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Why Enhancing Life Studies is crucial for academy, society, and the natural environment: A Q&A with Piet Naudé

April 18, 2017 • By Piet Naudé Why Enhancing Life Studies is crucial for academy, society, and the natural environment:  A Q&A with Piet Naudé

What is your professional background? 

I studied Philosophy up to the Master’s level, and then did a PhD in Systematic Theology. I am also an ordained pastor of the Reformed Church in South Africa. Professionally, I've been in the Academy for most of my career.  About three years ago, I became director of the Stellenbosch University Business School, which came with a stronger link to business education and the business profession. So, my professional background is quite varied, but I am an ethicist, and have been appointed as professor of ethics in different contexts and different faculties, and that explains best who I am.   

From your particular professional background, what do you see as the potential public relevance of The Enhancing Life Project?

Firstly, the question of whether the academy should have public relevance is obviously an interesting one. I'm of the opinion it should, in the sense that we are called not simply to theorize by ourselves and to write books that are read by a very close circle of insiders who understand the technical language. We have a task in broader society: In my field we call it "public ethics" or "public theology" or "participating in public discourse." Matters of public concern can hopefully be addressed by academics from whatever field those questions come from. So, that is the baseline that I come from. If I then look at The Enhancing Life Project, the big potential is that it is wide enough to address almost all the big questions pertaining to “life” in our societies and across the globe: whether it is political life in democracy; whether it is social life and negotiating cultural identities; whether it is our aesthetic life, the question of beauty and its impact on quality of life; whether it's economic life, the question of inclusive growth, and of reducing inequalities and poverty; or whether it's ecological life and sustainability. So, it is an extremely rich potential that The Enhancing Life Project brings to the public discourse from different angles—in my own country, South Africa, and also around the world.  

What particular interests did you bring to The Enhancing Life Project seminar? 

I was invited not as a participant in the true sense of the word, but to act as a facilitator for the scholars, to act as a bit of a mirror for them to talk to. But, if you ask me from an academic perspective, my “angle” would probably be a question that is already addressed by some of the scholars—the question of economics and sustainability. We've really reached a point in human history where the assumptions of continued economic growth have huge natural capital costs—it's over-reaching physical limitations, and we'll have to think in a completely new way about economics, about growth, about the levels of development that we've grown accustomed to in wealthy economies as compared to "underdeveloped" or "developing" economies. So, my interest is largely on the level of economic justice, of distributive and restorative justice, and the question of sustainability.  

What do you see as some of the major challenges of business ethics—either within your particular contemporary South African framework, or speaking more broadly? What are some of the big questions that business ethics needs to address?

I think globally there are three big questions. One is that the philosophy underlying our economic activity is still very much driven from an anthropocentric worldview; so, the human person and our needs are in the center of our thinking. According to me, if you look at the history of the last 250-300 years via the Industrial Revolutions, that philosophical orientation underlies the calamities that we find ourselves in. This is because if you think of the world and the natural world around us as basically there to serve your own interests, you're then in a situation where you do not understand that we are but one species amongst many. And though we are powerful, we are deeply dependent on others around us. So that's the first challenge: the philosophical question of how we view the world and the human person's place in that world. Secondly, closer to business ethics, is our understanding of what the purpose of business is, or what you can call "the theory of the firm." We've made good progress since the early ‘70s, where the theory of the firm was seen as basically "the business of business is business," a theory where it's all about profit for shareholders — to a much more stakeholder-inclusive idea of the firm. But that process is still underway. So, that would be the second urgent challenge: to rethink the nature of enterprises, what they mean, and what they stand for. Lastly, on the universal level, we have had the sustainability process going for about 20 years now (depending on when you consider the starting date), but it's clear that eco-efficiency is not enough. We will have to think more radically about sustainability. New terms have come up like the "circular economy," the idea of designing our material goods in a way that allows for a much longer life cycle.  So those are three big challenges for business ethics globally. 

In South Africa specifically, those challenges obviously remain—we are part of the global world. But in our culture specifically, inclusivity in economics is a very serious issue. The answers will not be simple, but it's one issue that we have to address.  

What do you think The Enhancing Life Project has to offer your profession? 

I think the greatest value—and I'm talking in very broad strokes here—is that  we've reached an interesting point (whether it's a tipping point, we still have to see): we have to create, within our education, what I would call a “regional knowledge form” that can create interesting possibilities for inter- and trans-disciplinary work. Throughout the years, I've seen some of these regional knowledge forms develop. The first one I saw was Women's Studies, where people from anthropology, sociology, theology, religious studies, could come together and study questions surrounding whatever perspective they had on women.  Then I saw, interestingly enough, the rise of Media Studies—which brings together literature, language, communication, and philosophy. Then we slowly began to see the emergence of Ecological Studies, in which the physical sciences came together with the social sciences. And I believe that Enhancing Life Studies could become a new form of regional knowledge in which different disciplines, each from their specific perspective, can come into a space where we create knowledge that transcends what each of us brings into the space, and in that way create forms of knowledge that are extremely advantageous to the question that is underlying Enhancing Life Studies: how can we enhance “life” in its various forms? So it's a very exciting contribution to higher education, and the Academy in general, which obviously includes ethics and theology. I hope I can play a small part in this.