A Brief Intellectual/Vocational Autobiography

For the curious, here is the basic story of how I came to the convictions, perspectives, and activities which became central in my work in business and professional ethics.  I grew up in Oakland and San Leandro in Northern California.  My father’s whole career was spent as an accountant at the Crown Zellarbach (a large paper business) corporate headquarters in San Francisco. My dad was not especially bold or ambitious but he was a stickler for accuracy, hard work, and uncompromised values and ethics.  My stay-at-home mom, along with my dad, made my upbringing a joyful, positive, warm, supportive experience so I naturally bought into their values and ethics as well.  I always had jobs and made my own money from mowing lawns, washing cars, delivering newspapers, pumping gas (high school), and factory labor (college) from before I was age ten until I became a paid teacher after college.  Our “Gill” way was “work hard, deliver value, be honest and reliable, give generously to those in need, save some, and enjoy the rest.” 

1964-78 University; Ethics Quest; Jacques Ellul & Technology

In 1964 I graduated from high school and entered the University of California. Berkeley and Oakland in the Sixties and Seventies were in a constant ferment. Free Speech, Black Panthers, Vietnam, counter-culture, feminism, the environmental movement, etc..  Since I was not raised with a nationalistic, conservative, or reactionary political ideology, I was delighted to be in the middle of all this questioning of authority.  This is when (and why) I migrated from engineering to history to ethics as my field of study.  What’s the right thing to do …. about Vietnam?  about the Panthers’ issues and demands?  about free speech and advocacy at the state university?   Ethics is the field that explores this kind of questioning.  I knew that’s where I wanted to end up.  It wasn’t just a theoretical interest but a practical one.

After Berkeley (B.A.), SF State (M.A.), and three or four years of high school and junior high school history teaching I moved to the University of Southern California to enter an exciting, interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in Social Ethics during the mid-Seventies.  At USC we studied the whole “canon” of moral philosophy from the Greeks to the post-modernists.  We also looked at issues in applied ethics as they related to business, politics, health care and other arenas. 

My own work came to a focus in my doctoral dissertation on the great French sociologist of technology, Jacques Ellul (1912-94).   Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and many others had been calling attention to Ellul in their own writings and interviews.  I found Ellul’s understanding of technology and its impact on our culture, politics, communication, business, entertainment, religion and other domains to be nothing less than brilliant.  For Ellul it is not the technological “machines” that are most important;  it is a way of thinking, a method of subjecting every problem, every sector of life to scientific, rational, quantitative analysis.  But the technological method that is so successful in building bridges can be enslaving and dehumanizing when it is applied to human relations, art, and other domains.  The quantitative can obscure the qualitative.  We live in an era of “raving rationalism,” Ellul wrote.  The problem is not “technology” but “technopoly” (Neil Postman’s term).  Ellul taught me that technology is not value-neutral but carries with it a set of values (efficiency, power, speed, quantifiability, rationality, artificiality, normality, predictability, etc.).  These are not “bad” values but we must recognize them for what they are and make sure that our technologies serve our mission and purpose and don’t become ends in themselves. 

It is ironic that I began life at Berkeley as an engineering major but didn’t like it much, moving over to history, and then to ethics in graduate school --- but wound up with a major appreciative/critical focus on technology in all of my work. I exchanged many letters with Ellul from 1972 to 1982.  I met and interviewed him in person in 1982, spent every other Friday afternoon of my 1984-85 sabbatical in discussion with him at his home in Bordeaux, and met with him many more times until his death in 1994.  In 2000 I organized the founding of the International Jacques Ellul Society which adopted the Ellul Forum for the Critique of Technological Civilization, a semi-annual journal many of us “Ellulians” had organized and sustained since 1988.  Visit www.ellul.org for more information on Ellul.

