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Best Practice: What Can Philosophy Teach Us?

Making Work a Part of a Flourishing Life

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The meaning of “best practice” is that given a respective sector or field, practices can be optimize for effectiveness when achieving targets. It’s a term that is often overused and can be quite vague or even deceptive if one is not attuned to how effectiveness may be harboring a form of “malpractice”.

For example, the UK higher education system uses the National Student Survey (NSS) so that students have the opportunity to offer their views on the quality of their university experience. Such survey tools are viewed as a “best practice” since, as one university puts it, “This information can be used to help effect changes designed to improve the student experience for both current and prospective students.”

Sound good?

For anyone who has worked in the higher education sector, evaluations are tricky things since the survey questions can be interpreted in a variety of ways by the questionee. In the worst case, responses can report negative results for a concern the question did not intend.

An overall unintended effect of the NSS is the creation of a customer feedback culture wherein students see their degrees like commodities and services they purchase. Once education is reduced to the standards of customer satisfaction, academic rigor tends to level down. Consider one negative review of a former colleague's course on early modern political philosophy (I paraphrase):

I didn't like the course because the books assigned were too long and the English hard to read.

Yes, Thomas Hobbes is not easy to read; and his Leviathan is quite long. But what is an education if it does not provide the student with substance, as opposed to snippets and summaries?

The conclusion that such surveys need to be improved in order to be a “best practice” is not my point. Rather, it’s the idea that we can simply take an existing tool we think to be good and tweak it so that such problems do not arise.

That whole way of thinking is in fact the problem. We need to think best practice in altogether different way.

But first, more on understanding the current approach's problem.

The Limits of "Best"

The problem is that "best" is equated with effectiveness. Effectiveness does not necessarily imply what is best.

Something can be effective at producing one thing, but then have unintended residual or knock-on effects. Here’s an illustration involving empathy. We often assume that empathy, or the ability to understand what another person is experiencing, is a virtuous capacity to possess. In many cases it is; empathy allows us to identify with other people.

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However, if we were to assume having empathy or nurturing empathy is a best practice for a retail business because it’s effective for helping people to find the products they desire, we start to see a virtuous quality become somewhat twisted by the business goals—i.e. increasing sales figures. Empathy is effective and may “best” for the business, but it becomes a way of taking advantage of customers.

What I’ve described is typically a problem with means-ends thinking, which tends to focus myopically on achieving an end at the cost of omitting wider considerations. Herbert Marcuse refers to this as technical rationality; Max Weber as formal rationality; Hannah Arendt as utility becoming useless; and Martin Heidegger excludes it as a form of thinking altogether.

At the risk of ignoring huge distinctions between the three thinkers and respective terms, one can say such rationality fails to have a more holistic grasp of life, meaning, and value because it in some way believes the ends to which it has committed somehow contribute to them.

So, should we jettison the idea of best practice?

Turning to a specific tradition of ethical theory can provide us with a constructive and illuminating answer that, at least on my view, redefines how we can being to understand best practice. That tradition is virtue ethics.

What Is Best?

Particularly in the ancient Greek version of virtue ethics that is prominent today, philosophers make a distinction between effectiveness and excellence. The gist of this distinction is that effectiveness tends to reduce to instrumental values; while excellence is informed by normative values about what makes for a good life.

So if we swap out effectiveness for the notion of excellence, how might this change the way we understand “best practice”?

It is this:

What is best is what enables humans to flourish.

It’s a grand and lofty idea, to be sure. But there are practical ways this paradigm shift can be implemented. Here are two observations.

  • On the one hand, by focusing on excellence one has a regulative kind of ideal by which one can readily scrutinize the ends of effectiveness. Is achieving this end really good for us? Or is it just good for the exercise we’ve been told matters?

  • On the other hand, if we can determine something a bit more concrete about human flourishing—for example, in what it is comprised—then we might have the actual ground on which we can “grow” various practices.

Taking the two points together: Practices, irrespective of the sector or domain, would be linked to and measured against what enables humans to flourish.

Human Flourishing & the Capabilities Approach

It would be one of the greatest lies in the history of philosophy to assert that philosophers tend to agree on what constitutes human flourishing. Even within the tradition of virtue ethics deriving from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, there is much dissent—just within narrower conceptual scope.

I’ll focus on one possible solution: the Capabilities Approach (sometimes called the Capability Approach). It arises from Aristotle’s ethical thought, and in its modern guise has seen wide development, most prominent of which is by the Nobel Prize economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur has an especially interesting approach examining narration as a key capability for ethics and human identity.

The Capabilities Approach (CA, hereafter) holds that living well involves the exercise of specific capabilities. While there is debate as to what count as the most essential of human capabilities, we need only note a few to get an idea of the importance. (See Nussbaum's core list.)

