Business Sustainability, Appropriate Leadership and Early Childhood Education

The debate I would like to initiate centers around three issues viz. sustainable business practice, appropriate leadership models that lend itself to sustainability and the urgent need for early childhood education for all sectors of society.

Insofar as business sustainability is concerned, I want to propose that the model which espouses “doing good is good business” is a much more sustainable model than the alternative of “profit above all else”. To this end please refer to the extract below which was a part of the introduction to my short dissertation for my masters degree (business ethics) at Stellenbosch University.

This dissertation is written against a backdrop of some serious ethical lapses recently, resulting in several high profile and esteemed businesses collapsing. A recent scandal that comes to mind is that of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, which was run for almost two decades right under the noses of the United States financial sector. Another is the case of “… Jerome Kerviel, when he, nearly, single-handedly brought down the French financial giant Societe Generale by running unauthorised trades …” (Fakir: 2009). 

How did this happen? Everyone seems to agree that, whilst these companies, without fail, exuded ethics based on their exterior packaging, their leaders were anything but ethical: driven by personal greed and playing the ‘game’ of business with scant regard for sustainability and/or the impact on the community they served.

Another such example was the collapse of Enron which, not long before its collapse, was held up to all as an excellent example of “corporate responsibility and ethics (and) … appeared to represent the best a 21st century organization had to offer, economically and ethically” (Simms and Brinkman, 2003: 243).

The paper written by Simms and Brinkman describes and discuses how executives at Enron looked after themselves by creating an organisation where self-enrichment became their ultimate goal at the expense of proper ethical behavior (243).

According to Simms and Brinkman,

Enron’s top executives set the tone for this culture. Personal ambition and greed seemed to overshadow much of their corporate and individual lives. They strove to maximize their individual wealth by initiating and participating in scandalous behaviors. Enron’s apparently accepted immoral culture created an atmosphere ripe for the unethical and illegal behavior that occurred (253). 

Whilst people have tried to ascribe these catastrophes to anomalies and/or rogue traders, it seems that it was ingrained in the businesses it afflicted and Fakir quite rightly contends that it was because of bosses with vested interests looking the other way (Fakir: 2009). 

Likewise, in South Africa, where the food retailer Pick ‘n Pay operates on the southern tip of Africa, things are no different, with newspaper headlines announcing in big bold letters on the front page of the Cape Times, one of the most popular tabloids in the country, ‘Business Ethics Slammed’ (Deputy Minister Slams Cronyism and Corruption). In the accompanying article the reporter quotes the South African Deputy Finance Minister, Nhlanhla Nene as saying that “(t)he (business) elite have ‘pickpocketed’ (et.cit.) state resources ‘through corruption, crony empowerment and by milking the state through charging exorbitant prices’” (Lewis: 2009).

Lewis concludes the article by quoting Nene as saying that

(e)ven as we search for a new growth paradigm and the world searches for a new economic paradigm, let us recognize that no system in the world is sustainable if it is not underpinned by a sense of morals, ethics and values. No system can succeed if it is not people-centred (et.cit.). We must put people first (Lewis: 2009). 

Obviously such a situation cannot be allowed to continue as it impacts on the longevity of businesses, which, in turn, impacts on employment etc. This apart from the impact on investors, who have often lost every cent they own as a result of the poor ethical standards practiced by the leaders of such companies. It can even cripple a relatively small, developing country like South Africa’s development in the long run.

Perhaps, then, what is needed to temper such unethical behavior, especially in business, is to, once again, re-focus on some of the standard normative ethical theories which could and are applied in business as a practice.

Insofar as sustainable leadership is concerned, I am an advocate of Aristotle’s virtue ethics, and, by way of introduction, I again include an extract from my dissertation below explaining Aristotle’s thinking and what virtue ethics is.

