The 2nd of Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins: Pleasure without Conscience.

A number of years ago when I first started graduate school, I was talking to a professor who had just purchased a brand new yacht.  This was nearly 30 years ago and I was pretty judgmental (I am hoping I am somewhat less judgmental today). I remember saying to him exactly what was on my mind:  “Don’t you feel guilty with all of the poverty and problems we are facing in this world, to spend your money on such an extravagant purchase?”  To this day (Perhaps, my continued naiveté) I remain both shocked and amazed at his reply.  “John, if I can afford it, I deserve it.”  I was shocked because it seemed so insensitive to the world’s problems and I was amazed because I had expected that someone who had earned a Ph.D. would have had a more reflective and thoughtful reply.  Instead, he simply parroted back to me what I had labeled as the “Protestant Ethic.”  According to Wikipedia:

“The Protestant work ethic (or the Puritan work ethic) is a concept in theology, sociology, economics and history which emphasizes hard work, frugality and prosperity as a display of a person’s salvation in the Christian faith. The phrase was initially coined in 1904 by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Somewhere in the course of the development of American Capitalism, guilt or perhaps conscience was replaced by the moral certainty that if you only work hard enough, you can spend your money as frivolously as you want to.  At least, this was the interpretation I drew and continue to draw from my understanding of the Protestant Work Ethic.  In some sense, I can understand this idea.  If you work hard, why should you not be able to harvest the fruits of your labor?  Why should you be expected to share with those who are less fortunate?  After all, how many of the “less” fortunate are “less” because of their own laziness, stupidity, inertia or lack of ambition?  Should I have to pay more taxes to support people who don’t want to work or whose entire goal in life is to eat their way to obesity, drink their way to liver failure or drug their minds to an out of this world zombie state?  Why should I have to put up with the lack of ethics that it would appear so many of the indigent and poor in this world have?  A study in England in 2009 found that:

Four out of five people see nothing wrong with stealing from their workplace – while more than half think it acceptable for a care giver to persuade an elderly person to rewrite their will, according to a new study.
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1211629/How-80-think-OK-steal-work-study-reveals-wavering-moral-compass.html#ixzz2RU850BbL

In some sense, the Protestant Ethic is a direct refutation of the morals that I had been given in my early Catholic school training. Perhaps, that is why Catholics and Protestants did not get along in years gone by.  I remember every lunch break being told by one of the nuns or sisters at my Catholic school to be sure to “clean my plate.”  When queried why this was so important I always received the same reply “Because of the starving kids in India.”  Somehow, I was expected to feel guilty for these starving children in some far away country who did not have enough food to eat.  Was it my fault that they did not have enough to eat?  However, it was okay if I cleaned my plate and did not leave any scraps.  Kind of reminds me of when I go to a Chinese Buffet and it says on the sign posted:  “Please do not take more than you can eat.”  I weight 147 lbs. and scrupulously (well, sometimes) obey this admonition.  I watch the 400 lb. plus people with plates that are stacked higher than the Eiffel Tower and I wonder if they saw the sign or is it simply that they are on a diet?  See, there I go again, being judgmental.

Well, here it is nearly 30 years later and the question I posed to my professor colleague still seems quite legitimate to me.  When is it okay to indulge?  When can I binge? When is it permissible to go buy my brand new Ferrari or brand new yacht?  What would Sister Evangeline say if she knew I was spending $350,000 dollars or more to purchase a new boat that I might only use two or three times per year?  What would Martin Luther say?  I can imagine Luther saying: “Well, John, don’t worry about it. You are supporting the economy. Every boat you buy is a job for some boat builder in India or Pakistan or some other place where the kids don’t have enough to eat.”  “Thank You Martin Luther, now I don’t feel so guilty.”  Hooray for the Protestant Work Ethic!