On a basic level, if we do not have the capability of bodily integrity, then we are not physically able to move freely. Whether this involves a disability or actual restraint (as in imprisonment), the idea would be that whatever the obstacle or problem, its solution involves allowing the capability of bodily motion to be safeguarded or the disability mitigated.

As mentioned above, Ricoeur argues that the capability to narrate is essential to human flourishing. This is because without the ability to do so, we can’t really get a sense of who we are (i.e. our life as a story) and where we want to be as our life unfolds. Restraint of this capability can include anything from a lack of education to political oppression or censorship.

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Photo by Chris Burgett on Unsplash

One of my favorites is the capability to imagine. It’s no fancy! Related to Ricoeur’s conception of narration, without the ability to imagine, one would lack the capacity to see what range of possibilities one’s life might have in store. Or, one might lack the ability to empathize with another, where I can put myself imaginatively in the place of another person’s travail.

The list goes on, and for Sen it’s important that we keep an open list of capabilities since things often change; and since each culture will prioritize or interpret differently various capabilities. It’s not one-size-fits-all. Promoting one set of capabilities specific to a region or culture may not work so well in a society that has different priorities and values.

Just to note, the United Nation’s notion of “capacity building” is slightly different from what I have described. Capacity building tends to focus more on effectiveness in relation to survival:

“Capacity-building is defined as the process of developing and strengthening the skills, instincts, abilities, processes and resources that organizations and communities need to survive, adapt, and thrive in a fast-changing world.”

Survival is a key aspect of CA, but not it's raison d'être. Life is not just about surviving; it's about living well or flourishing.

Best as Promoting Capabilities

So what does best practice mean in the workplace? Notwithstanding the question of “which capabilities?”, my general point and solution is to say that

organizations can and ought to redefine “best” as that which promotes capabilities in view of human flourishing.

Not all practices can be best.

This means organizations need to identify the practices which can be supportive of the capabilities that contribute to a flourishing life. The range of possibilities is immense, and for an organization to try and work out which capabilities it ought to endorse can be hugely edifying and transformative.

A path of least resistance is to begin with an organization’s stated values and think in what ways these values connect to human capabilities. The next step is to identify ways in which the organization and the roles and tasks its employees assume can conduce to the key capabilities.

The pathways of conducement are not always obvious. At Philosophy2u, we’ve worked out a way to do this based on Ricoeur’s philosophy with regard to a variety of workbooks and courses on meaningful work (e.g. Measuring Meaningfulness in Work, How to Create Meaningful Work, and Organizational Orienteering).

Here's a simple example using the capability of independence (or autonomy).

Independence enables a person to develop and utilize their rational and emotional intelligences. In analyzing and evaluating criteria, a person then has to decide what to do. It’s what Aristotle would call the development of our practical reasoning. Organizations can easily support this capability by findings ways for all of its employees to be involved in decision-making tasks, key to which is providing the learning and development for cultivating independence in individuals.

A complementary example to this is the capability of inter-dependence.

No one is entirely independent and self-sufficient; so nurturing inter-dependence is a way to help individuals understand and value relations with others. Exercises promoting inter-dependence help to develop our ability to empathize and sympathize, to communicate and to negotiate, to recognize the value of others and to be recognized as valuable by others. Teambuilding exercises obviously go a long way in developing this capability; but it can also be done with regard to problem-solving group thinks, team temperature checks, or having your team think about how they can convert to a 4-day work week.

All this is to say, as first proposed above, that human flourishing by way of focusing on capabilities can act as the ground upon which an organization’s practices can be valued and exercised. Not all practices have to be best, just a few key ones to which the other practices link.

Just a [Academic] Note on Practice

The modern tradition of virtue ethics on which I have been drawing tends to use a rather strict notion of “practice”. There’s a lot of philosophical mileage in this notion, but this blog is not the place to unpack its significance.

I should say that my own approach, while drawing heavily on it, departs in one significant way. I see practice as something that can extend to business in conducing to a flourishing life. The stricter view does not because ultimately the ends of effectiveness (i.e. survival and profit) corrupt or efface the relation to the ethical good of flourishing.

I don’t think such a conclusion is necessary; nor do I think it should be ignored. Business and ethics have a precarious partnership that requires constant awareness . . . and practice. For more on the academic ins and outs, please see my article “Incorporating Virtues” available on at the National Library of Medicine.

In the meanwhile, if you have found this article insightful or would like to build on it for your own purposes, please feel free to reach out!

About the Author

Dr Todd Mei is founder of Philosophy2u and a consultant on meaningful work and economics. He is former Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kent (UK) and has advised on the strategic development of organizational culture, personal wellbeing initiatives, and start-up mission narratives. He also works as a researcher and writer for 1.2 Labs, whose aim is to help innovative blockchain projects change the world for the better.

This blog and its content are protected under the Creative Commons license and may be used, adapted, or copied without permission of its creator so long as appropriate credit to the creator is given and an indication of any changes made is stated. The blog and its content cannot be used for commercial purposes.


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