Editor’s Note: At How Is The Answer, we value and embrace ethical thinking, using the writings of moral philosophers—from Heraclitus and Aristotle, to Mohandas Gandhi and Elie Wiesel—as a guide to reconsider how we think about the working world. In this ongoing series, we offer practical leadership lessons from history’s most important thinkers. Today, we focus on David Hume.
David Hume was a pragmatic and careful thinker, a quality that just about any businessperson working today can admire. A key figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, Hume wrote extensively on politics, religion, history, and philosophy. He is perhaps best known for his empiricist theory of knowledge and for his skepticism. Hume argued that people should ground their conclusions and beliefs based on the laws of physics and on what they could observe.
Hume was friends with Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism. In fact, Hume had an influence on the ideas expressed in Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and he proposed what Paul Krugman has referred to as the first economic model.
Thursday marks the 240th anniversary of Hume’s death. His ideas continue to challenge the business world to carefully consider what it means to do the right thing in the marketplace.
Hume said that our ability to empathize with each other—or, in his words, express “sympathy“—largely depended on our physical proximity to other people and their circumstances. When we have immediate access to others, we feel their pain and joy as if it were our own. Two-and-a-half centuries later, Hume’s idea remains relevant, but the context has radically changed. Today, people across the globe are more closely connected to each other than ever before. In a world where the number of cell phones nearly equals the total global population, many of our actions—and their consequences—are constantly on public display. This goes for companies as well.
Businesses should understand that consumers vote with their dollars, and they want to support companies whose values align with their own. Companies like McDonald’s—which has sold the same core product for decades—are now changing the way they are doing business, in part to match the values of their consumers. The fast-food giant recently rolled out a cage-free egg policy that has had a massive ripple effect on the poultry industry.
Hume argued that our understanding of whether an action is right or wrong should be based on the response that it receives. In other words, we should rely on each other to determine what is “right.” Certain virtues—justice, equality—are virtuous because they work for us.
Similarly in business, companies must establish a dialogue with consumers to figure out what’s working. In 2011, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings owned up to the fact that he failed to do when he apologized to subscribers for raising prices for the video service and splitting the company’s streaming and DVD rental service without much notice. He referred to the moves as a “lack of respect and humility” on the company’s part.
Today, Netflix is paying very close attention to the signals its customers are sending. The company uses a series of complex algorithms to determine what viewers want to watch. These algorithms, which help determine the shows that Netflix greenlights for production, are not based on user reviews but on users’ viewing habits.
Hume questioned whether it made any sense to believe that people have a consistent identity or “self.” What we think of when speak of ourselves, he argued, is nothing more than a collection of fleeting experiences, thoughts, and impressions. This may seem like a question best left to philosophers, but it is quite relevant to today’s political and business leaders.
During this year’s presidential election season, many have debated the degree of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s authenticity. “Has Hillary been her ‘true self’?” “Should we just let Trump be Trump?”
Hume would argue that these questions miss the point altogether. Instead of asking who these candidates may be at any given moment, we should ask what it is they stand for. While our circumstances may change, Hume argued that our ethics, which are built upon deep-seated values, do not.
Paul Polman, CEO of consumer products behemoth Unilever, exhibited this quality when he committed to a ‘long-term value-creation model’ for his company, one that looks beyond just the next quarter’s results.
Hume famously wrote, “That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise.” In other words, our long-held assumptions and beliefs could be proven wrong at an instant’s notice. It’s sage advice for all business leaders working today. After all, as the saying goes, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”