Pilant's Business Ethics

Business Ethics Blog

Category: Opinion

Art and Reductionism

Art and Reductionism

I was listening this morning to the music of Paul Van Dyk. He does techno music and, of course, not everyone enjoys that genre. Nevertheless, I find him quite talented and he is also commercially successful. And that got me thinking. Isn’t he one thing under economic analysis  and another as an artist? And this thought began to trouble me. (Here let me give you an example of his work from the people at You Tube) –

As an economic unit, we can discuss him in terms of record sales,  and perhaps check actuarial tables to see how long he might be expected to live and what profits he might generate over that period. But there are other elements that might be considered. For one thing, when I hear the music I want to dance and I know that I want to hear it again. There is a recognition of pieces of music that I have hard before and the knowledge that this music will be incorporated in that greater experience.

Music is an art subject to creativity. So there are standards other than profitability. We know that a five year tapping enthusiastically on a toy piano is not the equivalent of Tchaikovsky. But measured only by monetary standards, the artistic merits of different works melt away.

Here is an example of a once popular song that you might consider as not being on the same level of talent as the one above-

Imagine yourself as a television or a cable executive. If you have a perception of art as an independent value, you are likely to choose Van Dyk over Stevens. But if you have no perception or much more likely you were taught in business school or in an administrative program that only economic value is important than Stevens might be a better choice.

In fact, under Milton Friedman’s reasoning using anything but Stevens should that music generate the most profit is stealing from the shareholders. A firm has no social responsibility to any stakeholder save the shareholders for they are the economic engine of the organization. Considering the actual power of shareholders in the corporate, this is a fairly comical concept. Here, here and here are vivid examples and explanations of shareholder impotence. (In the third entry, while the author hates the idea of shareholder power, he admits they are currently powerless.)

Perhaps, since in fact, the shareholders are a secondary consideration, we should consider the customer, the audience, to be a legitimate stakeholder? Is there any duty under free market fundamentalism or Neo-liberal doctrine to the consumer? No, they are economic units whose interests are to be weighed in terms of profitability. But there is, if you think of the audience as human beings who may be harmed or degraded by kitsch art and enlightened by great art. But if you do a reductionist analysis – if every element of society from art to a new born child is subject to economic analysis and solely to economic analysis, than the audience is a mass of disassociated atoms who may be used in any manner desired. So why not bombard them with schlock? Why not lie or mislead if that is more popular than the truth? Why not encourage them to hate minorities, despise foreigners and think illegal acts by the government are a pretty good deal? It seems to me that adherence to that kind of reductionism, the idea that monetary value and greed are the basic elements of economic life and life in general, will work to nullify all the thousands of years of philosophy and religion and all the other elements of our cultural heritage that support the concepts of morals, ethics and brotherhood.

I understand the breath taking delight of a unified theory that explains everything. And I have met those who explained to me that economic analysis explains everything from child rearing to heroism and finally to all history. There was a book I read once that explained the American Civil War as purely an economic event. However, my perception is that slavery was a major factor and that the horrifying nature of the practice goes far beyond any economic practice. I worry that if a person were to make decision based on purely economic factors, judging human worth only in terms of value, than slavery begins to make a lot sense. I don’t think so.

Besides slavery, 16 hour days, child labor and moving dangerous industries overseas can all be justified economically. Taking logically to its final conclusion, human rights and democracy are serious impediments to economic development. How about a real life example? How about this one, or this one or this one. It often seems that if a local government questions privatization be it nursing homes or charger school, people begin to talk about abolishing it. Have you noticed what happens when local governments do things that anger corporate interests even in the most peripheral ways? How about this one or this one or this one or this one? These examples show cases where people are losing the ability to make decisions for themselves.

I have been told directly that if I judge one form of art, (if memory serves, my specific example was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), as less worth preserving than other art, I’m an elitist. My student seemed to feel that he had won the argument once he trotted out the word “elitist.” While I am cognizant that much of what passed for high art has been discarded over the years and much that was originally derided as trash has been re-examined and reassessed, I don’t worry too much about the “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” being reassessed as better than “Citizen Kane.” There are standards and many of them have stood the test of time. But I have been regarded as a fool and a pathetic one for not recognizing the obvious truth that people are a means to an end, that rules are for the weak and that I was never going to make real money with my attitude. In other words, standards, whatever they may be, art work or relational, are irrelevant. Monetary value is the thing.

