Exploring the Fundamental Questions


Philosopher Maija-Riitta Ollila perceives the world through the relationship of a part and the whole. As the Professor of Practice in Global Business Ethics at Turku School of Economics, she challenges the students and researchers to question their presuppositions.

Professor of Practice at Turku School of Economics, philosopher Maija-Riitta Ollila is an award-winning non-fiction writer and speaker. In her own words, Ollila typically considers questions which do not have easy answers. At the age of 12, she wrote her first philosophical essay on the essence of time.

– It wasn’t the most advanced presentation on the philosophy of time, but it is a proof of when my fascination with philosophy began, Ollila laughs.

Later in her life, Ollila has written several works on different societal themes, with many of them showing the influence of the Dutch rationalist Baruch Spinoza. In Spinoza’s book Ethics, Ollila has been particularly fascinated by the contradiction between the first and the last chapter.

– It raises the question of how absolute determinism can co-exist with individual freedom. Since then, I have discussed the relationship between a part and the whole in almost all of my works. The topics are always different, but this perspective prevails.

“Our actions and the human condition are undergoing changes by the impact of technology.”

In her career spanning decades, Ollila has examined countless different topics from the idea of good life to philosophy of power and theory of knowledge. She explains that from time to time, she finds herself completely fascinated by a new topic, with philosophy of technology being her latest interest.

– The older I get, the stronger these fascinations have become. I wanted to write a book on the ethics of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In the end, I chose the topic of artificial intelligence, which back then had not been discussed much from the perspective of ethics. When the book was finished, artificial intelligence was suddenly on everyone’s lips.

Ollila tells that in her next book, she will discuss the future of humanity and how novel technologies shape the nature of human existence.

– Quoting Bruno Latour, the tools we use are changing us. Our actions and our characteristics are undergoing changes by the impact of technology. This is related to many interesting ethical themes from algorithmic power to underestimation of the impact of technology and overemphasis of human supremacy.

Discuss and question presupposition

Maija-Riitta Ollila is a challenging but also rewarding interviewee. When you ask her a question, she often answers with another one. When I pointed out this tendency to the philosopher, she was amused and told that she does the same thing on the courses she teaches.

– I coax them into making a statement of some sort, and then challenge it. After this, the student must justify their argument, and they learn to argument better than they would if they were restricted to their personal views. When a person is talking, they also end up spelling out their actual thoughts for themselves, Ollila explains.

According to Ollila, philosophy is characterised in particular by this kind of challenging of presuppositions.

– Societal discussion usually consists of some influential figure formulating a question, and everyone else trying to answer this question. Presuppositions determine what is asked. Different questions, on the other hand, can create different answers. Asking important and challenging questions from a different angle opens up new perspectives. This is particularly important when we are discussing e.g. the wicked problems of the humanity.

Ollila’s specialisation as Professor of Practice is global business ethics. She teaches a course called Global Business Ethics for master’s degree students at Turku School of Economics, linking the applied fields of global ethics and ethics of business. According to Ollila, the combination is very topical because the questions of global ethics are nowadays highly prevalent in both business and political decision-making.

“Cultural richness should not be lost, but we can build common ground by finding core values shared by the whole humankind.”

– The courses discuss such global topics as good and ethical leadership, the ethics of artificial intelligence and biotechnology, and the ethics of media and protection of privacy. The topics must be practical to make them applicable in business. The teaching of sustainable development at Turku School of Economics is very extensive. This raises the important question of what philosophy can offer that is not already covered by other courses. My own view is that argumentation skills and the courage to think from new perspectives are valuable in themselves.

Ethics is future-oriented activity which aims to impact the way people think and act. Ollila says that this particularly applies to global ethics, the basic objective of which is to find globally approved and shared values.

– It is a demanding mission because it challenges the prevailing relativistic thinking. Cultural relativism means that cultural values vary from one period, place, and culture to another, and we do not have the right to judge others. With the help of global ethics, we are trying to find common ground in the great challenges of our time, but at the same time, it becomes evident that all moral practices are not equally good and that some ways of living are better than other.

