Huxley X Altruism: Business Good or Evil?

A former professor of mine, Bradley Norris, recently posted a poll on his blog, asking people whether they believe business is good, evil, or morally neutral. After writing a lengthy comment and accidentally deleting it, I decided to explore the topic here.

At the time, I believed that business is something that cannot be boxed in, and cannot be considered definitely good or definitely evil. Thus, I answered ‘morally neutral.’ I believed the answer is superfluous, and depends on what a business creates. Don’t mistake my view to mean that a good business must be altruistic, or a bad one must be lacking altruism. I believed businesses can be good if they create something useful, or if they trim the useless. As you will see, this view wasn’t right or wrong, but simply too far ahead of the question.

Implicit in the question of business as good or evil, is that the businesses under question are private, and made possible through a capitalist system. Business does good in some cases, but other cases have exposed embarrassing and often painful effects of evil and fraudulent activity. If you believe it is fair to say that private, capitalistic enterprise offers both extremes of good and evil in a way that would not be present in state-owned enterprise. Then, perhaps the answer is that business is both extremely good and extremely evil–the wide range of potential outcomes are what make business challenging, exciting, and worth devoting 40+ hours a week of one’s life to.

Aldous Huxley explores the question of good and evil in his 1936 novel, Eyeless In Gaza, and the text supports this view:

Separation, diversity– conditions of our existence. Conditions upon which we possess life and consciousness, know right and wrong and have the power to choose between them, recognize truth, have experience of beauty. But separation is evil. Evil, then, is the condition of life, the condition of being aware, of knowing what is good and beautiful.

In context, there are far more shades of meaning and implications for these words. For the sake of our subject, the explicit meaning is the only important one. Huxley sees that separation and diversity are conditions for life, yet also evil because they are the antithesis of unity. Because evil is thus a condition of life, we can perceive the difference between good and evil, and subsequently have the freedom to recognize truth and experience beauty. Truth and beauty are therefore enabled only through freedom.

Consequentially, business must be both good and evil because capitalism exists on the condition of freedom. Furthermore, because of this condition of freedom, people have the right to evaluate for themselves what is good, and what is evil. They have the right to make purchasing decisions based on their personal evaluation. But, more importantly, people have the opportunity to experience truth and beauty created by enterprise that would not be discernable if business were not both good and evil. Because of this truth, businesses have the opportunity to leverage consumer perception– not only by creating things that are useful, but also things valued as ‘true and beautiful.’

What do you create? How do you add value? Do you consider it true and beautiful? Would anyone else? If business as a whole is a spectrum of both good and evil, where does yours fall?

Book Mentioned:

Eyeless in Gaza

Eyeless in Gaza


6 thoughts on “Huxley X Altruism: Business Good or Evil?

  1. Pingback: Dostoevsky X Self-Interest: Birthing Cool « Business X Philosophy

  2. What a fun topic! Let’s dig a little.

    I would first make a distinction between (for lack of any better term) honest businesses and others. In other words, some businesses serve legitimate needs and others serve more prurient desires.

    Aldus Huxley has an odd definition of freedom. When studying choice and human nature, we find that humans aren’t very good at making choices in any kind of objective way, even when we explicitly attempt it. If we can’t correctly distinguish good and evil, or for that matter any two random choices, how is seeing two choices freedom?

    Recently, Steve Jobs made the press with an interesting approach to freedom when he responded to a blogger’s complaint that Apple was restricting the freedom of iPad customers. Mr. Jobs stated: “Yep, freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom.” He also said, “Users, developers, and publishers can do whatever they like—they don’t have to buy or develop or publish on iPads.”

    If Mr. Jobs and Apple do not serve customer needs, they will be driven out of business by Google and others. In other words, Apple is being forced by the free market to serve its customers well… to serve its customers better than Google. Free market competition drives businesses to do more good for more people.

    Finally, I point to the the first book of bible, Genesis. In the garden, prior to sin, Adam and Eve were described to be in a state of perfect freedom, ignorant of evil. Post sin, they were said to be aware of, to have knowledge of good and evil. This new nature that resulted from sin is called slavery, the very opposite of freedom.

    – Bradley Norris

  3. Thanks for your thoughts, professor Norris. I have been eager to hear your conclusions on the subject.

    These are some challenging counterpoints. Implicit in your first paragraph, is the notion that legitimate vs. prurient is a separate argument from good vs. evil. I think this is an important distinction for either of our thoughts, as some readers might believe them to be joined.

    It is interesting you phrased your second paragraph the way that you did– “human’s aren’t very good at making choices in any kind of objective way.” This is a reasonable opinion, and one that Huxley would agree with. Eyeless in Gaza is actually more about this—the difference between man’s ideals and his actions—than good and evil; the dilemma of knowing what to do, and doing it. What is interesting is that Huxley assumes that we do know what to do, and the problem lies exclusively in doing it. I think that it true. Regardless of value-system, people know right from wrong in the context of their own values.

    So, I don’t neccesarily see it as fair to say that making objective choices or actions is a presupposition* of freedom. Contrarily, I see freedom as a presupposition to making any type of choice. Just as the freedom for businesses to exist as either good or evil is a presupposition to being able to identify them and have an opinion either way. My proof? Your poll. While nobody answered ‘good,’ I will assume that at least somebody in a wider sample size would answer ‘good.’ So, what is at work there? A group of people who recognize both good and evil, based on their own value systems.

    Mr. Jobs also has an interesting concept of freedom. It seems like real freedom would be the power to choose separately between the product and then whether you wanted Apple to restrict programs that steal your data or trash your battery and porn. Most people would probably choose the freedom from these things anyway, but for Jobs to moderate and call it freedom is a misnomer– even if it was in good faith. Perhaps there should be an exception for attempts to censor in good faith? But, where is the line? Does the Chinese government not also censor in good faith? They create censorship, and call it freedom—and this attempt to restrict evil from existing also limits the potential for more ‘good’ outcomes.

    Clearly, I am a free-market man as well, and agree that capitalism drives more ‘good’ outcomes than any other system. I really like the biblical argument here too. Why not go back to the roots of good and evil? But, what were Adam and Eve free from? Well, it seems they were free from the recognition of good and evil, and from the ‘slavery’ of having to choose between them. Once they became aware, and saw both good and evil, they were enslaved not to good, or evil in itself– because both existed. Rather, we became enslaved to what Huxley argues, the dilemma of knowing what to do, and actually doing it. We became enslaved to being required to choose, because both exist.

    I hope you take the length of my comments as engagement, rather than argument. This is a HUGE topic–Thanks for exploring it with me. Would love to here more anytime you want to contribute!

    *I’m not 100% sure if I am using presupposition correctly, since I have never taken a philosophy course. I simply mean that _________ is a required condition for __________ to exist.

  4. Pingback: Kierkegaard + 2 Samuel X Action: Launching A Modern Revolution « Business X Philosophy

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