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Let’s elect Kant to the board and learn to philosophise

“Elect Kant to the board” was a brilliant headline in La Stampa (10 January) for an interview by Claudio Gallo with the philosopher and novelist Alain De Botton, explaining how a businessman only thinks of making money and a philosopher seeks to create happiness, therefore the two activities should be combined. De Botton is an original thinker and deals with more or less everything, from architecture to mass communication, religion to sex, corporate philosophies to the basic values of economic and social systems. A renaissance intellectual according to his fans; in other words eclectic. A little too eclectic, hiss the critics, challenging him on account of genericness and even triteness, good for chat shows on entertainment TV. He is definitely a mark of contemporary cultural debate and in fact in early January wrote in the Financial Times that philosophers should be members of the board in companies.

This is no joke but instead the result of reasoning which, as confirmed to La Stampa, can be summed up by saying that our misfortune is not that we have too much capitalism, too much competition, to many profits, too much consumerism. Instead we suffer because we have a rough and underdeveloped version of an economic system which could give us much more. We admire the organisational power of corporations, their ability to guide enormously complex efforts … but we make poor and little use of all this: the pension funds of public employees in Ankara mean that a container carrier ship in the strait of Singapore transports manganese which will be used to make bottle caps opened in a bar in Dublin. Too much, in other words, for so little. He goes on to say that with bottles and caps we’re great, the rest still has to be built. The unfortunate truth is not the inefficiency of capitalism but the fact that its ambitions are so modest.

This is in fact the purpose of philosophers on company boards. To think big and look towards objectives in which the production power of the industry, the richness of the finance, the sophistication of the new technologies can have decisive roles, in order to build a new, different and improved quality of economic and social development, a more complete sustainability of growth.

Adam Smith, moreover, father of modern economics, was a moral philosopher. And as a philosopher he had investigated the relationships between individual interests and the “sympathy” in an etymological sense between the individuals able to weave the support structure of a community.

In the economic crisis, whose effects are still felt all over the world (change to commercial and power balances, new players on the markets of production and consumption, worsening of some social differences but also the emergence of hundreds of millions of people from poverty to the sphere of consumption and rights, drastic change in distribution and content of work, etc.), an in-depth search is underway for a meaning which impacts the basic reasons for producing, trading and consuming. Questions are asked about the ethics of the economy and the system of rights and duties linked to the environment. An in-depth discussion is launched on the intellectual categories and the rules for interpretation which have guided economic and social progress over the centuries (even disputing the actual idea of the positive value of progress and gambling on theories of “happy decrease”). Philosophy issues therefore which reach the actual heart of economics and business.

This is where the cultural challenge that faces us lies. As thinking and enterprising persons. As supporters of the importance of the “polytechnic culture”. In order to tackle it philosophers are needed who know how to handle the tools for analysis and interpretation of economics and science (the intersections between the two dimensions are increasingly frequent, as witnessed by the whole bio-tech world). As well as entrepreneurs and managers able to move beyond the essential yet in any case limited horizon of company accounts, profit and loss account and “value for shareholders”.

Not starting from scratch, not even in Italy. Philosophy is taught well at the politecnici of Milan and Turin, above all as part of the engineering management courses. The lesson by Adriano Olivetti on the good, complex corporate culture is re-read (together with the more sophisticated cultural experiences spread throughout other firms, like Pirelli). Space is also given over in the media to the fact that Sergio Marchionne, who spearheaded the Fiat renaissance, after graduating in law and with a master’s degree in business administration in Canada, completed his philosophy studies at the University of Toronto. Or that Franco Tatò, one of the more brilliant and international top managers, obtained his degree with a theoretical philosophy thesis on Max Weber. Or again that Brunello Cucinelli, a star of Italian-made quality clothing, organises for his employees training courses that start with Plato.

It is therefore possible to overturn, for the economic good, the old commonplace, attributed to Thomas Hobbes, of primum vivere, deinde philosophari: in other words in order to live better philosophising is now essential.