Here is what the Gandhi Institute has to say about this issue:

Pleasure Without Conscience: This is connected to wealth without work. People find imaginative and dangerous ways of bringing excitement to their otherwise dull lives. Their search for pleasure and excitement often ends up costing society very heavily. Taking drugs and playing dangerous games cause avoidable health problems that cost the world hundreds of billions of dollars in direct and indirect health care facilities. Many of these problems are self-induced or ailments caused by careless attitudes. The United States spends more than $250 billion on leisure activities while 25 million children die each year because of hunger, malnutrition, and lack of medical facilities. Irresponsible and unconscionable acts of sexual pleasure and indulgence also cost the people and the country very heavily. Not only do young people lose their childhood but innocent babies are brought into the world and often left to the care of the society. The emotional, financial, and moral price is heavy on everyone. Gandhi believed pleasure must come from within the soul and excitement from serving the needy, from caring for the family, the children, and relatives. Building sound human relationships can be an exciting and adventurous activity. Unfortunately, we ignore the spiritual pleasures of life and indulge in the physical pleasures which are “pleasure without conscience.”

Fromhttp://www.rabbitadvocacy.com/gandhi_teachings.htm

A person I really admire is the teacher and prophet OSHO.  OSHO also believes that all the violence in the world comes from the need people have to address the boredom and meaninglessness in their daily lives. People who are bored and who feel that their lives have no meaning turn to violence and or drugs in an effort to fill their lives with something that excites them or makes them feel alive. The problem with such stimulation is that it never really fills the void and as with any panacea it is only temporary. The void returns and the need to find new or greater stimulation also returns.  The cycle is not broken by the search for outside stimulation since the only real meaning of our lives must come from within.  No matter how great the wealth we achieve, no matter how many titles we accrue, no matter how famous we become and no matter how many people want our autographs, this kind of stimulation can never fill the void that we have if we do not find real meaning for our existence.

Let us pose the central issue here (Pleasure without Conscience) in the form of series of questions. Each question puts a slightly different slant on the issue:  Here are some ways to reflect on the issue:

  • How much pleasure is it okay to feel before I feel guilty?
  • If I am enjoying my life, should I feel guilty?
  • Do I have to feel guilty if I am feeling great pleasure?
  • Does a sense of conscience have anything to do with my personal pleasure?
  • Do I need to tie the concept of pleasure in with conscience?

Depending on which way we posit the question we will come up with different answers.  Try the exercise yourself and see what you find as your personal answers. For me, I would answer some of these questions in the negative and some in the positive. Nevertheless, such a pedantic method of addressing the issue actually ignores what I think Gandhi was really getting at.  I don’t think this is an issue of us not enjoying our lives or not finding pleasure but it is more of what I have come to think of as a “Happy Days” issue. Do you remember the sitcom that ran from the mid-seventies to mid-eighties?  It featured Ron Howard as a too good to be true teenager and Henry Winkler as a thuggish type of Greaser.   The term “Happy Days” was associated with how many Americans felt about the period of time between the end of the Korean War and the beginning of the Vietnam War.  Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, I Love Lucy and the Mickey Mouse Club show were only a few of the sitcoms to depict a happy America where all was right with the world and Americans knew only bliss and prosperity.

Those “Happy Days” for middle class White male Americans were not so happy for the rest of the world never mind the many groups and constituencies in the USA who were denied rights, served excessive prison terms, could not find employment and were often subject to abuse and/or lynching. I refer here to minority groups and women in the USA during our “Happy Days” period.  One could argue that either stupidity or a lack of conscience was a prerequisite for putting on “Happy Days” blinders. Kind of like those folks who miss the “Good Old Days” down south.  Those nostalgic summer days when the happy slaves would sing and dance all day long in the cotton fields.  At the end of the day, they would trudge happily home to their cozy cabins to sit by the fire-place and eat their fill of watermelon, sweet potato pie and Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Before going to bed, the young slaves would all have cute stories read to them by Uncle Remus.  Stories that would prepare the young slaves to get ahead in a world dominated by discrimination and non-citizenship.  No doubt migrant workers, women and many other minorities would have their own version of the “Happy Days” fantasy that dominated American Psyche for so long. In fact, there are many Americans who still believe in the “Happy Days” fantasy.

