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Philosophical consultants want to lend their expertise to businesses
DO AS I SAY

A philosopher accused of sexual harassment started a company to advise on business ethics

Olivia Goldhill
By Olivia Goldhill

Science reporter

A newly created consultancy firm is planning to give corporations a strategic edge, not with legal or technological advice, but philosophical insights. Philosophical Applications, launched just three weeks ago, offers services to companies in need of “ethical awareness” guidance and “catastrophe anticipation and avoidance.” 

The company is leaning on several of the most famous living philosophers to draw clients, with an eminent list of academic advisors. But while it has a robust philosophical grounding, its practical ethics are shakier: The company is headed by Colin McGinn, a prominent philosopher who left his tenured position at the University of Miami following accusations of sexual harassment in 2013.

“I’m assured this is not a joke,” wrote Justin Weinberg, a philosophy professor at the University of South Carolina, when he noted the creation of McGinn’s consultancy on his philosophy news site Daily Nous. 

In return for applying philosophical analysis to corporate concerns, the company plans to charge roughly $50,000 for a 10-12 week project, $90,000 for a 12-16 week project, and $120,000 for a 16-20 week project, though prices will vary. Prominent philosophers Rebecca Goldstein, Simon Blackburn, Thomas Nagel, and A.C. Grayling are listed as advisers, as well as cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. 

McGinn is best known for his work in philosophy of mind, but believes he’s well placed to advise on a variety of business issues, including sexual harassment. “I have insider knowledge of that,” he said. “I consider myself an expert in that subject, having gone through a process, and discussing it with lawyers and so forth, and having to learn about it in detail.”

In September 2012, a philosophy graduate student working with McGinn reported him for sexual harassment. His emails to the student, later published in a legal complaint, included “this morning at 6 I had a handjob imagining you giving me a handjob”, and the suggestion that “we have sex 3 times over the summer when no one is around.”

McGinn’s own catastrophe avoidance strategy was to argue that “handjob” was a term relating to his philosophical work. He wrote a blog post, republished by Harper’s magazine, arguing, “Virtually all jobs are “hand jobs” in the second, semantic sense, for all human work is manual work—not just carpentry and bricklaying but also cookery and calligraphy.” 

The University of Miami administration investigated the complaint and called for McGinn’s resignation on the basis of his “unprofessional” amorous relationship with a student. McGinn complied in January 2013, before further disciplinary proceedings could begin. “I’ve never been found guilty of anything by any institutional proceeding. According to the law in this land, that’s the same as innocence,” McGinn told Quartz. 

McGinn cannot discuss the details of the case; He is bound by a non-disclosure agreement, after the student sued the university for its handling of the accusations and the case was settled. But McGinn is happy to apply his learnings to his new company. He said he would advise companies dealing with sexual harassment complaints to follow a clear procedure and, if they are considering hiring a candidate who left his previous job following accusations of sexual harassment, to reconsider hiring that person only if they’ve been found guilty by a procedure. “If somebody’s guilty of sexual harassment they need to be disciplined for it,” he said. 

McGinn doesn’t plan to limit his business venture to the ethics of sexual harassment. Philosophy is also useful to those working in AI, climate change, genetic engineering, and education policy, among other fields. Though there are indeed philosophers that engage with all those disciplines, McGinn’s discussion of philosophy’s relevance with Quartz rarely extended beyond common sense. 

When asked what industries could benefit from philosophical insight, McGinn suggested the fitness industry could learn from Plato’s view that a balanced life involves both mind and body. Quartz asked what advice his philosophical consulting company might give to a sugary drinks company on how to ethically sell their products; McGinn responded by talking about how the food industry faces faces a “massive public health issue” and should have warnings on products similar to the tobacco industry. Bread tastes like cake in the United States, he complained.

In a more detailed demonstration of philosophy’s practical use, McGinn recounted an essay he wrote for his consulting website, in which he argues that “hate speech” is an inappropriate term because there’s nothing wrong with hatred—it’s fine to say “I hate Nazis,” for example. “What’s wrong is hating things without reason,” added McGinn. This distinction, he thinks, would be useful for social media platforms. Such companies should appoint panels of experts—including philosophers, lawyers, and historians—to decide what activity constitutes hate speech, argues McGinn. He does not address the logistics of how such a panel would review the millions of tweets, videos, and posts that social media companies take down every quarter. “Executives have no training,” he said. “What do they know about ethics? No more than the average Joe in the street.”

Philosophical consultants could well be useful to businesses, Weinberg told Quartz, as philosophers tend to be practiced at “systematically identifying and addressing problems.” But he warned against “overconfidence bias” among philosophical consultants. “While philosophers tend to be relatively intelligent, intelligence is not much protection against this bias, and people who are experts in one domain tend to overestimate their ability to perform well in others,” he wrote in an email to Quartz. Even philosophical geniuses should gain business experience and learn about the markets they hope to advise, added Weinberg. Otherwise, philosophical consultants run the risk of knowing very little about their chosen fields—no more than the average Joe in the street.

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