- Standard of Business
- Producing Real Value
- The Harming of Others
- Directed Passion and Hard Work
- The Handshake
- Misdirection and Deception
- Partnerships of Trust
- Amorality of Money
- Money: A Means, Not an End
- The Great Liege Lord: Greed
- Human Relationships, Not Numbers
- Losing with Honor
- The Trap of Zero-Sum Thinking
- Align or Die!
- Creating Shared Stakeholder Value
- Capitalism: The Powers of Good and Evil
- Guarding Growth
In its very long history, one of the ongoing debates in Chinese philosophy is the nature of man. It’s a simple question: is man by nature good or evil? Are evil acts learned through exposure to other evil acts, or does strict moral consciousness need to be instilled into the growing child. It’s a debate I don’t currently feel the need to explore. That would require us to get into a deep discussion not only on the natural morality of humanity, but also the definitions of good and evil and eventually to the very nature of truth itself.
I don’t have time for that today. The Chinese have been debating it for thousands of years.
Instead, I want to focus on what in Western philosophy is known as the Golden Rule. Unsurprisingly, many other world traditions have a similar concept built into their concepts of interpersonal relationships.
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them…
~ Matthew 7:12
It’s a very simple concept to understand in principle. Unfortunately, as with many wise sayings, putting it into practice can sometimes be much more difficult. In some cases, it requires putting others’ needs before one’s own. In all cases, it requires one to have empathy for other people—again, something that can be rather hard to obtain.
But, we need to. It’s imperative we do so.
The Bifurcated Life
When it comes to business, one thing I’ve seen time and time again is the bifurcation of one’s life into “air-tight” compartments where it’s believed proper actions and beliefs become subject to the context in which one finds oneself. There’s a compartment for work life, and there’s one for personal life. For some, the personal life is further divided into additional compartments representing family and different sets of friends.
There’s not a problem with keeping different parts of one’s life separate from the others. In fact, it’s often needed in order to have healthy relationships in both. However, a problem occurs when one starts to assign different ethical views to each of the compartments, hypocritically creating an environment where one’s ethical and moral choice differ depending on context.
This situation, unchecked, will lead to a conflicted soul, as one attempts to maintain multiple, separate and distinct personalities. It can be maintained for some time, but eventually our brains and emotions will notice.
The most common way I see this manifest itself in typical business is the phrase: It’s only business.
It’s only business. I hate that phrase… with a passion, and here’s why. It’s too often used to quickly and cleanly attempt to abdicate the ethical consequences of actions taken by an individual or an organization. Some time ago, a colleague uttered the phrase in defense of a hypothetical future action to which I was vehemently against due to some ethical reasons. The ease with which this passing statement had been made, had been used as a pillar in the argument, really bothered me. Later that evening, I posted the following on Twitter in an attempt to assuage my anger.
Now, I admit that might have been a little bit of an overreaction. But, it had to do with a choice of whether or not to support of a particular company, known to cause harm to children, through selling our product to them. Now, that’s a whole topic for another day, but for me (at least) it was a clear choice between either causing harm or taking the money and running.
Much to my annoyance, I found out a week or so later that on of our business units had actually sold to the company in question. Needless to say, I was not pleased. Unfortunately, I seemed to be alone in the holding of that particular opinion.
When one attempts to lead such a bifurcated life, at some point one of the compartments will rupture, spilling its ethics into the true personality of the person and infecting all the other compartments. In my opinion, it’s not possible to remain bifurcated forever.
Oh, I see. You mean that little boys ought to keep their promises. Very true: most right and proper, I’m sure, and I’m very glad you have been taught to do it. But of course you must understand that rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys—and servants—and women—and even people in general, can’t possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.
Uncle Andrew’s life, perhaps once bifurcated, had fallen into the arrogant trap that awaits those who practice the utilitarian approach to ethics.
The Myriad Paths to Harm
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.
I believe most people do not get up in the morning with the intent to cause harm. In fact, I think a majority of people do, at least in word, subscribe to The Golden Rule.
The problem many of us face is the fact that our economic system is complex. The long tail of production leaves ample opportunities for the not-so-ethical among us to take advantage of our ignorance.
As migration into cities and technological advances have increased, many of us have become somewhat disconnected from how things are made. We don’t have to worry about it. Through the magic of the Internet, almost every conceivable product is available for immediate delivery to our doorstep with the click of a button. It’s almost as if we are well on our way to creating the dystopian utopia of E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, where mankind and dreams settle comfortably into the inactivity of the all-providing Machine’s bosom.
However, all actions have consequences, not all of which are borne by the actor.
So, what we do matters.
What we buy matters.
Who we do business with matters.
What we create matters.
Who we sub-contract to matters.
It all matters.
We need to be conscious of the consequences of the actions we take. We need to consider both the long- and short-term consequences, near and far, that will occur from those actions. We must be informed actors on the stage of life and business.
The Impossibility of an Ideal
Now some of you reading this may be think this is just idealistic drivel. The real world is a cruel and heartless place where harm must be caused in order to survive. The strong must eat the weak in order to survive. That is Nature’s way, and to ignore the facts is not only disingenuous, but actually dangerous.
In the life cycle of companies and organizations, there may be circumstances under which harm to someone is the only available outcome. One simple example is that of lay-offs or RIFs (reduction-in-force) that are sometimes needed to keep an company alive. Without taking those measures, all would lose their jobs when the company closed down, as opposed to only a few.
Let’s look at a slightly more problematic example.
During World War II, the Nazi employed a special encryption machine, known as the Enigma, for sending and receiving secret messages. This gave the Nazis a marked advantage over their enemies, as they could coordinate attacks with impudence over the airways. They were famously used for coordinating “wolf pack” attacks with the U-Boats.
They were also used to order bombing runs by the Luftwaffe.
Through a series of amazing occurrences, Great Britain managed to capture one of the machines, installing it in Bletchley Park, the top secret underground base dedicated to breaking the Nazi codes.
Now they had a problem. By cracking the code, they had access to when and where the Nazis were going to strike. However, if it became obvious to the Nazis they had broken the code, the Nazis would certainly change their methods of encryption, thereby robbing them of this intelligence.
If they evacuated the target cities before the blitzkrieg arrived, they may lose the intelligence necessary to win the war. It was a terrible catch-22.
The Americans faced a similar situation in the final acts of the Pacific Theater of the same war. Just having finished the exceptionally brutal and bloody invasion of Okinawa, the Americans were faced with a series of major islands between them and Tokyo. To engage in a land war launched from Okinawa into Fukushima and on up would have been a ghastly affair, a butchering all along the road to Tokyo as nearly every citizen would fight in defense of their emperor.
Many would die.
So, when the decision was made to use the nuclear bombs, weapons whose full ferocity and terror were not fully understood (though they were clearly being used to cause fear and terror, as had other tactics such as the Tokyo firebombing) were unleashed on world. It was a terrible thing, born from a terrible choice.
Was there another way?
Where Does This Leave Us?
It is true there are circumstances where harm is inevitable. That’s a sad truth of life. However, that is very different than the deliberate or ignorant causing of harm for one’s own gain. In one case, harm is being used as a tool, where in the other it is an unfortunate burden heavily borne.
There are enough things in this world that cause pain and suffering. We should not, through our own actions, needlessly add to it. In fact, it should be our goal to reduce and remediate the inevitable harm that does occur.
Again, it is about our actions and our motivations—the “Why?” of why we do things.
Let us always strive to be a force for good in the world.
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