Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
How did you get into Stoicism?
It was 1999. I ran into Alain de Botton in a restaurant. He was having dinner with a friend of mine. He said he was working on a book of philosophy, and mentioned Seneca, who I’d never read. I went out and brought Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic. And it just blew me away. I found it impeccably logical. That led me on to Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. I read just about everything I could. Now I usually take one of the Stoic books with me when I travel. I incorporated it into my thinking and it’s shaped the way I think and interact with the world in a very positive way.
What struck me was the irrefutable logic of it. People devote a lot of time and emotional effort to things that are beyond their control – what other people do, how other people react to them, even the weather. And they set themselves up for pain, anxiety, disappointment and fear. The Stoics recognised that it was foolish, or counterproductive, to attach oneself to things that are beyond one’s control, when there are things within one’s control – one’s thoughts, attitudes and moral purpose.
I loved the idea that you could make your goal to live a life of moral purpose. I was very taken with the ethical and moral point-of-view of Stoicism. When you read the Stoics, you often come across the word ‘virtue’. They saw the goal of the wise person as to lead a virtuous life. Today, the word ‘virtue’ is almost never heard, except ironically. If you asked 100 people what their goal was in life, hardly any would say leading a virtuous life.
Can you give some practical examples of how you might use Stoic ideas?
I found I had a more satisfactory way of dealing with disappointment, opposition…For example, I had children, who are grown up now and in their twenties. Parents care a lot about their children and what they do, and it’s very easy to get upset when they don’t behave as you would wish them to. Stoicism makes you realise you can’t control people, not even your own children. It’s liberating. The essence of Stoicism is that you have to accept what you can’t control. I’d get upset or disappointed when things didn’t go my way or when someone didn’t do what I wanted, but I learnt to step back and say ‘what’s going on? Does it involve my moral purpose?’ If it does, then as a wise person you have a path to follow, which is to follow the path governed by reason and virtue. And if it doesn’t involve your moral attitude, then it’s probably not that important. Let me read you one of my favourite quotes from Marcus Aurelius:
They cannot admire you for intellect. Granted—but there are many other qualities of which you cannot say, “but that is not the way I am made”. So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power—integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude? And yet you are still content to lag behind.
What he’s saying is you can make your goal to live in a dignified way, a virtuous way based upon reason. It is within your power. How many people do that? Where people get screwed up is there are a lot of things that appear to be in our control – whether we achieve something we want to achieve, whether a relationship works out the way we want. The fact is we can influence them, but ultimately a lot of these things are beyond our control. Even our health.
But isn’t that a heresy in the world of business philosophy, where most people think success is all down to your own efforts. You seem to be saying that some of these things involve fortune and luck.
Fortune and luck play a huge part in everything. Stoicism doesn’t mean passivity – you can care and you can be passionate. Let’s say you’re a writer — your duty is to write the best you can. But it’s out of your control whether your book becomes a bestseller or not. Other people have to buy it, a publisher has to publicise it, maybe you have to get on a TV talk show. But nothing can prevent you from living according to the precepts of Stoicism.
Is it easier to be Stoic when you’re well off?
A lot of things are easier if you’re well-off, and probably a few things aren’t as easy. Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome, hugely powerful. And Epictetus was a slave. So I don’t think Stoicism is just a luxury for advantaged people. Any person can learn from it.
Marcus was emperor of Rome, which must have been an incredibly complex and stressful job. You also, in some ways, are at the top of an empire, a media empire, which must also be very complex. Does Stoicism help you in that?
I don’t think it impacts how I run the business, to be honest. I don’t look at the business every day and think ‘what’s the Stoic way to do a certain thing’. What it does do is help me manage myself and my own feelings. There’s not very much that disturbs my equanimity. I can have a detachment and calmness in doing what I do. I don’t get offended if someone I do business with lets me down, I just recognise this is the way some people behave. It reminds me of a quote from Marcus Aurelius I was looking at this morning:
Whenever you are offended at someone’s lack of shame, you should immediately ask yourself, ‘is it possible for there to be no shameless people in the world?’ It’s not possible – do not ask for the impossible. This person is just one of the shameless inevitably existing in this world.
If someone is behaving in a rude way, step back and say ‘OK that’s their problem. What’s my responsibility? Mine is to follow the precepts of truth, justice, courage and self-control’. Nothing can prevent you from doing that. If you ask most people, do you think you can achieve your goal, people would say, maybe I will, maybe not. If your goal is to live according to reason and virtue, then that is always achievable. I’d never thought of that.
Did you grow up with a particular religion?
