Why Your Board Needs A Chief Philosophy Officer

We’ve got chief customer officers, chief ethics officers and chief happiness officers. Is the next must-have appointment to the board going to be the chief philosophy officer? Here, Professor Christian Voegtlin, associate professor in corporate social responsibility at Audencia Business School in France, discusses the trend for companies to hire their own in-house philosophers.

Sally Percy: What are in-house philosophers and why are people starting to talk about them?

Professor Christian Voegtlin: Some Silicon Valley-based companies, including search engine giant Google, have started to employ in-house philosophers. Others, among them the instant-messaging and telecommunications company Skype, use the service of philosophical counselors such as Andrew Taggart to engage teams of managers with philosophical questions related to their daily business. These practical philosophers are gradually entering the business world, where local executives employ them as de facto “chief philosophy officers” (CPOs). The job role appears to be a mixture of consultant, life coach and strategist. CPOs are responsible for helping the CEO or the business to tackle fundamental questions such as “What is a good and virtuous life?”, “How can I be a good boss?” and “What should the purpose of my business be?”

Silicon Valley's interest in philosophy can be traced back to the Symbolic Systems program, or ‘Symsys’, which was launched in 1986 by Stanford University. The program was designed to train the next generation of technology leaders. It analyzed the communication between computers and humans through neuroscience, contemporary philosophers, psychology and logic. Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo, Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, and Mike Krieger, co-founder of Instagram, are alumni of this course.

  Percy: Questions such as “What is a good and virtuous life?” are worthy, but what do they really have to do with business?

Voegtlin: Actually, these questions can be particularly relevant in an environment where people are experimenting with innovative technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI). Philosophers can help with questions about what standards should apply when developers are programming virtual intelligence, or designing how AI should interact with humans. The same moral questions apply to social media platforms that use algorithms to entice their visitors to look at follow-up content. Should these algorithms be programmed with the sole purpose of maximizing user time on the platform, no matter where the suggestions take the user? A CPO can help to develop guidelines for more “moral” programming, which might – for instance –emphasize the relevance of democratic values.

Percy: Where else can CPOs bring value outside of technology?

Voegtlin: The idea behind having a CPO is that the position could be helpful in a business environment that is accelerating at an unprecedented speed. Philosophy can help to provide purpose and guidance by tackling fundamental questions about the meaning of life. It is important for answering questions relating to how we live together and treat others.