Author Blogs in Philosophy

How can philosophy make a sustainable world?

The French philosopher, Rene Descartes, is well known for laying the foundation of knowledge in the observation of uncertainty: I cannot doubt that I doubt, hence I can be certain that I exist – cogito ergo sum. It is a famous example of what characterizes philosophical work: questioning what we know by examining the assumptions of our knowledge, in other words searching for valid assertions about the world on which our knowledge of the world is based.

In a spin on Descartes’ famous assertion, today we can say that we cannot doubt that we live in uncertain times and that we, therefore, must act decisively. Our existence is at risk, not merely because of climate change but also, as the Sustainable Development Goals inform us, because of social and economic challenges that threaten the sustainability of our world. What can philosophy do to help us make sustainable decisions?

As the editor-in-chief of the journal Philosophy of Management, I help to develop and publish philosophical work that examines and searches for valid assertions about how humans can organize and manage sustainable change in the face of grand challenges. These challenges are of an environmental, social and economic nature. I give two examples from Philosophy of Management, of what philosophy does to make a sustainable world.

Vincent Blok questions the way in which we call upon governments and corporations to act in relation to the grand challenges of our time. On the one hand, we lament corporations for their lack of corporate social responsibility. This leads us to call upon governments to take political action so that corporate actors engage in sustainable practices. Yet, on the other hand, we see that our democratic institutions are not equipped to take that action with enough decisiveness. And so, we find ourselves feeling ‘out-of-control’.

What can we do about that? Blok uses the philosophy of Agamben to trace how we came to think of governance in terms of control and how we can imagine solutions to our impasse. Blok suggests that we understand governance as a bi-polar machine of sovereignty and of economic instrumentality. As a bi-polar machine, regulation is not an intervention by the state showing its power. Rather, regulation is part and parcel of a political-economic constellation of power: market actors rely on regulation for sustainable markets. 

Blok spells out the implications of the bi-polar machine. Governance is not based on general norms and values, but rather on the Earth’s normativity, which means the limits of the Earth. Human efforts to control and manage Earth are dependent on the Earth. Hence, we can fail if we misjudge the vulnerability of Earth. Moreover, in bi-polar governance, we are no longer looking for perfect models or markets. What we need now are satisficing solutions.

The second example I want to mention of what philosophy can do to make our world sustainable is from Guglielmo Faldetta, who searches for a way to overcome the divisiveness that is growing in our societies and organizations. How do we repair relationships?

Historically we have put our hope for justice in how we distribute means, how we make decisions about such distributions, how we make those decisions transparent, and how we implement them. But, asks Faldetta, what is it that makes an offer, a gesture or an apology something where justice ‘happens’ for all parties involved? Faldetta leans on the philosophy of Levinas to articulate the foundation of how we can restore justice between human beings. It requires a relational mode of thought, beyond individual morality and utility. Successful processes for restoring victims, reintegrating offenders and community healing need to be based on how responsibility is experienced by individuals.

Responsibility does not start within me; it is not up to me to choose whether I am responsible or not. It is the other who makes me responsible. However, reciprocating justice is up to me; it is my autonomous act. Forgiveness then becomes a gift of time. It does not entail nullifying the harm. Forgiving is not the same as forgetting the past. Rather, it is acting on the past; repeating the past but repeating it differently to move on.

I could have chosen any paper from the Philosophy of Management journal, where we use philosophy not to eliminate problems, but to analyse the thinking leading us to face our current problems. Thus, to improve our thinking to be able to see solutions, see beyond, indeed see a sustainable future.


Wim Vandekerckhove

Wim Vandekerckhove