Aristotle, the father of virtue ethics, was born in 384 BC and died in 322 BC. His writings were very influential, especially in medieval times and his views were adopted by particularly Islamic, Jewish and Christian philosophers of that time such as Thomas Aquinas (1224-74 AD), who, “… used Aristotle to provide a rational underpinning of Christian teaching” (Aristotle, 1996: Introduction by Stephen Watt, 1st page). Kant also later ingeniously pulled together Plato’s ‘world of ideas’ and Aristotle’s’ virtues’ to argue for his “categorical imperative” residing somewhere between the two (Magee, 1998: 38).


Whilst it is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (also often popularly referred to as ‘The Ethics’) that will be concentrated on in the following paragraphs, he also wrote two other books, namely a second ethical treatise, Eudamian Ethics (which covers more or less the same grounds as the Nicomachean Ethics) and the Politics (which focuses more on the role the community plays in ethics). From this already it can be gleaned that Aristotle’s focus was on the political community and its ethics.

It is also important to note that Aristotle’s writings, for instance as contained in The Nicomachean Ethics, were never intended to become a book, and

… resembles a patchwork of incomplete essays with no clear connection between them” (Aristotle, 1996: Introduction by Stephen Watt: X1). “The reason for the full title, The Nicomachean Ethics, is uncertain, a plausible explanation being that Aristotle’s son, Nicomachus, edited the book from Aristotle’s lecture notes (Aristotle, 1996: X).

‘Ethics’ in Greek just means ‘matters concerned with character’ and Aristotle was of the view that Ethics has to do with character (XII). Added to this, Aristotle believed that one can only philosophise about actions in the real world we experience every day: i.e. philosophy cannot be done from an armchair (Magee, 1998: 32).  Aristotle was also adamant that that it is only the real world we live in that we can philosophise about: “the world we live in and experience” (32) as opposed to, for instance, some spiritual world we know little or nothing about. In the same vein, according to him, ethics is a practical science (Aristotle, 1996: XII) and can therefore not be an exact science. As such, much of the arguments he puts forward are the products of contemplation rather than research in the empirical sense of the term.

Aristotle argues that there are three identifiable kinds of “good” lives i.e. one of pleasure, one of politics and the other of contemplation, with a life spent in contemplation (as a philosopher) being the most preferable and that of politics (as a politician) second: obviously that places pleasure last (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2010: 28).

Against this brief background, in short, Aristotle argued that man has a function, that function is to achieve eudaimonia (happiness), such happiness is an end in itself and can only be achieved through the practice of virtue, albeit intellectual or moral, but, at the same time, it has to be understood that the practice of virtue must be tempered by the ‘doctrine of the mean’, which, in turn, is affected by our rational choices in life, which, again, always has to be placed in context within the community [and that communities’ telos (purpose)] to which it applies.

In the following paragraphs Aristotle’s central arguments will be explored further in order to gain a better understanding of what he proposes, starting with the function of man and culminating in the role of the community in this.

2.3.2    The function of man

Central to Aristotle’s reasoning is the fact that all things have a function and, as such, so does man. Also, Aristotle believed that the function of any object is more important than what it is made of as “… (t)he real point of everything, according to him, is what it does…“(Magee, 1998: 37). For example, a guitar may be made of wood, but its’ function, i.e. to produce musical notes, is of much more importance and is indeed what makes it a guitar, as opposed to anything else made from wood.

Compared to the merely living (such as is the case with plants) and/or living only through one’s senses (as is the case with animals), it is the actual practical life of a rational man that should be examined when one goes in search of that rational man’s goodness, which can most likely be found in his function, if, (indeed) he does have a function (Aristotle, 1996: 12).

In turn, the rational part of man “… has two divisions, one rational as obedient to principle, the other as possessing principle and exercising intelligence” (13): it is the latter part that Aristotle is interested in. He continues in this vein to build an argument around the definition that the best of men will live life to the end by exercising intelligent reasoning (as opposed to following prescribed principles) towards finding the most perfect of human excellences and/or virtues (13). This then is also the closest he comes to defining the ultimate happiness (purpose of “man”) he is referring to.