I’m from the US, from the New York area. I grew up as a reformed Jew, with the Judeo-Christian moral precepts that most people are exposed to. I was never a seeker after truth. I didn’t join cults or experiment with philosophies or sects. I wasn’t particularly looking for some kind of answer.
To what extent is the world of media and fashion in tune with Stoic values?
Not in tune. I don’t think there’s any particular awareness of it. In fact, the zeitgeist has been moving away from Stoic virtues. For example, the Stoics thought humans have the capacity for reason as well as passions. They saw passions as the antithesis to reason and kind of the wrong path. But today we put a great value on emotions, and living your emotions and experiencing them and giving into them. The idea of applying a reasoned approach is not in line with today’s thinking.
And also, you could say that media has led to a culture of external display rather than the idea of inner virtue?
Digital has made possible an incredible explosion of narcissism. Through Facebook and Instagram, people are displaying everything about their personal lives. I like the fact that Stoicism is private. I’ve never felt an interest in proselytizing it. I do, however, sometimes talk to close friends about it. For example, about a year ago, a friend of mine in the US lost his wife in a shooting accident. He was devastated. I sent him a book of Seneca about consolation. He thanked me for it. I don’t know if it touched him. But occasionally, when I’ve come across someone who I thought would benefit, I’ve given him a book.
For example, I noticed you stood by John Galliano in that whole furore.
Well, in that case I felt he’d been suffering from severe alcoholism, which is an illness. And he was taking steps to recover. And the right thing to do when someone is sick is to have compassion and to support their recovery.
Going back to the idea of proselytizing – Marcus Aurelius also clearly thought you can’t change people so there was no point trying to do ‘Stoic outreach’. Do you think then that we can’t promote these ideas or values through the media?
Individuals should do what they want. If people feel strongly about it, they should write a book, or talk about it. I have no intention of fighting any battle to spread Stoicism. It’s out there – you can walk into a bookshop and buy Marcus Aurelius. A lot of ancient philosophies have something to offer. What’s happened today, which is a shame, is that when people have problems and suffering, their instinct is to go to a psychiatrist and get a pill. Some misfortunes require medication, but pills aren’t the answer to all our problems.
I do think we should teach a whole range of philosophies in schools. In the 16th or 17th centuries, every educated household had a copy of Seneca in their library. Now it would be less than 1% who’d have a copy. They’ve been neglected.
Have you ever met other people interested in Stoicism?
No, there’s no other person I could discuss this with, apart from Alain de Botton.
You must have met so many people. None of them were into Stoicism? Tom Wolfe for example? Elle MacPherson?
I’ve sat next to Elle at dinner parties. I didn’t realise this was one of her intellectual interests! For me, it’s a private thing.
That’s quite different from, say, Judaism, where there’s so much emphasis on community.
Well, Stoics don’t all meet in church and worship. The Stoics make mention of God, but the deity does not play a major role. It’s a way of thinking, a philosophy, and you don’t need anyone else to share it with. I’m happy if someone else is interested in it. I’ve occasionally talked to friends about it and they nod and say ‘that’s nice’, but I don’t have friends that I hang out with in a bar and talk about Stoicism.
Do you believe in God?
That’s an interesting question. [Pause]. I guess…is there a God that is looking at every single detail of every life in the universe, you know, if Johnny is praying to pass his biology exam, is God listening to that prayer? I don’t know. To me, the principles that are embodied in Stoicism are akin to God. I’m not sure if God exists, but I prefer to live my life as though He does.
The Stoics believed in a moral universe. Do you?
Well, they’d say it all comes down to reason. They saw their moral values as stemming from reason, which enables us to live in a peaceful and harmonious way.
But they also saw a link between reason and the universe.
Yes they did. You know…I haven’t worked it out. This sounds terrible, perhaps, but I love the idea of God. For me, this philosophy itself is godlike – almost like a Higher Power, something greater than my own power, which is puny.
And what about the afterlife?
Well, I think when you’re dead, it’s probably like before you’re born. There’s no consciousness, no pain, no nothing. It’s frightening, but it will happen to all of us, and I can accept it. That’s the way God or Nature made the world, and to protest against it or to feel anguish is foolish and irrational, so why indulge it? You know when you jump into a swimming pool, there’s a moment when you know you’re going to go from one state to another, and then it happens. I think death is something like that. Except you won’t be swimming afterwards. Anyway, Stoicism has made me less afraid of dying.
