Imagine a business culture that could exist—but doesn’t (at least, not yet). If you could design that culture, what would it look like? Would it be more sustainable? Equitable? Free? Diverse? Transparent? Accessible? Friendly? Something else? Now consider the person you would like to become. What do you look like? Would you understand yourself better? Express your desires and values more clearly? Would you—the person who comes to mind as you think about this “unattained but attainable self”[1]—help usher in that business world you imagined? Would the business world you imagined help realize that person you’d like to become?

For an underappreciated tradition of ethical inquiry called moral perfectionism, the friction we feel between the world as it is and the world as it could be—but isn’t—provides motivation for personal and collective transformation.[2] Such metamorphosis—through conversation with other selves—is an ethical responsibility: not the kind that tells us ‘don’t do this—do that instead.’ Rather, the kind that challenges us to become better versions of ourselves, collectively. This approach to ethical philosophy has been outlined in the modern era by various American philosophers—including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Stanley Cavell.

In a recent paper at Business Ethics Quarterly,[3] we consider what this approach to ethics has to offer business professionals and theorists. By approaching economic exchange as a conversation (not merely a transaction) between partners who are mutually seeking deeper self-understanding and self-expression, business can shape our inner lives and thereby enable us to realize a higher, more perfect version of who we are, together. This isn’t a neurotic idealism, committed to an unattainable goal. It’s a realistic discipline that regards perfection as an endless process of personal and collective self-realization, not an illusory end-state always just out of reach. Perhaps this discipline can enable people, companies, and economic cultures to move closer to the unrealized—but realizable—versions of themselves that are, perhaps, their highest or truest selves.

Indeed, maybe what drives us from ‘here’—the person or company or culture we live with now—and ‘there’—the person or company or culture we want to become—is a glimmer of recognition. Perhaps it is the strange sense that, somehow, who we are is already there, already ahead of us. We are not simply what we have already managed to achieve through our compromises, half measures, and satisficing. Who we are is there. Sure, you can call this an ‘aspiration’ if you want. Or a ‘target.’ But, somehow, those words don’t capture the moral sense that we occasionally acknowledge when we’re attentive enough: that such a possibility might be more real than what we call our present actuality. That—our higher self, personally and collectively—is already who we really are. The calling of moral perfectionism is to become that. And that is not a destination. It’s a journey.

Read the full article ‘Perfectionism and the Place of the Interior Life in Business: Toward an Ethics of Personal Growth‘ published in Business Ethics Quarterly

[1] Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism: The Carus Lectures, 1988 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 12, referring to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

[2] Stanley Cavell, Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2005), 2.

[3] Joshua S. Nunziato and Ronald Paul Hill, “Perfectionism and the Place of the Interior Life in Business: Toward an Ethics of Personal Growth,” Business Ethics Quarterly 29, no. 2 (April 2019): 241–68.

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