Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Corporate culture and authenticity.

I've been reading Barbara Ehrenreich's latest undercover investigation, Bait and Switch. Generally quite good (for a piece of pop journalism), and thoughts are occurring to me.

One of her claims, defended only through anecdote, is that corporate culture is actually damaging to individual people, particularly insofar as it forces them to behave other than as they would otherwise will themselves to. We can assign a name to behaving as one wills -- not to the capacity to do so, but to the disposition or character trait to do so -- and I'll use "authenticity". On its own, this is morally neutral -- one can be compelled to behave against one's will if one's will is to murder or steal, and one can be compelled to behave against one's will if one's will is to exercise one's freedom of speech. So, violating authenticity is sometimes obligatory. However, this says nothing more than respecting authenticity is, at best, a prima facie or pro tanto reason -- that is, it can be defeated by other reasons.

So far, so good. As I've intimated earlier (here), I tend to think that the exercise of one's will generally is a good, but only a prima facie reason. So, taking that as given, the question arises: is the corporate culture one that illegitimately damages or acts against authenticity? This amounts to asking whether there is some good that is being served by the damage to authenticity, analogous to the good served by preventing the will to murder or to steal. I can see why the individual might serve a good by damaging his own authenticity -- such as by getting a paycheque that can be used to buy food and thus continue to live -- but my focus is on the culture that requires this. What good does it serve?

I don't have an answer, actually. This is in part because I don't have much real experience with corporations (except for universities, which are very bizarre corporations in more ways than I can conveniently count), but also in part because I'm not sure what good this could serve (beyond, say, money-making -- and calling that a "good" greater than authenticity is tenuous, to say the least).

(Note, incidentally, that if there is something wrong with this corporate culture, it won't be shared by the workplace culture of smaller places of business. Which were, really, what Adam Smith was going on about with that whole "invisible hand" business in the first place.)

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