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Aristotelian Practical Wisdom in Business Ethics: Two Neglected Components

Abstract

The revival of virtue ethics in contemporary moral philosophy had a major impact on business ethicists, among whom the virtues have become a staple subject of inquiry. Aristotle’s phronēsis (‘practical wisdom’) is one of those virtues, and a number of texts have examined it in some detail. But analyses of phronēsis in business ethics have neglected some of its most significant and interesting elements. In this paper, I dissect two neglected components of practical wisdom as outlined in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics: sunesis (‘judgement’), a capacity to perceptively evaluate testimony, and gnomē (‘discernment’), a capacity to rightly discern exceptions to ‘universal’ moral rules. Practical wisdom is a product of experience, so I examine the role that experience plays in the development of these deliberative capacities, asking what it is that the practically wise will have taken away from their experiences. It is, in particular, everyday, ‘mundane’ experience that begets these excellences, so I concentrate specifically on that kind of experience in the domains of sunesis and gnomē as I search for insights about how we develop phronēsis and how we might better do what is right.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Interestingly, these concepts seem to have received more uptake in Thomistic virtue ethics. See, e.g. Morales-Sánchez and Cabello-Medina (2013, p. 725) and Pellegrini and Ciappei (2013).

  2. 2.

    And therefore acting well is itself the end of phronēsis—see Annas (1995), ch. 2.

  3. 3.

    Aristotle uses sunesis interchangeably with eusunesia (‘excellence in judgement’). For Aristotle, the term sunesis implies excellence.

  4. 4.

    Though, to be clear, it would have to be a certain sort of wrongness in order to fall within the province of sunesis. Sunesis is not an intellectual excellence concerned with evaluating the ends undergirding some piece of advice, since its sphere is deliberation and on Aristotle’s account we do not deliberate about ends.

  5. 5.

    We should be careful, too, not to assume that our reading is superior simply because our advisor does not share our cultural context. In some cases cultural background will be irrelevant, and in some cases our own cultural background may cloud our judgement in a way that our advisor’s culture might not. This is, again, difficult terrain, but the fact that we are able to engage with views radically different to our own presents opportunities for very profound reflection on assumptions that may never be challenged by members of our own culture.

  6. 6.

    It is noteworthy here that Aristotle is not accusing the law of futility or of being fatally flawed—he tells us immediately afterwards that “the error is attributable not to the law, nor to the law-giver, but to the nature of the case”.

  7. 7.

    This is especially clear in view of gnomē’s connection to modern conceptions of equity. Business ethicists have long grappled with moral rules concerning issues like desert and discrimination.

  8. 8.

    Nor indeed should we think that need be a phronimos; as Hursthouse (1999) points out, some mentors will approximate virtue better than others; 24-carat virtue is not necessary in a mentor.

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful to the symposiasts at the University of Notre Dame Australia’s symposium on Giving Voice to Values for their illuminating comments on this paper. Mary Gentile’s comments in particular have helped refine my understanding of the approach, and have further cemented my conviction that Aristotle has something useful to say here.

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Correspondence to Steven Steyl.

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Steyl, S. Aristotelian Practical Wisdom in Business Ethics: Two Neglected Components. J Bus Ethics 163, 417–428 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-4040-x

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Keywords

  • Virtue ethics
  • Practical wisdom
  • Aristotle
  • Judgment
  • Discernment