Accordingly, he reasons, man, like everything else, has a function, and that, that function is to be happy, which he deems to be an end in itself. However, the thing that makes people happiest is living a virtuous life and, according to him, a virtuous life is a balanced life without excesses. However, virtue is not something one is born with, but something that is taught through habituation, especially at childhood level. Aristotle says of this “it is therefore not of small moment whether we are trained from childhood in one set of habits or another, on the contrary it is of very great, rather, supreme importance” (34).  

Aristotle seems to be trying to convince us that “man” has a function which, according to him, is to use his rational ability (named intellect) together with his life’s experience (named morality) to aspire to the greatest good which is happiness, which, in turn, is an end in itself: the qualities which assist us in attaining happiness are called virtues and they are specifically those virtues that require intellectual contemplation, such as wisdom, to achieve.

So what then is this happiness which Aristotle argues is an end in itself?

2.3.3    Eudaimonia (happiness)       

According to Aristotle “ … the supreme good seems to be something final … and a thing chosen always as an end and never as a means we call absolutely final … and happiness (eudaimonia) above all else appears to be absolutely final in this sense, since we always choose it for its own sake” (11).

It should be noted that the term eudaimonia, as used by Aristotle, is not to be confused with the happiness one experiences when one receives a gift etc. Rather it is a feeling of ongoing contention and balanced well-being once one has arrived at one’s proper place of equilibrium in life. It should also be noted that, “(a)lthough ‘happiness’ is the traditional translation – and is the one used in (some) version(s) of the Ethics – many philosophers prefer to substitute ‘flourishing’” (XX). Whilst traditionally one would interpret happiness objectively to mean ‘to feel happy’ Aristotle’s happiness is indeed a much more subjective state and has “some of the connotations of ‘well-being’ or ‘flourishing’” (Norman, 1998: 28-29).

Aristotle comes to the conclusion that, if it is better to learn and/or acquire the gift of happiness by means of one’s own trials and tribulations, then this must also be the way to attain happiness (Aristotle, 1996: 17). He also reminds us that it is not fortune that creates a totally satisfied “man”, but rather “… the active exercise of our faculties in conformity with virtue that causes happiness …” (19).  

What then are these virtues, the practice and perfection of which Aristotle so firmly believes can liberate us?

2.3.4    The nature of virtues

Aristotle says of the nature of virtues and its’ role in his argument that “we are not investigating the nature of virtue for the sake of knowing what it is, but in order that we may become good” (34).

Rachels and Rachels (2007: 182-183) make the points that virtues “are all qualities needed for successful living”and that, although “virtues may be thought of as differing from person to person … certain virtues will be needed by all people in all times  (which) … was Aristotle’s view”. They are also of a view that“(t)he major virtues are mandated not by social convention but by basic facts about our common human condition” (184).

Aristotle separates the soul into an irrational and rational part and then goes on to separate the rational part into an intellectual and a moral part (Aristotle, 1996: 145). Following this understanding, Aristotle distinguishes between two types of virtues i.e. intellectual virtues and moral virtues and, for example, states that “… wisdom or intelligence and prudence are intellectual, (whilst) liberality and temperance are moral virtues” (24).  Aristotle contends that intellect is not the decisive factor when ‘judging’ someone, but rather their disposition. He explains that “(w)hen describing a man’s moral character we do not say he is wise or intelligent, but gentle or temperate; but a wise man also is praised for his disposition, and praiseworthy dispositions we term virtues” (24).

At the risk of over-simplification, Aristotle seems to argue that the ‘good’ man should have certain levels of desirable characteristics (moral virtues), but then also requires a good dose of the intellectual capacities (intellectual virtues) required to make good decisions in respect of the correct degree and application of moral virtues. 

What then are these intellectual and moral virtues Aristotle refers to? Intellectual virtues

Intellectual (or truth attaining) virtues (also known as virtues of intellect) as well as the five truth-attaining qualities discussed by Aristotle in his notes are science, art, prudence (or practical wisdom), intelligence (or rational intuition) and wisdom (phronesis) (143 – 167).