 1978-2001 Professor of Ethics

As I finished my doctoral studies at USC, I organized a group of Berkeley alumni and friends who shared my passion for a more authentic, holistic Christian way of thinking and working and we (bold and reckless children of the Sixties that we were!) founded a graduate school of theology next to our beloved alma mater in Berkeley.  I taught courses in theological, business, and professional ethics from 1978-90, organized conferences and workshops for attorneys, managers, scientists, engineers, and artists.  My experience with New College Berkeley was not just in the classroom.  I was the primary entrepreneur, organizer, institution builder, marketer, and fund raiser over the fourteen years that it dominated my existence.  I learned a lot about institutional mission and values, about culture and performance, and about competitive realities, financial constraints, and boards of directors.   

From 1992-2001 I moved to Chicago to escape the administrative life for a while and refocus on teaching and writing.  I was appointed Carl I. Lindberg Professor of Applied Ethics at North Park University in Chicago.  This position put me in charge of an “ethics-across-the-curriculum” project.  I taught in the philosophy and business departments.  I was now primarily working on the “ethics and values in a diverse, global marketplace” challenge.  I read and studied intensively the growing literature in business, technology, communication, and bio/health care ethics—created and taught courses, gave lectures, organized conferences, and began to do some organizational ethics consulting (e.g., I guided Swedish Covenant Hospital’s code of ethics project and worked as subject matter expert for the emerging Cardean University/UNext.com online MBA project).  

As I focused my attention on the growing business ethics literature I became increasingly dissatisfied with the way it was approached.  The typical business ethics book or course consisted of an analysis and discussion of hard cases, such as the wreck of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in Alaska, the Challenger space disaster, the deadly explosion at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, or the scandal of Nestle’s marketing infant formula to African mothers without a clean water supply---along with some obligatory discussion of sexual harassment and non-discriminatory hiring and promotion policies.  Business students were given a quick summary of the ethical theories of Kant, Mill, and two or three others and then urged to choose one to unpack the ethical dilemma and determine what went wrong and who was at fault.

My colleague Al Erisman used the very apt phrase “damage control ethics” for this kind of approach.  My criticism of this sort of ethics was and is that it never really addresses the causes and contributing factors to these problems.  It is reactive, narrow, and negative.  It is also not terribly practical to focus so much attention on spectacular exceptional cases that few managers would ever encounter.

I was deeply influenced by Prof, Alasdair MacIntyre’s books After Virtue (2nd ed., 1984) and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (1990) which I still regard as the most important works in philosophical ethics in generations.  MacIntyre shows why both Modernity (“Encyclopaedia,” the rationalistic ethical theories of the European Enlightenment such as those of Kant and Mill) and Postmodernity (the cynical individualism of Nietzsche and most of our contemporaries) can and must fail to actually guide our moral discernment and action.  The answer is to rediscover and appropriate in new ways “Tradition” (especially the approach of Aristotle).  It isn’t possible to pretend we are in ancient Greece and reinstigate the Traditional/Classical approach to ethics, lock, stock, and barrel.  But the way forward will require us to learn profoundly from this classical, traditional approach.

What all this means is that ethics is not just a matter of figuring out a set of rules (even a set of universal rules) and a method by which to apply them to cases.  Rather, ethics is always related to communities and purposes.  What is our purpose (Greek, telos)---our mission and vision?  It is this basic choice which will ultimately drive our ethical performance.  Is it a purpose that will bring out the best in people (e.g., in our employees and owners)?  After we figure out and commit to our purpose, we then ask “what kind of community---and what sort of individual character---do we need to enable us to achieve our purpose with excellence?  This question points to our corporate culture and the core values and virtues we must seek to embed throughout the culture to optimize our prospects of achieving our mission and vision.  In this light, our code of ethics is seen as our shared guidelines for “how we do the things we do” in our organization in order to succeed.  Yes, it is, on first glance, a “relativistic” approach to ethics;  we are not looking for some kind of universals and moral absolutes but for “rules of the game” and “principles of the village” in a sense.  However, everything is not, in the end, relative because we have in common our basic humanity which cuts across all organizations and world cultures.