I ask you to reflect. What if you have a child? Maybe schlock is okay for everybody else’s children but what about yours? I think you might consider doing what I did and not have television in the house. In my case that was from when my son was eleven to the present. He’s now 21, very well read and very much a gentleman. I believe that decision was important in raising a child with strong moral beliefs.

If you are willing to protect your child from poor taste, bad morals and just wasting their time on broadcast nonsense, and I believe you do – than together we believe there are standards that are important and useful. If that is the case, that calls into question the premises of free market fundamentalism and Neo-liberalism. It can’t be that everything is quantifiable in terms of value and yet there are important standards resting on other rationales.

Can we use economic analysis if there are other values? Absolutely. All we have to do is remember that this form of analysis is just a tool. Sometimes it’s useful. Sometimes it’s not. Applying it to every human endeavor is taking a valuable form of thinking and stretching it beyond its capabilities. But there are many who find this kind of gross simplification persuasive and because of the seductive nature of these ideas to wealthy elites, it has become a powerful tool for remaking civilization in the image of the market. That’s a form of idolatry. There are worthy ideas but this one destroys other ideas, in particular, the concepts of inherent human worth, the precepts of religion and philosophical reasoning. Can you imagine a society purely designed along the lines of a market?

We don’t have to live in a world where everything is economically valued. We can live with truth and beauty, love and honor. And we can use economic concepts for economic problems while remembering there are other ways of thinking and other ways of making decisions.

James Alan Pilant


Gender Gap in the Developing World


Gender Gap in the Developing World

Gender Gap in the Developing World

The article below says that women in the developing world have less access to technology than the men. Why should this concern us? The developing world is far away, their customs often alien and their economic impact small. Besides this is a blog about business ethics. What does this have to do with business?

Because women in these developing countries have less access to technology, their lives are more limited than males. The attitudes and stereotypes that afflict women are more resilient and powerful when women cannot communicate freely. The locks on culture that keep women from full participation are embedded in ignorance. Free communication is a continuous counterpoint to the sterility and stupidity of embedded culture. Further, women without access to the internet, to phones, to all the modern panoply of electronic devices have less access to jobs, to knowledge such as banking and every other economic pursuit. Finally, without the ability to communicate, women are cut off from access to power. Without power, a voice in how we live, we float subject to every whim of those who do decide. For women in a patriarchal societies, that means every male who is not a small child has more say than they do.

Should there be a gender gap in earning and opportunity? It can be argued that this is a natural state of affairs and there is no lack of web sites and organizations willing to take up that challenge. Civilizations that have lasted hundreds of years have limitations on what women can and cannot do. Many are quite successful both economically and culturally. Why rock the boat? Isn’t it true that women are different than men? Doesn’t science tell us that their brains develop differently? Doesn’t political statistics indicate different voting patterns? Are they not generally lacking in muscle content and height?

Yes, those things can be argued. Women are indeed different. But do those differences imply a disparity in ability or for that matter humanity? It seems obvious to me that women are equal in intellect and judgment to males. The fact that many cultures have long histories of demeaning women is not evidence. Slavery, religious persecution, bloody wars are writ into the histories of nations. That something is custom is little sign of righteousness or correctness. Let us argue the gender gap based on evidence, not upon what has been done in the past.

What does the evidence indicate? Research has indicated small differences in certain kinds of intelligence between men and women but we have not and are not likely to be able to separate cultural effects from the data. But aside from these small differences, some favorable to men and some to women, intelligence can be said to be equally distributed. As to judgment, women do not always make the same decisions men would make under the same circumstances. But if women are inferior to men because they make different judgments, how do we decide this? Do not the judgments have to be worse in some measurable sense? If they are just different, does that imply inferiority or simple male insecurity – you don’t decide the way we do, therefore something must be wrong?

What about physical differences? Surely here we have a case for female inferiority. Small and less muscular, females are more vulnerable to abuse and less capable of hard physical work. Ask an ancient Greek and he will tell you that women can’t fight or do hard work. An ancient Roman would say the same thing. But what does modern research on the ancient world show? It shows women worked about forty hours a week in all these different eras; hard work that limited their life spans. When it came to farming they bore the bulk of the labor How about warfare? The Greeks and the Romans have a point. Spears, swords and hand to hand combat are all enhanced by physical strength. However, this was in the distant past. We now have kinetic energy weapons more commonly described as firearms. Ten and twelve years old children can successfully engage and kill the most renowned male physical specimen with an ease bordering on the casual.

