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“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.  And if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you” —Friedrich Nietzsche

Business is a social construct.  Like Church or Academia or the Military or Government.  We have needs and we come together in groups to meet those needs.  Needing security we construct the Military.  Needing companionship we construct Church.  Needing to determine a social contract above all other social contracts we construct Government.  Needing shelter, food, transport, means of exchange and entertainment, we construct Business.  This doesn’t mean that we do it well.  It also does not mean that it is real.

Most of us will vaguely remember being 13 years old and the existential angst that goes with a blossoming mind becoming aware of the uncertainties of existence.  By 23 we have mostly forgotten that this ever bothered us.  By 73 or 80 or 93 we are just glad to still have existence.  Imagine receiving an email from a friend seeking help answering a question posed by her 13-year-old daughter, Ruby: “Humanity is a failure because we think we know the difference between failure and success. That’s a fatal flaw. But the fact that I just thought of this, proves that what I just said is true.  So what do I do?!”

Is there some lesson for business and finance in my reply?

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“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.  And if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you” —Friedrich Nietzsche

Business is a social construct.  Like Church or Academia or the Military or Government.  We have needs and we come together in groups to meet those needs.  Needing security we construct the Military.  Needing companionship we construct Church.  Needing to determine a social contract above all other social contracts we construct Government.  Needing shelter, food, transport, means of exchange and entertainment, we construct Business.  This doesn’t mean that we do it well.  It also does not mean that it is real.

Most of us will vaguely remember being 13 years old and the existential angst that goes with a blossoming mind becoming aware of the uncertainties of existence.  By 23 we have mostly forgotten that this ever bothered us.  By 73 or 80 or 93 we are just glad to still have existence.  Imagine receiving an email from a friend seeking help answering a question posed by her 13-year-old daughter, Ruby: “Humanity is a failure because we think we know the difference between failure and success. That’s a fatal flaw. But the fact that I just thought of this, proves that what I just said is true.  So what do I do?!”

Is there some lesson for business and finance in my reply?

First and foremost you should congratulate Ruby on recognizing what the Buddha only discovered after years of searching—that enlightenment only comes when you stop looking for it unless you find it.

The fact that she thought of this proves nothing more than that she has experienced the phenomenon of thinking it.  Let’s turn it around and ask the question, “Do I know the difference between failure and success?”  I can answer this three ways: affirmative, no and “what is ‘difference’?”  Let’s assume that I say “no.” Do I now logically have to conclude that “I am a failure?” Of course not.

Let’s try some existential positioning.

Existence is everything.

Humanity is a linguistic construct—it is not something that exists. At best it describes something that exists. But it is not very descriptive, and that is why we always use it within a sentence structure of the form “humanity is…..” Or “humanity [active verb]…..”  Such sentences are always ambiguous.  How can I possibly ascribe True or False to “humanity is good,” “humanity is bad” or “humanity is a failure? “ Since the word doesn’t name an existence but only an idea, the question becomes not one of T or F but one of “useful” or “not useful.”

 On this basis the linguistic construct “Humanity is a failure because we think we know the difference between failure and success” is exactly the same as “Humanity is a success because we think we know the difference between failure and success.”  What Ruby is picking up on is that we have an almost overwhelming urge to ascribe T and F to our experiences.  I think we do this because we believe that if we can attach T to our experiences then others will be more accepting of our experiences. That urge is one a good existentialist (and Pyrrhonist) will try to resist.  We resist because any attitude that suggests my subjective experience of you as objective existence creates a legitimate power relationship between us is bad faith.

In order to determine what “to do” and therefore your answer for Ruby we need to find a way to step outside these linguistic shenanigans.  To prepare ourselves to do this a number of contemplative practices can be very helpful: meditation, prayer, exercise, sleep, sex, music, and reading—we find our own thing(s).  It also helps to practice adopting certain attitudes—of self-control and emotional calm, of self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others.

When we are ready there are two really obvious guides to what to do, a primary and a secondary: Do what is loving and do what is useful.

Your heart will tell you what the first is, your head the second.

Nietzsche’s abyss is our need to stare directly into the face of our own responsibility.   What Ruby’s question tells me is that there is not some abstract concept of business and finance separate from our social constructs.  It is also telling me that that social construct is only a linguistic construct and that a question such as “is that business responsible?” or “is that business practice responsible?” can only be genuinely answered existentially.

Such questions become infinitely practical when we admit that they can only be answered by as grand a conception of usefulness as we can find.  Usefulness because it is a concept that has the possibility of stretching our imaginations beyond the limits of our ability to conceive of right and wrong without self-reference, and grand because if we are interested in doing what is loving we will want our social constructs to embrace the many, not just the few.

 

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Vincent Neate is a Partner with KPMG LLP (UK) and the Head of Sustainability Services where he is responsible for the Sustainability Services Practice.  His experience is in working with international businesses across a broad range of issues encompassing governance, finance and risk.