sufficient. Human beings must be convinced of the essential goodness of what they are doing. According to Morris, “When people work in conditions of perceived unfairness and unkindness, they fall into a self-protective mode. Like turtles, they crawl into their shells and hide. They are not motivated to take positive risks, to dig deep inside to discover all their talents and bring those talents to bear in creative ways on the challenges of corporate business.” Businesses that pursue goodness build that most essential component of all human relationships–trust. Without trust, business relationships collapse into suspicion, which prevents the collaborative partnerships that are the foundation of business activity, and unethical practices prevent business activities from working toward any lasting good.

Yet, the true, the beautiful, and the good are still not enough. Human beings must perceive a sense of wholeness and that they are part of some greater thing–in other words, unity, the spiritual dimension of work. As Morris points out, the heart of spirituality is connectedness, and the aim of connectedness is unity. Interestingly, Morris shows that this concept of unity leads to the idea of the worth and value of the human individual. Uniqueness and union are really the two sides of the same coin: “By respecting and nurturing the twin needs for a sense of uniqueness and a feeling of union among those around us, we help ourselves as well as our associates to attain that form of corporate spirit that is the wellspring of happiness, fulfillment, and quality of the highest order in everything that we do.”

After reading it for review, I assigned If Aristotle Ran General Motors as required reading to my business ethics class, taught every summer for the graduate students at Walsh College. It has proven to be one of the best parallel texts to the Nicomachean Ethics that I have found. The strength of thinkers like Aristotle and Aquinas is that they stress principles that students can, in turn, apply to everyday situations. Sadly, it is often difficult for the contemporary student to understand these authors.

Morris’s book is a real solution to this problem. He displays a wonderful knack for presenting difficult philosophical concepts in modern language, which energizes the student’s understanding of them. For example, in discussing the interrelationship of human action and happiness, Morris helpfully explains that happiness should be seen as an activity rather than a static concept. His demonstration of the importance for business practice of what Edmund Burke called the “moral imagination” is, likewise, quite useful. Finally, he masterfully shows the student the importance of the formation of habits and their role in the art of living well–one of the primary lessons of the Nicomachean Ethics. For students of any age, there are few better companions to Aristotle, Aquinas, and the other great thinkers of the past than If Aristotle Ran General Motors.