Aristotle says of Prudence (or practical wisdom) (as opposed to wisdom per se) that it “… is a truth-attaining rational quality, concerned with action in relation to the things that are good for human beings” (Aristotle 1996: 150) and, simply put, it relates to man’s ability to deliberate and/or reason. “While moral virtue enables us to achieve the end, prudence makes us adopt the right means to the end” (161).

In respect of wisdom (phronesis) he is of the view that it “… must be the most perfect of the modes of knowledge … (and) …must be a combination of intelligence and scientific knowledge” (151). Moral virtues

Aristotle also discusses the nature of moral virtue. Moral virtues (also known as virtues of character) discussed by him in his notes include courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, greatness of soul, proper ambition, gentleness, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, modesty, righteous indignation, agreeableness, sincerity and justice (32, 53 – 141).

For example, the moral virtue courage has to do with the fear of dying and/or the love of life and deals with the feelings of fear and confidence- an excess thereof being rashness and a deficiency thereof being cowardice (32).  

Similarly the moral virtue temperance deals with the feelings of pleasure and pain- an excess thereof being profligacy and a deficiency being insensitivity (32).

As has been stated before, whilst Aristotle argues that man has a function viz. to attain a state of happiness, which, at the risk again of over-simplification, can be attained through the rational application of a combination of intellectual and moral virtues, it is of utmost importance to note he argues that these virtues must be practiced in a ‘balanced’ way. What, then, does this ‘balanced action’ mean?

2.3.5    The doctrine of the mean

In respect of humans, Aristotle argued that everyone wants a happy well rounded life (38). Against this background he “… develops his famous doctrine of ‘the golden mean’, according to which a virtue is the midway point between two extremes, each of which is a vice …” (38).

In this regard Aristotle notes three rules i.e. avoid the extreme that is most opposed to the mean, notice the errors one is prone to, and be on guard against pleasure. There are extremes of too much or too little (vices), but also the middle (which is the ideal mean). How far left or right of the mean to be is difficult to say as this has much to do with perception (and a careful and continuous balancing act between extremes). In other words, Aristotle argues that one has three choices of disposition, with two of them being problematic i.e. either too much or too little, and, the other, i.e. the attainment of equilibrium and/or the correct balance between the two, in turn, translating into what he means by the term virtue (44).

However, whilst a common understanding of the mean has been to see it as ‘moderation’, this is not exactly all that Aristotle had in mind. Yes, if one were to refer to a ‘thing’ such as a portion of food, then the popular understanding i.e. ‘moderation’ would suffice. However, Aristotle distinguishes between the mean in relation to ‘things’ and the mean in relation to ‘us’ and it is the latter that he is interested in. In relation to us it is his argument that the mean has less to do with a midpoint between two things and more to do with the correct degree to which virtue is practiced amidst people (Norman R, 1998: 36). As such, Aristotle explains that one can generally feel too much or too little fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and pleasure and pain generally, but that they would both be wrong, whilst “… to have these feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way is to feel them to an intermediate, that is to the best, degree, and this is the mark of virtue” (36).

Aristotle argues that this ‘mean’ can best be achieved by a prudent man applying phronesis which is a kind of practical wisdom or moral knowledge which is acquired through “… practical experience and habituation” (Norman R, 1998: 39) and he concludes his argument on this topic by stating that “… (t)his much is then clear that it is the middle disposition in each department of conduct that is to be praised, but that one should lean sometimes to the side of excess and sometimes to that of deficiency, since this is the easiest way of hitting the mean and the right course” (Aristotle, 1996:  47).

Whilst getting the ’balance’ right in relation to the practice of the virtues is important, Aristotle says that it is equally important to be aware of the choices we make in life. Pleasure and choices surrounding pleasure for its own sake seem to impact largely on one’s ability to achieve eudaimonia.

2.3.6    Choice and virtue

According to Watt “Choice … is one of the most important technical terms used in the Ethics”, and, “…like prudence itself, is concerned with means not ends, is caused by reasoning and is itself the cause of action” (Aristotle, 1996: Introduction by Stephen Watt, XVI).

