The 3rd of Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins: Knowledge without Character.

Several years ago I became very interested in the question of “Character.”  What is character?  How do we develop character?  Are we losing character in our population and if so, why?  I found a number of books on the subject but the one that most impressed me was called “The Death of Character.”  It was published in 2001 and was written by James Davison Hunter.   The book description is as follows:

The Death of Character is a broad historical, sociological, and cultural inquiry into the moral life and moral education of young Americans based upon a huge empirical study of the children themselves. The children’s thoughts and concerns-expressed here in their own words-shed a whole new light on what we can expect from moral education. Targeting new theories of education and the prominence of psychology over moral instruction, Hunter analyzes the making of a new cultural narcissism.

One of the observations that I drew from reading this book is that as a nation, Americans have moved from a perspective of absolute values to a strong belief in relative values or standards.  Wherein once people could be labeled as moral or immoral based on their behavior, today we have the concept of amorality which does not seem to have existed before the 20th century.   Some definitions might help here:

Moral:  Concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.

Immoral:  Violating moral principles; not conforming to the patterns of conduct usually accepted or established as consistent with principles of personal and social ethics.

Amoral:  Being neither moral nor immoral; specifically: lying outside the sphere to which moral judgments apply.

Character:  The aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person.

According to Hunter’s research, the American population has moved from a bipartite arrangement in which people fell between the poles of moral or immoral to a tripartite arrangement in which most people would be classified as amoral, immoral or moral.  I have been teaching in college since 1999 and one question I have routinely asked my MBA and BA students is “What would you do if you were driving down a lonely dirt road and saw a Wells Fargo money bag lying on the side of the road?  Would you return it?”  Would you be surprised if I told you that less than 3 students in 30 say they would return it?  However, if I ask them the following question, the numbers change dramatically.  “What would you do if you noticed that upon leaving the classroom, Mary had dropped a twenty dollar bill?  You are the only one who has noticed it. Would you return it?”  The replies are unanimous in that all students say they would return it.  Students regard hurting another person that they know as wrong or immoral, but stealing from Wells Fargo is not considered immoral but is rather considered as amoral.  My own experiences over the years confirm much of what Hunter says in his book. 

So we come to an important question.  Can we have an educated and intelligent population (more people getting degrees and going to school) and less morality?  What if more people are becoming amoral and we have less moral people?  What are the implications?  Well, I think the answer is clear here.  Look at corporate behavior.  You have only to read the story of Enron “The Smartest Men in the Room” to see concrete examples of intelligent behavior without a sense of morality or character.   When we look at amoral behavior in people and organizations, a primary question is how long before the amoral behavior becomes immoral and crosses the line to illegal – as it did with Enron, Worldcom, and Global Crossing.

Gandhi says this about his 3rd Social sin: 

“Our obsession with materialism tends to make us more concerned about acquiring knowledge so that we can get a better job and make more money. A lucrative career is preferred to an illustrious character. Our educational centers emphasize career-building and not character-building. Gandhi believed if one is not able to understand one’s self, how can one understand the philosophy of life. He used to tell me the story of a young man who was an outstanding student throughout his scholastic career. He scored “A’s” in every subject and strove harder and harder to maintain his grades. He became a bookworm. However, when he passed with distinction and got a lucrative job, he could not deal with people nor could he build relationships. He had no time to learn these important aspects of life. Consequently, he could not live with his wife and children nor work with his colleagues. His life ended up being a misery. All those years of study and excellent grades did not bring him happiness. Therefore, it is not true that a person who is successful in amassing wealth is necessarily happy. An education that ignores character- building is an incomplete education.”

In my book, “The New Business Values” one of my chapters was on Information.  I outlined a hierarchy of information as follows: Data>Information>Knowledge>Wisdom.   I described knowledge as a set of beliefs, facts or ideas that contained relevance to some goal, need or desire.  In my model, knowledge cannot become wisdom until it is linked to emotions and feelings for others.  I think Gandhi’s ideas of linking Knowledge to character probably hits the mark more accurately.  It was my understanding that knowledge without empathy and compassion for others could never be wisdom.  The world is full of knowledge today since scientific belief has replaced religious belief.   However, science can never develop the sense of empathy and compassion is a central part of character development.  Character development stands alone as a primary developmental need for any civilized society.  However, as Gandhi notes, we have let our passion for commerce and money outrun our passion for purpose and character.  

The famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted in his book Economics and the Public Purpose (1973, Houghton Mifflin):

“The contribution of economics to the exercise of power may be called its instrumental function… Part of this function consists in instructing several hundred thousand students each year… They are led to accept what they might otherwise criticize; critical inclinations which might be brought to bear on economic life are diverted to other and more benign fields.” 

Galbreath noted over 35 years ago that we are educating MBA students who have become mindless automatons in a corporate system without a conscience.  Having no conscience is one aspect of amoral behavior.  In today’s society and schools such behavior has become the accepted norm.  It’s the “go along” to “get along” mentality that accepts corporate decisions regardless of their impact on people, the environment or even our nation.  The “diversion” that Galbraith speaks of is easily recognized as sports and media entertainment.   Sports and news create 24/7 harmless and benign diversions that keep the public’s mind off of character or moral development.  Indeed watching sports figures and media figures today exhibits a “vast wasteland” in terms of character development. 

So where do we go from here?  The picture appears bleak.  We now accept amorality as a legitimate position on the map of character development.  We ignore the development of true character in our schools and churches; in fact, we supplant the development of character with the requisite amorality needed to get ahead in the business world.  The values of the corporation have supplanted the values needed for a kind and compassionate civilization.  Our schools have become prisons and our prisons overflow with some of the highest amounts of incarceration in the world.  Our courts have become three ring media circuses designed to show an endless succession of trials whose main points seem to be to titillate and entertain the masses.  Can we escape from this cycle of destruction that we have built for ourselves? 

Ok, time for questions:

Am I too bleak?  Do you think there is more morality in society than I describe? What do you do to develop your own character?  Do you feel that there is enough emphasis on character development in our churches and schools?  What do you think can be done about it?  How do we start? 

Life is just beginning.

 

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lowell
    Mar 17, 2014 @ 22:32:46

    Highly descriptive blog, I loved that bit. Will there be a
    part 2?

    Reply

  2. Louisa
    Mar 17, 2014 @ 23:40:11

    Hey! Would you mind if I share your blog with my twitter group?
    There’s a lot of people that I think would really appreciate your content.
    Please let me know. Thanks

    Reply

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