The Real Philosophy of Business

if you read the course calendar of an educational institution, you might find a course listing for something called “Philosophy of Business.” That phrase has always caused me to snort with laughter. Business is fundamentally anti-philosophical, rooted in the notion that the search for answers is useless and all that matters is narrowly focusing on short-term personal gain. “Philosophy of Business” is sort of like “Cooking with Urine and Feces.” It’s pretentious and silly.

But what if there really were a philosophy of business? Of course there is. There is a philosophical side to everything that exists. There is even a philosophical side to feminism, which is more overtly and bitterly hostile to philosophy than anything else that ever existed. But the real philosophy of business would not refer to an actual area of philosophical study, since there’s no philosophical way to study the fine art of making sure you get a better deal and the other parties to the transaction get a worse deal. Rather, philosophy of business would be more like the mentality and psychology of businesspeople, those beliefs that animate them through their daily lives, usually without the businesspeople being the least bit aware of them, and often being hostile to gaining any awareness of them at all.

To understand the true philosophy of business, you have to understand the concept of advantage. The simplest definition of “advantage” is “whatever causes the laws of nature to give you a leg up on someone or something else.” It’s rooted in adjusting to the way the world really is–and, in some cases, altering the way the human world is for personal benefit. It’s also strongly bound up with competition, because the businessperson’s mentality is that everything competes with everything else in a kind of Hobbesian free-for-all. Businesspeople compete at home with their spouses, kids, parents and best friends, but above all within their professional lives. The biggest praise you can give to a businessperson, which is to call her “prudent” and “shrewd,” is just another way of saying that she has a fine nose for seeking advantage and is good at getting it. All business boils down to seeking advantage and nothing else.

Yet what is particularly human about seeking advantage? There is something. It’s true that everything, from the prokaryotes of two billions years ago to the Douglas firs and cetaceans of today, has always sough advantage. I don’t buy Nietzsche’s statement that all of reality seeks advantage, because it’s unlikely that inanimate objects such as water and stone seek advantage, and interstellar space certainly doesn’t. All life, however, from the earliest to the current, has always been underpinned by seeking of advantage. Yet business is the distillation and refinement of that advantage-seeking aspect of all life, one that isolates and crystallizes it and makes it the entire focus of a person’s life. It ain’t philosophy, but it is what people colloquially call “life philosophy”–an ethical foundation that guides thought and behavior without having any cosmological or epistemological elements.

Except that there is a cosmological element to it. The element is described in Hobbes’ _Leviathan_. Most people believe that the western world is founded on the writings of John Locke but Locke was making a derivative response to Hobbes. His aim was not to argue that Hobbes was wrong about the world being a fight to the death by everything against everything else, but to suggest a corrective to that maelstromic chaos, a way for people to lead fulfilling lives under impossible conditions. So that, ultimately, is the philosophy of business: the belief that life is a war of all against all, and that our existences are nasty, brutish, and short.

Sure makes you want to become an entrepreneur, doesn’t it?

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