When I look back on my life, at the teachers and professors who have profoundly influenced me, I can trace with my finger, like so many bright points in the sky, a constellation of people stretching from 1st grade to graduate school. There’s Pat—simply Pat, because that’s how we rolled at the OK Program—and there’s Mr. Burns and Mr. Amlin. Then there’s Moses Moreno and the Dr.’s triumvirate: professors Kaye, Mirvish, and Rich. And finally there’s professor Daryl Koehn (pronounced “cane”) who helped me uncover the splendid treasures of Plato’s dialogues. To read The Republic or The Crito or even The Statesman with Daryl is to develop a whole new appreciation for the glories of literary technique and the luminosity of philosophical argument. What I wouldn’t give to be in a seminar with Daryl right now, reading Plato and teasing out the implications of an ethic of thoughtfulness!
Who are you?
If you mean “What is your job title?”, I am the Executive Director of the Center for Business Ethics in the Cameron School of Business at the University of St. Thomas. If you mean “Who are you simply?”, I suppose I’d have to say “I don’t know.” We spend our entire lives finding out who we are. “Know thyself” is not an easy injunction to fulfill. Plus, to some extent, others get to say who we are. As Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are discovering, much to their chagrin, they don’t get to control how history remembers them.
What’s the best book you’ve read this year? Why did you like it?
White Tiger by Aravnd Adig. The book gripped me from the opening pages, and I continued to think about the plot and the book’s tone for weeks. On the one hand, we know from the start of the book something of what is to happen. On the other hand, I was completely mesmerized by the unfolding answer to the question of why this entrepreneur does what he does. The book explores all sorts of dimensions of the idea of the entrepreneur and raises questions about whether entrepreneurs in modern capitalistic systems are amoral or perhaps even immoral. I also learned a lot about how the caste system functions in India, a subject about which I knew next to nothing.
Do you have any superstitions when it comes to reading?
No, but I have a strong prejudice in favor of plots. I think Isaak Dinesen was on to something when she said that we are witnessing the destruction of the novel, for many modern authors increasingly do not understand how to reveal character through plot. Instead, they settle for building stories around character tics, and I’m not much interested in “quirky” personalities per se. I find that American novelists are especially enchanted by character traits, and so I generally prefer British or other foreign novelists to most American authors currently on the scene.
Do you analyze, size up, or generally interrogate someone’s library when you visit their home? What’s your modus operandi?
I suppose I register whether books are a large part of the person’s life. If the person is a good friend and so won’t mind my snooping, I will browse his or her collection, looking for off-beat titles or for books published by foreign presses.
As far back as Plato, there’s been an uneasy relationship between poetry and narrative fiction, on the one hand, and philosophy, on the other. What can the philosopher, in particular, the ethicist, learn from novels?
Well-plotted novels show us that activities have their own trajectories or internal logics. As I argue in my book The Nature of Evil, evil has a quasi-mechanical quality insofar as people get caught up in trajectories that possess logics of their own. In initiating the trajectory, the agent might be said to act from within. But evil has an external dimension to the extent that the activity or behavior takes on a life of its own. For example, once Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s protagonist, takes on the identity of the man he has murdered, he can begin to tell himself he has done nothing wrong. He certainly hasn’t killed anyone because he is Dickie Greenleaf, so how could he have murdered Dickie? His action—the plot—itself makes this logic available to him.
What does Henry James’ novel Turn of the Screw teach us about the nature of evil?
Again the work reveals how and why it is way too simple to equate evil with malicious intention. The governess acts to preserve the authority she must have if she is to be the governess she has been hired to be. We are never told her name—only her title. Without giving away the plot line, I would say that evil—if that is indeed what James is portraying—arises from the individual’s identification with a false self (in this case, a role). That role makes certain choices and actions available to the governess—she can plausibly defend her actions and others are willing to go along with those actions as long as these deeds conform with the social definition of the role. Since each of us is always more than a role, this identification with the false self is inherently unstable and thus anxiety-producing. Yet if we have not opened ourselves up to some other non-ego based form of selfhood, we will cling ever more tightly to the false self, seeking to shore it up with increasingly desperate measures. James is brilliant at showing how that sort of mechanism might work.
Is there a book that’s been raved about by many, even by people you respect, but just didn’t get what all the fuss was about, even to the point of questioning your own literary standards?
I’ve tried to read Cormac McCarthy but just couldn’t get into his books. I guess I found the writing a bit wooden—too much repetition of pronouns with a choppy cadence. But that’s not to say I might not try him again later. Don’t you find that sometimes a book just doesn’t suit your current mood? Years later, one’s mood has altered, and suddenly a previously shunned work seems luminous with meaning and relevance.
What novel should replace the Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms worldwide? Explain.
Novels aren’t works of religion, so I don’t think any novel could ever “replace” the Bible.