After all that, there is one kind of evidence left, the evidence of the senses. My eyes, my ears and all my other perceptions have found no evidence of inferiority. Oh, women can be mystifying, maddening and sometimes just a pain but that is probably more due to my limitations than theirs. I have seen acts of discrimination against women by employers, and I have seen women perform successfully in teaching and law on a daily basis.

If women are indeed equal to men in capability and humanity, the paying them less or treating them cruelly is wrong whether in our country or in a developing nation.

But what does this have to with business ethics?

Business is dependent on the exchange of goods and services. If we limit the activities of one half of the population, do they function more or less successfully economically? Do they rise to their full abilities and produce the same goods that a person able to exercise judgment would produce? If women can’t choose what they make and can’t get education or training, is the society in which they live more or less advantageous from a business perspective? I think we can safely conclude that allowing people to rise to their full abilities is better for business. Societies function better when all participants have equal opportunities because only then can we realize our potential. We have already seen the effects of empowering minorities and the handicapped. How much more can we gain through the full economic participation of women?

What role should business play in the gender gap? Economically, the gender gap is a limitation on successful commercial activity. All other things being equal, a business functioning in a society where women have the same opportunities as men will be more prosperous. There will be more people with more and better job skills and more consumers. Therefore, it is a business problem.

What’s more, under stakeholder analysis, these women can be managers, employees and customers. That’s pretty significant stakeholding.

Women in the developing world have less access to technology. What can be done? Well, there are American businesses on the ground in much of the developing world not to mention foreign aid from this country and others. What’s more, overseas businesses do lobby for their interests in these many nations.

Why don’t we begin by empowering individual women? A business can give out cell phones as part of a benefits package to employees. A business can teach women how to use technology as part of their training. Next, we deal with the infrastructure itself. Under which circumstances do corporations and business function best? Do they do better with a full communications infrastructure or in its absence? It’s in the interest of every overseas business to have an infrastructure that makes using technology easier. That can be done by lobbying these nations’ governments, by active investment, and by contractual participation in building that communication network.

Business ethics does not always demand sacrifice, and business can be a force for good. Let us remember these lines from Humphrey Bogart in the movie, Sabrina.

Linus Larrabee: A new product has been found, something of use to the world, so a new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines are brought in, a harbor is dug, and you’re in business. It’s purely coincidental of course that people who never saw a dime before suddenly have a dollar, and barefooted kids wear shoes and have their teeth fixed and their faces washed. What’s wrong with the kind of an urge that gives people libraries, hospitals, baseball diamonds and, uh, movies on a Saturday night?


There is nothing wrong with that urge. There is nothing with wrong with actually making a product. There is nothing wrong with building a better and stronger world.

And one of our opportunities is to help people realize what is possible, what can be done.

If women are just pack animals with wombs, then all of this is pointless but if women have the same basic humanity as males, then all of us have an obligation to treat them fairly. Businesses carry that duty as well.

James Pilant

How technology widens the gender gap | The Great Debate

In low and middle-income countries, a woman is 21 percent less likely than a man to own a mobile phone, according to research done by GSMA. In Africa, women are 23 percent less likely than a man to own a cell phone. In the Middle East the figure is 24 percent and in South Asia, 37 percent,

via How technology widens the gender gap | The Great Debate.

Woods, C. (2014, March 21). How technology widens the gender gap. Reuters, U.S. Edition, Retrieved from http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2014/03/21/how-technology-widens-the-gender-gap/

From around the web

From the web site, P.A.P. – Blog // Human Rights, etc.


The idea behind the concept of the feminization of poverty is that high poverty rates among women are caused by discriminatory policies, practices and opinions (such as labor market restrictions, lower wages for women, lack of equal education opportunities, substandard healthcare for women etc.).

Spagnoli, F. (2011, November 20). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://filipspagnoli.wordpress.com/stats-on-human-rights/statistics-on-discrimination/statistics-on-discrimination-of-women/

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