I left with the impression of a man with a quiet and deep integrity. Of course, I still wondered if the media could perhaps play a role in trying to shape more positive values in our culture, but Jonathan is not alone among Stoics in being wary of proselytizing. Still, occasionally some Stoic philosophy sneaks into one of his family’s magazines – like in 1955, when JD Salinger published Franny and Zooey in the New Yorker. In the story, Zooey scrawls some Epictetus quotes across her school’s blackboards. Good going Zooey.
By the way my book just came out in the US. Also, Stoic Week is happening in the end of November, including a big public event in London on November 30. Find out more here.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
It can still feel weird discussing having had depression and anxiety to strangers in public talks. Although I’m fairly used to exposing myself these days (as it were), there are still occasions when I think ‘is this really a good idea?’ I had that feeling this week, standing in front of a gym full of colossal rugby players at Saracens rugby club, staring at me stony-faced as I discussed how ancient philosophy helped me through panic attacks. What the hell am I doing here?
I was invited to Saracens’ training ground in St Albans to give a talk about ancient philosophy, virtue ethics, and the Greeks’ ideas on the good life. I believe, and Saracens also believe, that ethics are right at the heart of sport. Sportspeople, on a daily basis, are faced with the questions that Socrates first raised: is it worth being an ethical person? What is the appropriate trade-off between external and internal goods? What does it mean to succeed at life? How do we cope with external pressures and still maintain a good character?
We, the spectator-public, like to think that professional sportspeople are shining knights, that sports coaches are founts of moral wisdom like Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights. We look to professional sportspeople as moral guides – recently I was at a conference on well-being at work, where the keynote speaker was Sally Gunnell, who was greeted like a demi-goddess by the assembled businesspeople. But professional sports looks much better from the outside than the inside, and what’s good for external success (prizes, profits) is not necessarily good for a person’s character or well-being. You can be a highly-successful athlete and still a very messed-up human being.
Professional sports is not necessarily the character-forming crucible we amateurs think it is. It’s big business and razzle-dazzle spectacle, with huge amounts of money involved and an intense focus on winning at any cost. David Priestly, who is head of the Personal Development Programme at Saracens, says: ‘People have an incredibly romantic view of professional sports. But it can be a very brutal world, a machine that squeezes everything out of a person and then tosses them aside. Most of the people in that world are very far from being role-models. Most people in professional sports shy away from anything explicitly about ethics. It’s just about winning. Younger players can see people at the top of their sport who are doing very well while still behaving in a questionable manner.’
The Saracens revolution
Which brings us to Saracens. The club was 50% bought by a South African consortium in 2009, who appointed Edward Griffiths as the CEO – the man who’d managed South African rugby in the run-up to their nation-building 1995 World Cup victory. Griffiths promised a ‘Saracens Revolution’ which would turn rugby into a glitzy, entertaining and crowd-pleasing spectacle. Saracens matches would alternate between Wembley and a new astroturf stadium in north London, match attendance would rise from 14,000 to 80,000, spectators would be able to watch replays on their smartphones, even order pizzas from their seats. The club was now in the business of ‘making memories’.
But the other side of the Saracens Revolution was a focus on character and virtues, as proclaimed by the South African director of rugby, Brendan Venter. He’s a doctor, a Christian, and something of a rebel, who’s surprised journalists with comments like: ‘You can’t think about winning all the time. I’m far more interested in my players, along with me, improving as people. That’s basically the only thing that really matters.’ He’s also said: ‘If we win everything there is to win but we’ve broken relationships, we’ve lost the plot. We’ve missed our point of being on earth, it’s as simple as that.’
Venter, who studied to be a doctor while playing rugby, insisted the players need to be well-rounded and prepared for life after rugby. They need to be cared for as individuals with souls rather than commodities shoveled into the money-furnace. Their academic pursuits should be just as important as their physical fitness. Players were asked to write essays on ‘the ideal 20-year-old’ and to think about questions like: ‘How does the ideal 20-year-old treat women? How does the ideal 20-year-old treat alcohol? How does he handle his finances? How does he deal with life in general?’
Alex Goode, the 25-year-old Saracens and England full-back, saw the revolution first-hand, having come through the Saracens Academy as a teenager. He says: ‘The old Saracens was not a particularly friendly place. There’d be quite brutal banter. Players lived spread out across Hertfordshire and hung out separately A lot of the players were in it for their own benefit and not the team, they didn’t make sacrifices for the team. Now, there’s much more of a feeling of togetherness. The players and families are really taken care of, and the flip-side of that is we have to work incredibly hard.’
The Revolution seems to be succeeding. Having never won the English rugby premiership, Saracens were runners-up in Venter’s first season (2009-2010), then won it in 2010-2011. This season, however, has been tough – they led the Premiership by wins and points, but then lost in the play-off semi-final, and also lost in the Heineken Cup semi-final to Toulon. The defeats raise the age-old question again: is it worth putting character before external success?
