By Kyle Scott
Literature is, by and large, invaluable in one’s understanding of human nature and the world in general. It serves as a gateway to events of the past and an instrument to grasp different views of reality and to connect with our own humanity. But how can literature help in the cultivation of ethics in the business environment?
In 1957, Russell Kirk wrote, “I mean that American businessmen, like most other Americans, are deficient in the disciplines that nurture the spirit.” A lack of engagement with the humanities-“that great body of literature that records the wisdom of the ages, and in recording it instructs us in the nature of man”-has dire consequences not only for the individual, but for the business he so values.
Engaging great works of literature has instrumental and intrinsic values for those who choose to engage. Engagement with great thoughts and great characters involved in great events shape the minds of readers. Readers of great literary works will be more inclined to act ethically, come up with creative solutions, and have the strength to act on their convictions.
Literature provides us with an awareness of humanity’s depths and heights. Without examples we have nothing to model our own behaviour after or basis on which to identify potentially tragic flaws in ourselves or others. It is helpful to know of people like Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Theresa in comparison to Stalin, Hitler or Mugabe.
But historical examples have a way of seeming too distant, or their deployment in examples of heroism and evil is so common as to desensitise us from their value. Literary characters often feel more personal, more visceral, and even easier to connect with. Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment, and Romeo and Juliet seem closer to us; easier to connect with. Think of the rise in popularity of Alexander Hamilton now with his life story having been dramatised in an award-winning Broadway musical. His writings have been around for over two hundred years and historians have been writing about him for decades, but it is only now that people have formed a real connection with him.
Case studies serve as the basis of much of the business education and the foundation of ethical lessons and therefore most of our titans of industry have engaged in these “historical” texts. But, literature provides value that case studies do not.
Fiction reading enhances social cognition through its simulation of social content. This essentially means that fiction enhances the perception, recognition, and understanding of other individuals. An independent research by neuroscientists, Diana Tamir, David Comer Kidd, and Nicholas Carr has shown that through fiction we can deepen our understanding and appreciation of others. The advantages of literary fiction are based on comparisons to popular fiction, various forms of non-fiction and reading nothing at all.
We don’t necessarily need sophisticated neurological studies to prove this – though they help – just think of how much more impactful a story like A Christmas Carol is versus a chart put out by the World Bank. It’s common knowledge that narratives and stories help to make points resonate more. Hans Rosling was able to reshape how we think about statistical realities through his use of examples in his TED talks and his book Factfulness.
Literature and the arts give us the ability to see the entire person. In business we oftentimes think of our customers as data points or objectify them as pieces of our strategy. Managers can come to see their employees as assets. Literature can have a humanising effect. It is far easier to take advantage of someone or to otherwise treat them poorly if we don’t see them as people with hopes, fears, families, and hobbies but as objects to be used for our own objectives or obstacles to overcome on our way to generating more revenue. Art in general, and literature in particular, trains our moral imagination, it brings us an appreciation for humanity writ large and to see the value of things beyond their utility. An enhanced moral imagination changes our disposition by cultivating a greater sense of connectedness, empathy, and familiarity.
In business, this point is particularly important as we seek to enhance the value we bring to our stakeholders by making improvements to our processes, products, and strategy. But the constant push for improvement can force us to lose some of what it means to be human, and to disconnect with those things which literature and the arts bring us into contact with.
Aside from ethics, literature will give us the power to make better decisions strictly aimed at building stakeholder value. Take for instance investment decisions. Even when models favour long term investment decisions over those that will lead to immediate returns, the pressure to pursue gains in the short term can be too difficult to overcome. Moreover, if one is in the minority in pushing for a more profitable but unpopular long-term investment it can be easy to cave to the majority.
The same body of research that proves literature can strengthen our ethical resolve argues that literature can strengthen our resolve to maintain steadfast in the face of strong opposition when evidence is clearly and convincingly on our side. Reading literature and engaging with the arts is fundamentally different from other types of learning activities and it has a more lasting and powerful influence.
We should also not discount the effects on creativity that engaging the imagination through great works of literature can have. In an ever-competitive marketplace where the proliferation of knowledge about products, developments, and competitors spreads more quickly than most of us can keep up with; a well-developed imagination is crucial. Being able to think about problems and opportunities differently than others offers a decisive competitive advantage. Literature allows us to think uniquely.
For instance, a senior sales executive with whom I had worked credited her reading of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in high school with giving her insights about grassroots marketing and understanding contagion.
A Director of Human Resources found ways his department could better organise and communicate with the rest of the company after reading Franz Kafka’s The Trial with his son as part of a school summer reading project. He realised how jargon and disparate departments can be confusing and defeating to the average employee, so he rewrote manuals in common language and streamlined communication channels.
None of this really matters unless it is actionable – which it is.
Literature reorients our worldview. A reoriented view will naturally yield better behaviour. Literature also broadens our horizons and brings forth a more complete picture of individuals, their environments, ourselves and a richer appreciation for experiences. Those broadened horizons lead to changes in behaviour that do not have to be premeditated – they just happen.
People tend to naturally act in accord with commonly understood ethical standards when there is a shared identity, purpose, and connection. That is, when we see others as fully human we are less likely to explain away our bad behaviour that can have negative consequences for them. For instance, I am far less likely to lie to someone about a product they are about to buy if I understand how hard they’ve worked for their money, the troubles they are experiencing at home, the hope they have for what they are about to purchase, or what they need from the transaction. If I can see some of myself in them, or empathise with them, I am less likely to take advantage of them. This isn’t necessarily an intentional thought process, but it arises from a disposition brought forth by a moral imagination nurtured by literary works.
As already referenced, reading great literary fiction reshapes neural networks in a way that changes how we view situations and evaluate the value of others. By reshaping these networks, the calculus for action becomes less difficult as we are less inclined to find negative behaviour appealing or necessary.
For all the handwringing about how people no longer read or how society is changing because of technology, an understanding of history leads us to recognise that our time is not unique. The Greeks wrote mythological tales about the consequences of single-minded pursuit of domination and transformation through technological advancement. Plato and Aristotle lamented a youth undisciplined and unconcerned with serious matters of the mind.
What we do not need is a return to some time that never existed, but a recognition of the ever-present challenge posed by the human condition which moves us to shape the world around us yet the inability to do so without negative, unintended consequences.
Literature does not require an esoteric engagement with abstract concepts removed from reality. Simply review a high school summer reading list, or some other list of the top classics, and pick one that appeals to you. Read it. Put it down and see what happens.
About the Author
Kyle Scott is an Affiliate Faculty Member at Baylor College of Medicine, Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy. He has held several university teaching appointments and currently serves at the head of international development efforts at a U.S.-based manufacturing firm. He has academic publications in the areas of business ethics and political philosophy. His work has also appeared in popular outlets such as Huffington Post, Houston Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and others.