Plea for philosophical professional ethics

June 3 2022

On June 3, 1992, then-Minister of the Dutch Interior Ien Dales argued in a speech for more integrity within public administration. And in the years that followed, integrity was also explicitly put on the agenda in the private sector. Exactly thirty years after Dales' plea, Edgar Karssing, Professor of Philosophy, Professional Ethics and Integrity Management at Nyenrode Business University, stated during his inaugural lecture that preserving and strengthening the integrity of professional practitioners requires a philosophical approach, and that we must guard against moralism and admonishment. Ideas from 250 years ago offer the tools to make this happen.

Karssing wants to contribute to Nyenrode's mission of ‘Serving society by shaping responsible leaders’ through education and research: "I am following the footsteps of my teacher Henk van Luijk. He taught me that you must practice what you preach. Including professional practitioners. Professional ethics today, however, are primarily moralistic and admonishing. Compliance and conformism seem to have become the most important virtues. This concerns me a great deal, because when you tell people what they can and cannot do, what they should do, you are not respecting them as morally mature people."

Auxiliary Scientists of Thought

As a professor, Karssing wants to oppose moralistic professional ethics. Whether you are an accountant, manager, lawyer or contractor, according to Karssing a moralistic approach does not teach you to think for yourself; instead it rather thinks for you: ''Philosophers are auxiliary scientists of thought. Philosophy can, using the words of Socrates, play both the role of midwife (serving) and of the hornet (confronting), supporting professional practitioners in their search and their learning process to do the right things the right way."

Moral education

The focus of the chair's research is education around moral judgment: how can you support 'responsible leaders' and what is needed in order to be able to do so? Here, behavioral science insights will play an important role: philosophy must fit people when they are being their regular self, rather than people as they ideally are. However, the behavioral sciences are not necessarily philosophy-friendly. According to moral psychologist Haidt et al., for example, people make judgments primarily intuitively and are hardly capable of argument and reasoning. A philosophical professional ethic cannot avoid 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 becoming and functioning of our conscience that has stood the test of time superbly. Smith reflected on the principles that make peaceful coexistence and fruitful collaboration possible in an imperfect world. He recognized that humans are morally fallible beings: what is close (our self-interest) always seems big, 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, like an inner judge, judges our feelings and behaviors. It is about developing your own moral compass, finding your own voice. We can strengthen this Impartial Spectator through education. Through my research agenda, I want to update his theory from 250 years ago and give substance to it."

Watch the Inaugural lecture of Edgar Karssing, Professor of Philosophy, Professional Ethics and Integrity Management at Nyenrode Business University back here.

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