The Jerry Maguire of sports coaching
Venter stepped down as director of rugby and went back to South Africa in 2011, following a series of family bereavements back home, but he’s still technical director. The ethical revolution, meanwhile, continues through the Saracens Personal Development Programme, which is run by David Priestly and David Jones. The latter David is a philosophy grad, who read my book and got in touch. He has the unique vision that philosophy has a place in professional sports – and he’s stuck his neck out by inviting me to speak to the lads.
His boss, 34-year-old David Priestly, has a remarkable, zen-like calm about him. He is something of a Jerry Maguire-figure in that he genuinely believes winning isn’t everything. He says the ‘performance-based myopia’ of professional sports can be morally corrupting for players and staff. This is somewhat heretical in professional sports, even in the world of ‘performance lifestyle coaching’, which is meant to be provide care and guidance for sportspeople but is often just as obsessed with winning at any cost.
Priestly is different. He’s nick-named ‘The Priest’ at the club because he is something like a moral compass for the team, keeping them honest, challenging them to live by their mission-statement, rather than just hanging it prominently on the wall. For example, if a match-winning player fails to meet the ethical standards of the club, will that player be dropped before a big game? Is the club’s commitment to virtues just window-dressing, or does it translate into actions? The players will watch to see how the management acts, and will adapt their behaviour accordingly.
Priestly tells me: ‘Players can smell it a mile away when you say one thing but behave differently. But if you genuinely live by what you teach they will respond to that.’ He has the backbone to stand by his beliefs even in a high-pressure workplace, and the wisdom to recognise that even hard-as-nails rugby men need the occasional opportunity to be vulnerable.
He has written:
In my opinion it is neither ‘soft’ nor ‘fluffy’ nor easy to listen to someone sharing their innermost difficulties. In fact, when someone feels able to bare their soul and be completely vulnerable in my company, I actually believe it to be an incredibly privileged experience. [Sports psychologists] obsessed with performance will never even get close to touching this kind of information…When you are told that you need to be tough, why show that you are vulnerable?
He gives me some advice as I go in to talk to the players: ‘They will be interested. They might put forward a tough-guy front, but they’ll be listening intently.‘
Virtue ethics and sports psychology
There’s a good turn-out for my first workshop, 20 or so players and coaches, including various internationals like Chris Ashton and Steve Borthwick. And so, with these assembled tough guys in front of me, I launch into my talk. It feels slightly surreal at first, but I tell myself to keep going.
After the initial weirdness of exposing my soul to a room full of rugby players, I settle into it, confident that virtue ethics has important things to say to sports psychology (and vice versa). Sports is a lot about emotional control, and no one understood emotional control better than the Stoics. They insisted our emotions come from our judgements and perceptions. We can change our emotions by becoming more aware of our beliefs and attitudes, and more skillful in what we say to ourselves.
This is a familiar idea to sportsplayers, who have already been drilled in the importance of ‘attitude’ to winning, although one of the players asks me if the Stoic idea of controlling your perceptions and emotions means ‘always being positive’. I reply that no, being ‘philosophical’ is not necessarily the same as never feeling negative emotions. Aristotle thought sometimes anger and grief were appropriate responses to life’s tragedies. I say this not realizing that one of the team’s core values is ‘be relentlessly positive and energized at all times’…which sounds a bit exhausting. Surely it’s OK to be frightened, angry, upset or lost sometimes?
The Greeks’ techniques for creating ethical habits are also obviously useful to sportspeople, particularly the idea of repeating maxims to yourself over and over. Sportspeople already use ‘mantras’ and mottos to ingrain attitudes, and Saracens has its mission statement posted on the walls around the gym. I talk about the Greeks’ idea that excellence isn’t just about how you perform in the classroom (or the rugby pitch) – that it extends out into all your interactions, how you treat your wife, your children, the younger players, the referee, how you cope with setbacks in your life. Everything is training.
The players are particularly interested in Epictetus’ idea of focusing on the things you can control in life without freaking out over the things you can’t completely control (your reputation, your body, other people, the weather etc). Again, this is not a new idea in sports psychology (or management – it’s one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits), but it still resonates.
One player tells me, privately, they’ve not been picked for a big game this coming weekend, but they’ve decided that the coach’s choices are beyond their control. Rather than sink into a week-long funk of resentment and depression, the player has decided to focus on what’s in their control – their own beliefs, their own attitude.
