Being your own Socrates

I’m currently reading a slim but highly insightful book – The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, by Edward B.  Burger and Michael Starbird, two renowned educators, that was published a few months ago.  Among the five elements,  I was particularly taken by the  authors’ advice to “[b]e your own Socrates.” Socrates, of course, helped others improve their knowledge by asking them questions.  As Burger and Starbird note: “creating questions is as important as answering them, if not more so, because framing good questions focuses your attention on the right issues.” Indeed, even when you are confident in your knowledge, they state, asking questions can be a way to “see more and delve deeper.”

The details in this chapter of the book (and the book as a whole) are mostly addressed to teachers and students, but I also think there is a special relevance of the Socrates construct to the world of compliance and ethics generally and conflicts of interest in particular.

Asking questions is, of course, a vital component of C&E programs. For instance, here are some questions that Rebecca Walker and I have suggested directors ask about their respective companies’ anti-corruption efforts.

But asking questions of one’s self is, I think, especially important given how – as behavioral ethicists have shown time and again  – various forms of bias can pollute our capacity for ethical reasoning, especially in the realm of conflicts of interest.  Among other things, being one’s own Socrates can help overcome biases, particularly if we “[g]et in the habit of asking how the issues looks from various viewpoints.”

I should add that I’m not suggesting that that the basic notion of self-examination is unknown to C&E programs.  Among other things, many codes of conduct list questions that employees should consider asking themselves when faced with an ethical quandary.

But I doubt that Socrates would be impressed by the state of the art here, and believe that there are many opportunities to use this insight to improve the ethical performance of individuals and organizations.  Indeed, one hopes that promoting self examination will come to be seen as a core responsibility of C&E officers, and this aspect of their remit will be actively promoted by CEOs, directors and other members of a company’s leadership.

Finally,  I should stress that I’m not suggesting that this is the principal area of focus of the book, which is about helping individuals in all walks of life become more effective thinkers generally  (and is something I very much could have used forty years ago as I was beginning college – but hopefully can still benefit from relatively late in the game).

 

 

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