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In Memoriam, News

In Memoriam: David Dick

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Written by Tobey Scharding, Rutgers Business School

David Dick was a brilliant philosopher; a trailblazing researcher and pedagogue; a generous teacher, mentor, and colleague; and a delightful person. He was beloved by friends throughout the business ethics community. An associate professor at the University of Calgary, where he had worked since receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Michigan, David was what I would call a joyous business ethicist. While this phrase might sound like a contradiction in terms to outsiders, I believe that many within our community share my view that it is our joy for business ethics that characterizes us. And David was the very best of us.

Among his articles in business ethics, David contributed several related to the philosophy of money. This is the research stream with which he was most actively engaged and the aspect of his scholarship that will, perhaps, most endure. David was interested in the philosophy of money from a range of perspectives: what money is, ontologically speaking; how people’s ideas about money shape (and fail to shape) its ontological status; how money’s ontological and teleological statuses shape (and fail to shape) its normative significance. These articles had a range of applications in business ethics, including ethical issues related to cryptocurrencies and other novel financial instruments. Before we lost him, David was working on projects related to counterfeit money, ethical investing, and an intriguing problem concerning ethical divestiture that he was co-authoring with a student. 

David helped to shape philosophy of money’s sphere of influence, particularly within business ethics, in several ways. Perhaps most importantly, he created a popular undergraduate course on the philosophy of money at Calgary, which was featured in a Maclean’s magazine profile of the university as a “cool course.”  David inspired students to pursue their own philosophy of money projects, including a master’s thesis on the metaphysics of money and a doctoral student’s published journal article on ethical issues related to non-centrally regulated currencies. He organized a “miniconference” (his term) on the philosophy of money at Calgary. His precise formulations of fascinating problems in the philosophy of money, along with his infectious enthusiasm for the topic, inspired students and colleagues alike. He leaves behind a network of scholars in the philosophy of money who are committed to projects that would not have been possible without his insights and leadership.

David also developed philosophical accounts of property rights, contributing to both Lockean (historical) and expressivist (contemporary) approaches. Related to Locke, David argued that Lockean property rights do not exclusively serve to protect property holders against other people’s claims on the resources that property holders control; rather, property rights are also constrained by natural law. This law both obliges property holders to help those in need and restricts their property rights in “excess” property, which is not needed to preserve human life, to situations in which this property is not needed to preserve others’ lives. Within the expressivist tradition, David addressed the various messages markets can send, such as that a particular good (say, a human organ) appears less valuable in virtue of a market price being attached to it. Whereas some messages are “pure,” in that they neither corrupt the people that express them nor harm others (they are just messages), David showed that many market messages do cause harm. For example, the presence of low-priced ‘fast fashion’ in a market sends the message that clothes (and the human labor that produces them) can be shockingly inexpensive. While this message is purely “semiotic,” in that it is just a message, it can cause real harm by disrespecting human labor and causing more human-labor-disrespecting sweatshops to be created.

In addition to his own research and teaching, David was a thoughtful colleague in business ethics. At our SBE Annual Meetings, he was well known for comments that were at once blunt and incisive, and cordial and constructive (a rare but very valuable combination). He often livened his criticisms with humorous hypothetical scenarios (“Imagine that late one night I confide to my pillow that ‘I disrespect Tom’ but no one hears or subsequently learns of this”), references to literature (especially the works of Nabokov), or examples from pop culture (David had a particular fondness for stories about hot dog stands, as well as for frequenting hot dog stands). He organized many conferences and workshops at Calgary, including a scholars’ group that met virtually during the pandemic to discuss new work and share it with business students at Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business. Organizing the latter group was part of David’s work as a fellow of the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business (CCAL) at the Haskayne School. 

Also during the pandemic, David gave a virtual talk at my institution, Rutgers Business School, titled “Markets, Actions, and Unchosen Alternatives.” The topic was a subtle, philosophical distinction that had a profound consequence for how business ethicists evaluate market transactions (and, in this sense, was characteristic of David’s scholarship). Most of the people attending the talk were not philosophers, who were yet won over by David’s compelling ideas and preternaturally engaging style. It was thrilling to see a (virtual) room full of empiricists lock horns over the difference between ‘acts’ and ‘actions.’ 

In sum, David Dick was wonderful through and through. It is strange and heartbreaking, though, to sum up the work of someone who still seems so vital to me: utterly charming, unfailingly big-eyed about the world, and all in all a lovely person. We will miss him more than tears can express or words can capture.

In reflecting on some of the contributions of our friend and colleague, we may naturally wonder if, in so doing, we memorialize a legendary business ethicist. It is wrenching and awful to raise this question for David, who gave so much of his talents and had so many talents, but was yet in the middle, not at the end, of his great (unfinished) project. He initiated a powerful research stream in the philosophy of money, nurtured his students into it, and enlightened our community with it. Had he lived longer, I feel certain that we would have memorialized him as a great figure in our field. Now, it is upon us to pursue the work he began and tip the scales in his favor.