We talk about not using externals as an alibi for your own bad behaviour – the referee, for example, your team-mates, your wife, your childhood. Letting go of the past is such a key skill for sportspeople – whether that past is your childhood, the last match or the last point. Andy Murray said in a recent BBC documentary that one of the main things he’s worked on in the last year is not wasting energy thinking about past points during games. Priestly says to me, ‘So much of what I’m trying to get across comes down to the three words: ‘Let it go’.
We also talk about the idea of not caring too much about your status and reputation, not building your house on sand as Jesus put it. Professional sports people have to deal with an incredibly volatile status throughout their life, as Alex Goode tells me. ‘It’s a big shift from schoolboy rugby to professional sports. Suddenly, you go from the blue-eyed boy of your school team to a situation where no one cares if you’ve played England Under 18s, and you’re on the bench and not playing all the games. That’s hard to deal with.’
Then, like Goode, you might get to play for England, another huge step-up in terms of pressure and publicity. He says: ‘Suddenly, everyone wants to talk to you about rugby. By the end of last season, for the first time, I didn’t want to talk about rugby any more, I needed something separate from it.’ Goode was then injured and side-lined, thereby perhaps missing the Lions tour. Injuries can be existential crises for sportspeople, depriving them of the activity by which they define and validate themselves. Alex got through the disappointment of his injury partly by having ‘something separate’ – he tells me he’s found pleasure in reading novels, and is interested in becoming a journalist after rugby.
A lot of the volatility of elite sportspeople’s status comes from the media, which can be a circus mirror, distorting reality into simplistic narratives. In 2006, the 19-year-old Andy Murray was being interviewed with his friend Tim Henman. They were teasing each other about the World Cup and Murray joked he’d support ‘anyone but England’. The joke was seized on by a journalist and hung round his neck like an albatross for years. It prompted Tony Parsons to fulminate that the comment was ‘the tip of a toxic iceberg of anti-Englishness’. Journalists divide humanity into heroes and villains, and sports stars can be canonized one day, demonized the next. They have to live with that volatility of image, accept that its out of their control, and let it go. Not easy.
Not just means, but ends
So there are many meeting points between sports psychology and virtue ethics. What philosophy brings to the table – why Saracens asked me there – is that philosophy isn’t just about techniques for on-the-field success. It’s also a way to question what success actually looks like, what end or goal we’re using all these techniques for. Is winning your ultimate goal – your God – or is there something higher? It’s possible to win a lot of medals and lose at life.
I put it to the players that there is something more important than external success, that you can live a good life even if you fail to win the World Cup, say, or to win the league.
This does not go down that well with the players. ‘I don’t even consider failing’, says one player. ‘It’s not an option. If you think you won’t get a goal, why bother trying to get there’. It’s a fair point, and I am reminded again of the difference between philosophy and professional sports – sometimes there is a tension between internal and external goods. A complete obsession with winning might be very good for professional sports, while in some sense…bad for the person?
After the talk, several players came up and shook my hand, which was heart-warming, because I’d wondered how my talk would go down, as a small philosopher in a world of big athletes. I subsequently went back for a second workshop, and this time I talked less and let the discussion flow – what was really interesting was how the players started listening to each other, swapping stories, letting themselves be vulnerable. The best way to learn is not to teach from the front, perhaps, but to let the group help each other along. Anyway, I’ve applied for funding from the AHRC to prepare and teach a course in 2014 at Saracens, as well as in Low Moss prison in Scotland and a mental health charity in London. Fingers crossed we get it and we can continue exploring the role of ethics in professional sports.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Big day today. I’ve finally finished my report on grassroots philosophy groups, which you can download here: Connected Communities- Philosophical Communities.
It’s taken me eight months to research and write, and has made me realise quite how vibrant and diverse the world of grassroots philosophy is. There are 850 philosophy groups just on meetup.com alone, with a combined membership of 125,000. I’ve found philosophy groups all over the world, from Fukushima to Rio de Janeiro. And I’ve learnt how grassroots philosophy often connects academia to society, with many academics happy to give their time for free to encourage the love of wisdom.
Until now, the broader grassroots philosophy movement has not had a dedicated website, so today I’m also launching a website called The Philosophy Hub, dedicated to ‘building a global thinking culture’. It has a map where people will be able to find their local philosophy group or upload their own group – do please add your own group. Group organisers can then log in whenever they want and add details of upcoming events to their page. There’s also a history of philosophy groups on the site, going back to ancient Greece, which comes from my report (it focuses mainly on the history of western philosophy groups, and I want now to learn more about grassroots philosophy in other cultures). The site also has lots of other resources for people interested in researching grassroots philosophy, or who want to set up and run a club. Finally, there’s a blog which will focus on grassroots philosophy. It launches with an interview with John Mitchinson, one of the founders of the quiz show QI, who talks about the QI Club – the progenitor of the Idler Academy and the School of Life. He’s a fascinating, likeable person.
