This article was first published in the Boston Business Journal.

Richard Capobianco

Title: Humanities Scholar in Residence in the Meehan School of Business, professor of philosophy

Age: 63

Education: Bachelors in economics and philosophy, Hofstra University, 1979; Masters and Ph.D in philosophy, Boston College, 1986.

Residence: Norton

Like everyone in academia these days, Richard Capobianco has made a sudden transition to teaching his students remotely over the past several weeks. A professor of philosophy at Stonehill College in Easton for the past 32 years, Capobianco says the experience isn't as satisfying as face-to-face teaching, but he acknowledges, "we need to do the best we can under the circumstances."

This past fall, Capobianco took on a unique role teaching philosophy to business students in the newly created role as Humanities Scholar in Residence in the Meehan School of Business for at least a one-year stint. He spoke to Boston Business Journal Managing Editor Don Seiffert before the coronavirus pandemic hit about what his role has been like.

What struck me about this position is that you’re taking what I would argue is the most abstract area of academic thought, and applying it to the most practical — business. Has it been done before?

I'm teaching business ethics and philosophical foundations of capitalism this year. So, business ethics has become a course that's offered in lots of undergraduate business programs, but also in graduate programs. But I think it's different when you actually bring someone in who has some deep learning in history or philosophy. So in the business ethics class, my aim is to be able to talk about specific business issues that have come up in the news — ethical issues — but at the same time, grounded a little bit more deeply in real philosophical thinking and the history of philosophical thinking.

There are a few business leaders who were philosophy majors — Peter Thiel, Carl Icahn, George Soros, for instance. I've read it argued that while business courses can help teach you the nuts and bolts, a more abstract major, like philosophy, may be useful for somebody who's a CEO. Do you see that?

I think it's valuable for just anyone working in business because it just gives them an ability to step back a little bit and consider more deeply what it is they're doing. So for instance, we talk about the stoics. So Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius have some marvelous reflections on how if we can develop a habit of detaching ourselves a little bit from everything we have invested in our job, that it gives us a little bit more clarity. So if we can think about, if we're faced with an ethical decision, or any kind of decision, and if we can think about, ‘Well, what do I have invested in this decision?’ You know, is it a promotion, is it status, is it reputation, is it financial? The more we're invested, the more likely we're going to make a mistake, especially if it's an ethical decision. So to the extent that we can detach ourselves and the thinking is about detachment... we create a space in which we can think more clearly and objectively and get some distance from what it is we need to do. It gives us an opportunity to think about what is the right thing to do rather than what is the thing that is going to help me the most or make me look good.

There is a hunger, I think, for all of us to want to think a little bit more deeply about what we're doing or planning to do with our lives.

What about your other class, “The Roots of Capitalism”?

I think that's a really important class because there's so much talk today of course, capitalism versus socialism. But you realize that very few people have any understanding of what capitalism really is all about. So I go back to John Locke, the English philosopher, and Adam Smith. And we lay bare the philosophical underpinnings for this economic system…. This has been very interesting with students. Yes, they, they really don't know. I mean, they hear slogans about capitalism, and they hear slogans about socialism.

Here's a question: Is capitalism the natural state of how humans interact with each other?

Well, this is what we talk about. So we go back to, let's say, John Locke, who makes the case that — and this was rather novel at the time, he's writing and 1690 — he makes the case that work is something that is very natural to us and that we take great satisfaction in. The earlier view that had prevailed for so long was either the aristocratic view, that work belong to the people at the bottom, and that leisure was really the aim, or a certain Christian view that said that work was a punishment because of original sin. So Locke is rather revolutionary in saying, “Wait, work is very natural to us. It brings us deep satisfaction. It's essential to our human nature.” And then Adam Smith develops that and he says, “Well, it's also natural to us to — his words are, truck, barter and exchange.” There’s something that we deeply enjoy about exchange with one another and an economic system grows out of that. So which economic system, in his view, is most compatible with human nature? It's a free and open commercial side, because he didn't use the word capitalism.

And then Karl Marx, a century or two later, his whole philosophy is talking about what's wrong with capitalism.

Exactly. But, but the big discussion is, he's assuming a very different kind of human nature. So, Marx has a less positive view of work, for instance, he wants to abolish private property. He also — and you still hear this in the rhetoric of committed socialist Marxists — that the ideal society is not one in which we work, but rather the ideal society is one in which we have all this leisure to do all sorts of creative things. It's a fundamental departure from the very understanding of human nature as well that Locke and Smith and John Stuart Mill put together.

I wonder how your students react to these classes. Like, do any of them have trouble grasping, why am I taking this class?

I think at first, especially with business students, they might ask themselves, I've got more important things to do. But I have to tell you that as we get into the reflection about these things, they are interested, they become engaged. There is a hunger, I think, for all of us to want to think a little bit more deeply about what we're doing or planning to do with our lives. And so I’ve found that over the course of the semester, there is a greater and greater openness and receptiveness to thinking like this. And we don't ignore the particular business realities. We talk about case studies and particular issues in the news, but at a different level.

Is there anything else you want to add?

I think business schools would benefit from inviting people in the humanities to talk about business things. Because business is a human enterprise. It's a human activity. And why not bring in people who have a perspective on being human that's other than, concrete, or specific.