A few business ethics scholars such as the late Robert Solomon were on the same track in rethinking business ethics in terms of purposes, communities, and character.  Business writers like Jim Collins, e.g., his Built to Last (with Jerry Porras) and Good to Great best-sellers, were also showing how “preserving the core” (purpose and values) was the starting point of great companies.  In fact, as I thought about my study of the Ten Commandments I recalled how the great rabbis and Hebrew scholars had often insisted that the Decalogue was really one command and nine corollaries: first, get your god straight --and the ethical guidelines will follow   Same basic lesson:  get your ultimate End, purpose, mission, or vision straight and the appropriate ethics will follow.

1996-2003 Institute for Business, Technology & Ethics; Ethix Magazine

In the mid- and late-Nineties my main conversation partner on business ethics was a long-time friend who was an executive at Boeing in the Seattle area.  Al Erisman had a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics and was the Director of Boeing’s IT research and development team of 300 or so techies and scientists.  Al was a technology-lover and creator, a big league business executive, and a guy of complete integrity who had a zero tolerance for unethical behavior in business or elsewhere.  We rapidly escalated our conversation about business, technology, and ethics to a point where we co-taught a course in summer 1996 at Regent College in Vancouver BC and co-lectured at Penn State, University of Washington and elsewhere. 

By 1998 we had gathered a small group of business leaders around us and together decided to found the Institute for Business, Technology, and Ethics (IBTE) whose major product would be a bimonthly magazine called Ethix, for which Al would write a regular “Technology Watch” column, I would contribute a regular “Benchmark Ethics” column, and we would jointly interview some leader in the business, technology, or ethics domains.  Three years later, in 2001, we decided to have a go at it full-time so Al retired from Boeing and I walked away from my tenured, endowed post in Chicago and moved back home to the San Francisco Bay Area.  All of this happened just as the Silicon Valley economic bubble was bursting and just before 9/11 shattered the world.  I learned a great deal with Al Erisman and the IBTE as we debated and discussed the issues, read voluminously, and went around interviewing CEOs such as Jim Sinegal (Costco), Phil Condit (Boeing), Lew Platt (HP), and Jonathan Klein (Getty Images), and thought leaders like John Seeley Brown, David Korten, and Carl Mitcham. In 2003 I left the organization and became a sole practitioner business ethics educator, writer, and consultant under a new flag: EthixBiz.com. 

2004-2016 MBA & MDiv Ethics Prof; EthixBiz Consultant 

During 2004-10 I moved back into the classroom, especially at St. Mary’s College Graduate School of Business (which launched the first executive MBA program in the Bay Area back in the early Seventies).  My teaching at St. Mary’s was exclusively with MBA students, most of them currently in management positions at various levels.  This was no ivory tower academic exercise for my students but an intense weekly “ethics workout” in the midst of a busy business career with all of its challenges and opportunities.

My organizational ethics learning curve ratcheted upward even more dramatically during this period when I was able to test out my perspectives on the ground, in the trenches, with companies and organizations such as East Bay Municipal Utility District, Paradise Foods, Nikon Precision, and especially Harris & Associates (construction and project management).  Business leaders over and over confirmed to me that the holistic mission/culture/practices approach “works” and leads to sound ethics and business success.

In 2010 I accepted an invitation to move back to the Boston area into a newly endowed distinguished professorship of “workplace theology and business ethics” at one of America’s largest and most influential seminaries, the interdenominational Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Legendary CEO Tom Phillips of Raytheon and Joanna Mockler, widow of Good to Great “Level Five” Gillette CEO Colman Mockler jointly endowed the “Mockler-Phillips” Chair to help pastors and church leaders better and more supportively connect with workplace folk --- as well as to reach out directly to the business community.  After six years in Boston, I retired from the faculty and returned to my San Francisco Bay Area home to focus on my writing, speaking, and consulting.