The rise of grassroots philosophy is an encouraging phenomenon in a period of sudden and brutal change for higher education in the UK. This year, the coalition government slashed its block grant to universities by £3 billion, asking universities to finance themselves through higher tuition fees, which have risen from an average of £3,000 a year to roughly £8,000 a year. Undergraduates are expected to pay these higher fees through loans from the Student Loan Company. The government’s hope is that this will increase consumer choice and competition among universities – this week, the government began granting university status to private education providers. Slashing the block grant and asking students to pay more was also, of course, intended to help reduce the budget deficit.
No one knows quite what higher education will look like once the dust has settled. The reforms are rapid and bewildering, and often one part of the government seems to be acting against another part: the Home Office, for example, tried to crack down on the number of foreign students at English universities, just when universities desperately need their money. And already there are unintended consequences of the reforms. Andrew McGettigan, one of the organisers of the Big Ideas philosophy club in London, showed in an excellent report for the Intergenerational Foundation that the government had effectively tried to pull an accounting trick by switching funding from a block grant to state-provided student loans.
As Andrew shows, the trick may have reduced the deficit, but unfortunately (and apparently unexpectedly for the Business, Innovation and Skills department) all those new loans have also pushed up the Consumer Price Index (CPI) by about 0.6%. The CPI is used to calculate state pensions and other benefits, so a rise in the CPI of 0.6% means a loss to the public purse of around £2.2 billion annually. Vince Cable was asked about this unexpected consequence at a recent BIS parliamentary committee. He replied: ‘I don’t follow the logic’. This despite repeated warnings from the Office of National Statistics and the Higher Education Policy Institute of the effect of the loan-boom on inflation.
There could be more problems for the tax-payer further down the river. The Student Loan Company is set to lend around £10 billion annually, via income-dependent loans which will be paid back once graduates earn over £21K a year. But the government may have underestimated how much students borrow, while overestimating how much earnings will rise in the next decade, or how much interest rates could rise. If graduates take longer than expected to pay back the loans, or can’t pay them back, it could end up costing the tax-payer more rather than less. As McGettigan notes, students today may end up paying for their university education twice, once today and again as tax-payers in 20 years.
There are attempts to slow or oppose the reforms. This week, 10,000 students marched against tuition fees, but their demands were somewhat broad (from saving the NHS to freeing Gaza) and their alternative to student loan-financing was simply ‘tax the rich’. That may be some of the answer but it’s not all of it. Meanwhile, some senior academics have created the Council for the Defence of British Universities, which aims at resisting the commercialisation of higher education. But the CDBU risks looking like grumpy old academics trying to protect the status quo. They follow Stefan Collini’s argument that students don’t know what’s good for them, therefore putting them in control of the money is like letting children run a candy store. The CDBU worries that students will all choose subjects that give good salaries, like business and management studies, while neglecting more liberal subjects like history or philosophy (both of which have declined in popularity in the last few years, unlike almost every other subject). And the CDBU dislikes the government’s emphasis on quantifying the quality and ‘impact’ of research. Academics should, Collini argues, be free to pursue research for its own sake, without any regard to social or economic benefit.
To which I’d reply, yes, to an extent. But I think academics of my generation (if I can call myself an academic, despite my lack of a PhD) are far more comfortable with the importance of ‘impact’. We’re impatient with older academics who seem to see any attempt at community engagement as a distraction, who congratulate themselves on their ignorance of social media. We see the decline of the tradition of university extension as a great tragedy, an abandonment of the public role of the intelligentsia in society. In other words, I agree much more with the Stefan Collini who wrote Absent Minds, Collini’s 2006 book in which he bewailed the disappearance of public intellectuals in British culture. Nowadays we only seem to hear from academics when they’re complaining about the loss of their own privileges. Sixty years ago, Beveridge, who as a young man worked at Toynbee Hall, designed the welfare state while serving as Master of University College, Oxford. Bring back the Beveridge model of academics!
My generation also think universities should listen to the needs and desires of their undergraduates, and should do a lot more to provide well-being and counseling services on campus. And I think we’re prepared to be creative and innovative in how subjects are taught at university. At Queen Mary, University of London, for example, we alas don’t have a philosophy department, so next year we’re launching a free practical philosophy course which any undergraduate can take, whatever their subject. I’d also like to make the course available to the local community. And I think we can improve the university experience, so that one doesn’t simply study ‘management studies’ or ‘computer sciences’, but instead can learn from both the humanities, and the sciences, and learn vocational and life skills, to get a genuinely rounded education – closer to the American model, in other words, where students can study several subjects and get a broader education.