According to Aristotle, “…we possess certain capacities by nature, but we are not born good or bad by nature: … virtues are neither emotions nor capacities … they are dispositions” (Aristotle, 1996: 39) i.e. deliberate choices made by the rational part of the “soul”. Furthermore, Aristotle postulates that we are potentially good, in that, whilst nature does not bestow virtue, we can choose a virtuous life.

He notes that temperate people practice selection of the virtues by avoiding pleasures, and, in turn, pleasures are best avoided by temperate people. In his own words “(w)e become temperate by abstaining from pleasures, and at the same time we are best able to abstain from pleasures when we have become temperate” (35). Pleasure is common to man with the lower animals who cannot distinguish the good. So “virtue has (much) to do with (the negation) of pleasure and pain” (37). However, there are no “accidental” temperate acts: they are only so if this was their intention (state of mind). Thinking and discussing does not help either: virtues are actions following contemplation and not thoughts or speech for, as Aristotle says, “… the mass of mankind, instead of doing virtuous acts, have recourse to discussing virtue, and fancy that they are pursuing philosophy and that this will make them good men” (38).

To avoid confusion on the issue, Aristotle also deals with voluntary and involuntary acts and choice. He maintains that involuntary acts are those where the cause of the action comes from “outside the agent” (54).

Notwithstanding the fact that he has virtually acknowledged that “(the desire for) pleasure” is the biggest “enemy” to virtue, he also acknowledges that “(m)en have good reason … to pursue pleasure, since it perfects for each his life, which is a desirable thing” (268). However, he then goes on to make the distinction that the pleasure brought about by pursuing a good activity is morally good and, obviously, the opposite is not (270).

Aristotle also argues that pleasure cannot in itself be a criterion for happiness as it “…is a state of mind which supervenes on human activities” (Norman R, 1998: 29). Therefore, if one was to partake in genocide or sexual deviancy, both of which are deemed to be corrupt acts in themselves, then the ‘pleasure’ gained from these activities would be corrupt too and would be an indictment upon one’s virtuosity or goodness (29).

He also argues that the choice one makes is a better way to test one’s character than one’s eventual actions, and that children and lower animals cannot make choices (Aristotle, 1996: 57). He makes the point that it seems that it is pleasure that normally misleads people (62), but, in the final analyses, the choice is still with the individual. Whilst actions stand on their own, dispositions are matters of choice and contemplation by the individual (63).

Having explained that virtue, according to Aristotle, relates to the function of man, happiness which is an end in itself, the nature off virtues, the doctrine of the mean and the role of choice (and pleasure) in all of this, any discussion of him would not be complete if it were not contextualized against the background of his contention that “human beings need to live in communities” (XXII).

2.3.7    Community

To this end, Aristotle contends that it is not worthwhile to aim for the happiness of only one person and much more preferable to aim for the happiness of as many people as possible i.e. the broader community out there which then, according to him, amounts to “…the study of politics” (Aristotle, 1996: 4). In fact, it was Aristotle who coined the phrase “man, is by nature a political animal” (Magee, 1998: 39).  He was also of the view that “(a)n ideal form of government must concern itself with the common good” (Brink D O, 1999: 284).

Aristotle argued in his book Politics (which followed on the Ethics and was most probably meant to be a joint treatise with it) that government has as its true purpose an obligation to ensure that its’ citizens are able to live a full and happy life and that, in turn, an individual can only do this by being part of a society as “…happiness and self-fulfillment are not to be found in isolation“(Magee, 1998: 39). Indeed, “…the relationship between a community and the living of a virtuous life is an intimate one” (Maguire, 1997: 1415).

It is interesting to note though, that Aristotle, in the context within which he found himself at that time, discounted women and slaves (Brink, 1999: 287) from being espousers of virtue and policies for the state, mainly because they were less ‘educated’ and preferred the monarchy (as opposed to ‘aristocracy’ and a ‘constitutional polity’) as the best form of state, conditional upon the fact that such a special, very virtuous oligarch were to be found (284). Most probably, to understand this, one would have to turn to Aristotle’s contention that all actions/beliefs are contextually bound and in the context he found himself at that time, it seemed to be the correct and fair ‘mean’/proposition.