As globally accepted values, Ollila gives the example of human rights, which are observed very broadly around the world with the exception of a few countries. Then she hesitates for a moment before continuing:

– Of course, we cannot agree on everything. Cultural richness should not be lost, but we can build common ground by finding core values shared by the whole humankind. We must approach the issue through discussion, and in that, philosophy has much to offer. We cannot think that we are simply following policies dictated from above in terms of human rights or for example environmental issues.

Towards a More Sustainable World

As Professor of Practice at Turku School of Economics, Maija-Riitta Ollila leads the webinar series Global Goodness – Discussions on Global Business Ethics, which expands on the topics of Ollila’s teaching. The guests invited to the webinar series include influential people from the fields of science, business, and politics. In the first webinar, the guest speakers included the Dean of the Faculty of Technology Jaakko Järvi together with the Chair of the Board at St1 Nordic Mika Anttonen. The discussion touched on e.g. carbon-neutral energy and the challenges in the implementation of new innovations.

The webinar series is based on the idea of popularising science, economy, and politics, and creating shared discussion between these fields that strongly impact on our world.

– Our survival as individuals or as societies depends on our ability to have as truthful a perception of people, society, and the world as possible. We have an immense amount of competing views. If humans have severe delusions about the world, our species cannot thrive for long. It is crucial also for individuals and societies that we can build our lives on as truthful assumptions and knowledge as possible, Ollila says.

The second webinar featured discussion about biodiversity conservation and the economics by the Dean of Turku School of Economics Markus Granlund, Director of the Biodiversity Unit of the University of Turku Ilari Sääksjärvi, Economist Anni Huhtala, and Chairman of the Board of Cargotec Ilkka Herlin.

“In Finnish language, we use the term ympäristö (environment; literally, surroundings), which indicates that human is in the middle, surrounded by everything.”

The participants of the webinar discussed about e.g. sustainable development and the so-called Dasgupta report. Professor Emeritus Sir Partha Dasgupta from the University of Cambridge led a comprehensive research group the end report of which, described as ground-breaking, was published in February. In the report, nature was defined as the most valuable asset of the humankind.

– Many people might find it strange that the term asset is used when talking about nature, but the choices of terms we use do have significance. The term asset has taken over new areas in modern language, and we speak about for example information assets, human assets, and now also nature assets. It is a term with societal significance, and when we use it in relation to nature, it signifies that nature and its sustainability are important.

When talking about sustainable development, Ollila seems to be careful of what she says in places, and she explains that the topic can also cause conflicts. She explains the background of the term by stating that ecological sustainability was the starting point of all sustainability discussion.

– Then people noticed that ecological sustainability cannot be realised without social sustainability. People who are living in poverty do not have enough resources to sustain ecological sustainability. This also gave rise to the new term of economic sustainability, which in Finland is often understood as the ability of companies to stay in business.

According to Ollila, these different members of the family of sustainability do not live in perfect harmony together.

– Some business activities simply should not exist from an ecological perspective. Profitability in itself does not make them sustainable. When humankind was scarcer, we could use the resources of nature for our benefit as much as we wanted. However, if we are now using one and a half Earths each year, it leads to the question of where we can find this other Earth.

In the discussion about sustainable development, Ollila can also recognise the theme of the relationship between a part and the whole that has been cross-cutting theme in her works.

– When a human is looking out from inside their head, they see themselves as the centre of everything. In Finnish language, we use the term ympäristö (environment; literally, surroundings), which indicates that human is in the middle, surrounded by everything. However, humans are part of nature, and our dependence on it is indisputable.

      Maija-Riitta Ollila

  • Philosopher, non-fiction writer, speaker
  • Doctor of Social Sciences 1993
  • Speaker of the Year, Speakers Forum 2009
  • Has taught philosophy at Turku School of Economics, the University of Helsinki, and Aalto University
  • Has written numerous non-fiction books, her personal favourite being Tekoälyn etiikkaa, Ethics of Artificial Intelligence (2019).


Text: Heikki Kettunen
Photos: Hanna Oksanen
Translation: Lotta Junnila

Created 06.08.2021 | Updated 06.08.2021