There is a lot to dislike about the government’s higher education reforms. They seem to be the sort of omnishambles we have come to expect. But resistance to austerity measures can’t simply be about protecting the status quo of the past. It needs to be a progressive vision, a positive vision, a vision of making things better.
Jesus, I sound like Tony Blair. Cue Brian Cox on the synth. In the meantime, here are some young academics with vision.
First, meet Patrick Ussher at Exeter University’s classics department (that’s him on the right with the laptop open, at a recent Exeter seminar on Stoicism and CBT). Patrick wrote his dissertation on Stoicism and Buddhism, and is now doing a PhD on Marcus Aurelius. I met him at the seminar shown on the right. Next week, he’s launching an initiative called Live Like A Stoic For A Week. He’s produced a booklet where people can find practical Stoic exercises for life. Pick one, try it out for a week, and record the results through one of the well-being questionnaires provided by the psychologists working on the project (Tim LeBon and Donald Robertson). Me, I’m going to give up booze for a week. How about you? The week is being covered by the Guardian and has attracted lots of interest. Go Patrick!
On Wednesday, meanwhile, I traveled to Cambridge University to talk at a seminar on the politics of well-being organised by Tom Barker, an inspiring young PhD who is researching meaningful work. I spoke at the seminar alongside Ben Irvine, who is coordinator of the Well-Being Institute at Cambridge (where Felicia Huppert works), the founder of the Journal of Modern Wisdom, and the author of a new book, Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling. Ben, like me, passionately believes that intellectuals have a social responsibility to engage with society and communicate their ideas to as wide an audience as possible. I was very impressed with the range and calibre of people working on well-being in Cambridge, and how well the Institute brought people together fromdifferent disciplines (architecture, psychology, philosophy, geography etc).
This week, the Office of National Statistics published a big report presenting and reflecting on the data on national well-being it has been collecting for a year. The head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, called for ministers and civil servants to start using the data to make actual policy decisions, while the previous head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell (who is now running a well-being programme at the Legatum Institute) said one clear policy recommendation was for the NHS to spend less on physical illnesses and more on mental illnesses.
The new CEO of Barclays Bank, Antony Jenkins, has (according to the Daily Mail) has “corralled his 125 most senior managers, including former close Diamond associate Rich Ricci, into attending a series of seminars and bonding exercises aimed at instilling ethical values. The executives will then be expected to act as evangelists for the new culture throughout the organisation. During the two days they will be immersed in sessions including history lessons on the bank’s heritage as a Quaker institution. They will also be subjected to ‘360 degree feedback’ on their performance, with people both above and below them in the hierarchy contributing to their bonus assessments. The process is designed to penalise self-serving or unethical behaviour.”
Sounds like the Cultural Revolution. I like the idea of lessons in Quaker values though. What I think would be great would be to combine ethics training courses with stress management / well-being courses – the essence of both resilience and ethics is good character. I was at a fantastic conference on compassion and empathy today at the Quaker meeting house in London, by the way. The highlight for me was a workshop on Deep Listening by Rosamund Oliver. Good stuff, although she works for Sogyal Rinpoche. I loved his books when I was a teenager, and was gutted to find out he was a sex pest. Anyway, the Deep Listening workshop was brilliant.
Well, I think that’s enough information for one week. My book’s doing good in Holland, by the way, thanks to my amazing publishers, who lined up a lot of interviews and also launched a poster campaign (check it out on the right). They tell me it’s already going for a second printing. It also came out in Germany this week.
See you next week, and hope you like the report and The Philosophy Hub.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
The CEO’s name was Chuck Prince, and the bank was Citigroup. Prince introduced the ethics training programme in 2005, amid great fanfare about moral renewal. Just three years later, the bank had enormously increased its leverage in order to make a catastrophic bet on the US housing market. It also sold mortgage bonds to clients while shorting them itself. Prince himself famously said, in 2007, ‘when the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will get complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.’
A few months later, when the music stopped, Citi required a $45 billion government bail-out. Citigroup’s shareholders turned on Prince for failing to tell them about the size of the bank’s losses, and the shining knight of corporate ethics was sacked (although Citi is still touting its ethical credentials).
