Plea for philosophical professional ethics

On 3rd June 1992, Dutch Minister of Interior Affairs called Ien Dales gave a speech and pleaded for more integrity within public administration. In the years that followed, integrity was also explicitly on the agenda within the private sector. Exactly thirty years after Dales’ plea, Edgar Karssing, professor of Philosophy, Professional Ethics and Integrity Management at Nyenrode Business University in the Netherlands, stated during his inaugural lecture that preserving and strengthening the integrity of professional practitioners requires a philosophical approach. That we must guard against moralism and being patronizing. Ideas from 250 years ago provide some effective tools.

Karssing wants to contribute to Nyenrode’s mission statement ‘Serving society by shaping responsible leaders’ through education and research: “I am following in the footsteps of my teacher Henk van Luijk. He taught me that we have to do the ‘actual’ ourselves. That is also the case for professionals. However, professional ethics today is mainly moralistic and patronizing. Compliance and conformism seem to have become the most important virtues. I find that alarming because if you tell people what is allowed and what is not allowed, what they should do, then you do not respect them as morally mature people.”

Auxiliary scientists of thought

As a professor, Karssing wants to oppose moralistic professional ethics. Whether we are an accountant, manager, lawyer or contractor, according to Karssing we do not learn to think for ourselves with a moralistic approach, but people think for you: “Philosophers are auxiliary scientists of thinking. Philosophy can, in the words of Socrates, play the roles of midwife (servant) and gadfly (confrontational), thus supporting practitioners in their quest and learning to do the right things the right way.”

Moral education

The focal point of the chair’s research is education about moral judgment: how can we support ‘responsible leaders’ and what is needed for this? Behavioral insights will play an important role in this: philosophy should fit with people-as-they-are and not so much with people-as-they-ideally-are. Only, the behavioral sciences are not necessarily philosophy-friendly. For example, according to moral psychologist Haidt and cronies, people judge mainly intuitively and they are hardly capable of argumentation and reasoning. A philosophical professional ethic should not ignore this challenge.

Adam Smith

As a source of inspiration, Karssing looks to his teacher Adam Smith, an 18th century moral philosopher and economist for whom the distinction between philosophy and behavioral sciences did not exist. Karssing: “Smith had a clear vision of the formation and functioning of our conscience, which has withstood the test of time excellently. Smith reflected on the principles that make peaceful coexistence and fruitful collaboration possible in an imperfect world. He saw that people are morally fallible creatures: what is close (our self-interest) always seems great, and what is far away (the interests of others) seems small. The crux of Adam Smith’s theory of moral feelings is the Impartial Spectator who, as an inner judge, judges our feelings and behaviors. It’s about developing your own moral compass, finding your own voice. We can strengthen this Impartial Spectator through education. With my research agenda, I want to update and give substance to his theory from 250 years ago.”

I couldn’t agree more. Have a look at the Dutch report on philosophical professional ethics.

Source: Nyenrode Business University, as discussed with Edgar Karssing.