Life is lived forwards but understood backwards....

Tanya Barman's picture

The 19th century philosopher Kierkergaard’s quote struck me as a challenge for finance  professionals -  linking existentialism and management accounting.   As our members and students are engaged in informing decision making based on the facts at hand, how best can they ensure that companies progress well, ensuring profitability and success whilst mitigating risk and damage in the longer term.  Not only in relation to the firm,  but to society at large, and to themselves personally.

The quote was the preface of a play I saw over the weekend, the Faith Machine, which was exploring “faith and the free-market in the modern world”, so not quite Mary Poppins (but there may be some similar lessons from her too, not least on banking).  Highlighted was the relationship between Sophie, the idealist daughter of an Anglican bishop and Tom a New York based ad agency copywriter, chasing a pharmaceutical account that had been exposed as having tested new drugs on Ugandan children, with fatal results.  Tom’s job was to PR their way out of it. 

“The real world is harsh and cruel and full of compromise"   "..ethics are obsolete and archaic” argues Tom.  And Sophie responds  “How do you feel in your heart about helping this company promote an image of itself which is at the very least dishonest" , or  even "abetting a criminal” in the crimes of “murder, perjury and corruption”.  As one can imagine the romance did not blossom and there was no Mary Poppins ending. 

The core question, that Sophie demands of  Tom, “Who are you?” had been the nature of a recent discussion I had with a senior executive of a global  Indian company.   He was curious about what stopped people from acting unethically: the law, others’ views, company policy, or, as in his case, their conscience.  “How could I look at myself in the mirror.  Living with myself would be hard, so when I have had to make those choices, it becomes easy.  It may have upset people at the time, but that passes.  A moment of indiscretion may stain me.  And those around me”. 

Sadly my belief is there are people who are quite comfortable in tolerating, abetting, or even orchestrating wrong doing in their corporate life.  Is it personal greed, power, fear, or just plain “badness” that drives such behavior?  Or a slippery slope with one minor act accelerating .  KPMG’s global findings in relation to fraud show that for the most part is it senior executives, 26% of them Chief Executives that are the perpetrators.  I think of it like calculated looting.  They may feel comfortable with the distance of a siphoned account here, cooked numbers there  - removing themselves from the act at hand – not physically tearing banknotes from their shareholders or colleagues and stuffing their pockets.   Perhaps only understanding fully the effects of their folly once (and if) caught out.  But if not caught  how many truly may have difficulty in their conscience.  What do you think?

My colleague Naomi Smith recently returned from a major management conference where a presentation by Professor Jean-Francois Manzoni, of INSEAD particularly inspired her.  It emphasised the connection between high integrity and high performance.  One slide in particular caught my eye and reflected themes in the play.  It referred to “ethical fading” when the ethical aspects of implications of the decision fade away from our mind.  These are most likely to happen when:

• Business” implications are heavily emphasised
• Language euphemisms are used
• Potential victims are numerous and anonymous

In other words we can de-sensitise ourselves from the consequences of our actions. Business ethics are ever more important, yet can only be upheld by individuals.  They in turn are likely to lend themselves to acting ethically in an environment that promotes and demands such behaviour.  This minimises “ethical fading”.  And  maximises long term success. 


Our current survey on ethics and ethical culture builds on research from 2008 and will be accessible on our ethics homepage on 3rd October.  We value your views and those who complete it have the chance to win an IPad (16GB wifi only) - click to complete survey.

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Life is lived forwards but understood backwards....

Good points.

Perhaps a better understanding of the roots and intent of double entry bookkeeping (DEB) could help accountants understand the ethical foundations behind DEB and how it served as a moral constraint in the practice of capitalism. 

I believe we should also look at different worldviews and their capacity to inculcate ethical behavior. Can existentialism for e.g. provide the foundation for ethics? Jean Paul Sartre did not think so.

I also think business ethics cannot be treated separately and compartmentalized to avoid issues of character and virtue formation, the primacy of family and community, and the understanding of human nature.

Apart from research by business schools, there is a growing multidisciplinary approach to ethics that combines reason, natural law, virtue and the Judeo-Christian traditions. See for example,

This program was developed by Prof. Robert George of Princeton and Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship and the The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

ethical recruiting

Thanks for those links - very interesting.  On the basis of  your comments on character I know there is increased focus on the fall out of who is actually hired (or promoted) in the first place. This briefing paper from the Institute of Business Ethics on Ethical due diligence in recruitment is very instructive.


applying philosophy in business and life

This is a very wise thing to say, I picture it like having to move on and learn from every single experience we live, but meanwhile learning every lesson by putting all the puzzle pieces of our past together and learning a lesson out of it. This goes for business as well, commerce and all the related fields. When I want to shop online, I go backwards to vintage costumes, let`s say, because I know all my orders there were quality purchases. This goes for everything we know.

Great Post

The author has written an excellent article. You made your point and not much to discuss. It's like this universal truth that you can not argue with the truth is not universal, everything has its exception. Thanks for this information. 

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Excellent points raised there Tanya.

Just been reading up further on Søren Kierkegaard (a very interesting character).

Thanks and keep up the great work here,

All the Best,

Ryan @


The title of the article itself conveys the message that people are living forwards but their thinking ability is going backwards, which means that people are becoming highly orthodox rather than thinking in a broader way.I guess this article will help few to think better for a better tomorrow.

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