Citi is not alone in making a big noise about its ethical training. Since it began in the 1970s, the field of business ethics has grown and grown. It was started by a handful of philosophers writing books and holding seminars in which they tried to apply ethical theories to the world of business, much to the amusement of their academic colleagues. But the field took off in the mid-1980s, helped perhaps by a general sense that business ethics were getting worse and businesses needed some professional guidance. According to Richard T. De George of the Markkkula Center for Applied Ethics, “by the mid 1980s there were at least 500 courses in business ethics taught around the country…at least twenty textbooks in the area…[as well as] societies, centres, and journals of business ethics”.
By the mid-1990s, ethics training programmes had become the norm at Fortune 1000 companies, although a study in the Journal of Business Ethics found that “the vast majority of firms have committed to the low cost, possibly symbolic side of ethics management” – perhaps because having an ethics programme could reduce government fines by up to 95% if you were busted doing something illegal. Business ethics became one of the buzz-words of the 1990s, and consultancy firms ran lucrative businesses to advise their clients how to buff up their ethical profile.
So here’s my question: did all that ethics training have any real impact? Or was it a lot of window dressing? It’s an important question, because one of the responses to the scandals across our society in the last three years has been: we need more ethics training. Ethics training for investment bankers. Ethics training for News Corporation journalists. Ethics training for university professionals. Even ethics training for prostitute-hiring Secret Service agents. We need, as the philosopher Michael Sandel has argued and Ben Bernanke recently agreed, to re-inject a sense of the good into the markets. But does ethics training do any actual good?
It’s easy to be cynical about the real world impact of all the business ethics training courses over the last 30 years. While the ethics industry has grown ever bigger, the corporate scandals have kept on coming – from the Savings and Loans crisis, to the tech bubble and the collapse of Enron, to the mortgage bond scandal, and now, the Libor-fixing scandal. Often the firms convicted in these scandals were loud advocates of business ethics: Arthur Anderson made millions of dollars selling ethical consulting services to its clients, before it was revealed to be fraudulently helping its client, Enron, hide its losses. Anderson put out endless pious videos on the importance of ethics, including one featuring the supermarket entrepreneur Stew Leonard speaking earnestly about integrity, shortly before he was imprisoned for massive tax fraud (watch a great PBS video on that here). And Ken Lay, CEO of Enron, was a vocal advocate of business ethics too. Enron’s Ethics Code insisted “we work with customers openly, honestly and sincerely”. Uh huh.
Ethics training programmes are all very well – and there is some evidence that they do actually have an impact – but what really defines how people behave (it seems to me) is the culture of a company, and how things are seen to work on a trading floor or newsroom. The newbies watch the dominant figures, and take their lead from them. If it’s obviously a cynical, amoral environment that promotes a very narrow version of success, then the younger members of the team will follow that model. They do it for the money, but primarily they do it for the status approval of the gang. We are social animals, and we want to fit in, even if it means silencing our consciences.
So as a manager, you need to look at the make-up of your team and ask not merely what is its intellectual capital, but also its moral capital. Do you have some wise elders, some people of principle in the team, for the younger people to watch, emulate and ask for advice? Are the elders of a company there on the trading floor, or have they retreated to the Olympic heights leaving it to coked-up rookies to run their company?
You also need the threat of punishment, which has been completely missing from the business world in the last 30 years. From 1992 to 2001, there were only 87 imprisonments in the US for federal white collar crime, all of them in minimum security ‘Club Fed’ prisons (that statistic is from the PBS video linked to above). And while the Department of Justice has brought over 1,000 fraud cases against brokers in the mortgage business since the Credit Crunch began, there have been hardly any criminal cases against bankers on Wall Street. A stint in a high security prison – now that’s what I call effective ethics training.
Here are some more links from the last week:
Here’s an interview with Stanford’s James Fishkin, who is doing fascinating work around the world facilitating small groups of citizens to deliberate intelligently about public policy.
Here’s a piece from io9 on the philosophical roots of science fiction.
There’s a renaissance in psychedelic studies at the moment. University of Pennsylvania has a great-sounding conference called ‘Psychedemia’ next month, while there’s also a new history of LSD in the UK.
Here’s a good piece by Juliet Michaelson of the new economics foundation, using well-being science to consider the ‘feel-good bounce’ from the Olympics.
Is there any actual evidence for Bowlby’s famous attachment theory? Harvard’s Jerome Kagan says the evidence is weak, in this fascinating and wide-ranging interview with Der Spiegel. He also says ADHD is an invention of Big Pharma.
All praise to the fat buddha? Apparently 45% of Thailand’s monks are obese.
See you next week,
PS If you enjoy my work, you can help me to continue by buying my book, recommending it to others (if you liked it) or reviewing it on Amazon. Thanks for your support!
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>