Obviously the small, mostly self-contained (Greek) communities in that time (384 BC to 322 BC) as opposed to the globalised world as we know it today differ vastly. Nevertheless, the human dilemmas they suffered then do not seem to differ much from those we suffer now and, as such, “…Aristotle’s philosophy should cause us to reflect on what this enduring core of humanity is” (Aristotle, 1996: XXII). Aristotle believed that, whether we like it or not, human beings are destined and need to live in communities where the exercising of reason is the only way in which to organize them and to study  “theoretical truth” (XXII). This would be true, to some extent, for business communities as well.

2.3.8    Points of note

One can conceive of Aristotle having a wish for the world of his time to be or become a better place to live in and to conclude after much contemplation that “man” has a function and that that function is to be happy and that the path to happiness is a set of behaviors named virtues. Such virtues the wise man will be able to distill from amongst many others through rational thinking and the acceptance of the fact that the desire for pleasure as an end in itself is the “root of all evil”.

Insofar as some of the traditional philosophical arguments are concerned, Aristotle neatly side-steps the arguments of Kant with his categorical imperative by allowing for a good, but not an absolute good: one that is context specific and tempered by a yearning and continuous tweaking to find a balance. He also differs from the Utilitarians who, unlike him, argue for the greatest utility for a particular case irrespective of the morality or virtuousness of the actions involved.

Aristotle’s arguments and beliefs were controversial in his time as it ran contrary to that of his predecessor, Plato’s beliefs (and others before him) at that time that a good life comes from without: in other words cannot be achieved by means of human rationality and/or intellect alone, but is driven by some external source of power, whatever that may have been; in Plato’s instance, the world of Forms and Ideas[1]

However, what seems to be of utmost and practical importance to the topic at hand, being virtue ethics in practice, is the fact that Aristotle argues that, firstly, “(m)ost of the Ethics can be described as being broadly concerned with character, indeed ‘ethics’ in Greek just means ‘matters concerned with character’” (XII), secondly,  dispositions are acquired and thus “(i)t is … not of small moment whether we are trained from childhood in one set of habits or another; on the contrary it is of very great, rather of supreme, importance” (my bold) (34); thirdly, that “(v)irtue of character [i.e. of ethos] results from habit [ethos]: hence its name ‘ethical’, slightly varied from ‘ethos’” (my bold) (Beauchamp, 1991: 222)- which needs experience and time; and, last, but, by no means least, one must acquire the mean of any virtue which relates to “…hav(ing) these feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the  right motive and in the right way” (Norman, 1998: 36). In chapter 4 the importance and relevance of especially these factors to business in practice will be clarified.

[1]“Plato took up this implied theory (of Forms and Ideas) about the nature of morals and values and generalized it across the whole of reality. Everything, without exception, in this world of ours he regarded as being an ephemeral, decaying copy of something whose ideal form (hence the terms Ideal and form) has a permanent and indestructible existence outside space and time” (Magee 1998: 27).  

If that does not get you thinking, perhaps you will enjoy watching the attached short video clip of Barry Schwartz on Ted Talks (see link below) a few years ago in which he argues very convincingly for the balanced virtue ethics character based leadership approach rather than the current process driven KPI boosted approach.

Insofar as Early Childhood Education is concerned, I am of the view that, if the government spent sufficient funds on this field, especially in deprived areas, over the past twenty years we would have a good foundation to build on now. It is a well known fact that the first 7 years of a child’s life are crucial to his/her educational foundation and in poorer areas many small children are, out of necessity, with both parents working long hours, left to their own devices often without any or proper care. When such a child enters the formal education sphere with it’s well known current challenges, he/she starts with an immense disadvantage and can often never recover or catch up.

I would love to hear and debate your views on these three topics?