The point I am getting at is that no matter how you look at it, it is immoral and unethical to divorce Pleasure from Conscience.  To do so, is to be guilty of at best a form of benign neglect and at worst, a criminal conspiracy to keep other people degraded and denied the same opportunities as we might have.  Christians should all be familiar with many of Jesus’s teachings on this subject:

  • “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  Mark 10:25
  •  “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”   Mark 10:21
  •  “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”  Matthew 16:26

Clearly anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ could not put profit or pleasure above conscience. Jesus was all about helping others even at the expense of his own life.  His entire mission was to help those who were poor, sick or downtrodden.  Is there anyone who could do this without a conscience?  Perhaps we have focused too much in the past few decades on success and getting ahead.  This intense focus may have allowed many of us to put our consciences aside with the result that they seem to have atrophied or in many cases disappeared.  Too many people now measure success by how much money they have made and not how many people they have helped. Perhaps it is time we start focusing on conscience again.  Pleasure without conscience is simply hedonism.

Ok, time for questions:

What pleasures do you have that you may sacrifice your conscience for?  Do you think it is possible to have both conscience and pleasure?  What does it mean to have an “ethical” conscience?  Can we have too much conscience?  Do you think people should have more pleasure or more conscience?  Why?  What about yourself? Where do you fall on this issue?

Life is just beginning.

I wrote this blog more than four years ago.  Many have read it during the past few years.  With hindsight, I can see that we have gone further down the path.  Our political systems are rife with a lack of conscience.  Furthermore, this lack of conscience is justified by a “Prosperity Gospel” which preaches that:  financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. 

In other words, that God rewards increases in faith with increases in health and/or wealth.  Thus, if you are wealthy, you are a “true believer”, anointed by God and deserving of your wealth.  The poor and sick are not true believers and thus are deserving of their fate and little or no sympathy or help.

Too many of us have given up on conscience and have become more and more Amoral.  We don’t care what we do or the consequences of our actions as long as they are “legal.”  Unfortunately, the law has never been a good barometer for ethics and morality.  The law has too frequently been usurped by the rich and powerful to promote their own self interests.   A history of the Supreme Court decisions in the USA would show this truth as would the Nazi Laws in Germany during the 30’s or the slavery and apartheid laws that existed throughout history in many parts of the world.   Law does not make right.  It never did and it never will.

Happy Days Are Here Again?

happy-days-logo-1I like to think that my writing falls in the category of political and social satire.  I suppose I am giving myself more credit than I deserve since it is not easy to be a good satirist.  My spouse is always saying that my satire often misses the mark.  Nevertheless, I aspire that at least someday my writing can be compared to Mark Twain or perhaps Kurt Vonnegut.  I will have to leave it to my readers or at least posterity to find out if I ever achieve this lofty aspiration.  Who can judge the quality of their own writing without a large degree of prejudice?  (To hear the “Happy Days Are Here Again” song, click here.)

One element that seems typical of good satire (be it Mark Twain or Jon Stewart) is the ability to evoke humor in ones writings and ideas.  To make people laugh at the same time that you are getting them to see the absurdity of their viewpoints or society’s viewpoints.  You can have “dark” satire or “light” satire and in my opinion they form a continuum.  I think of Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut as falling on the darker side of this continuum and Mark Twain and Jon Stewart as falling on the lighter side.

pollyanna-glad-game-quote One of my goals is to keep a balance on my perspectives that helps me to fall more in the middle of this continuum.  I see being repeatedly on the light side as too comical or humorous.  I do not want to be thought of as a comic or entertainer.  I concede that these people can make a difference in the world as one of my early heroes was Lenny Bruce.  I think Lenny was a great comic and a great social satirist.  However, I do not see my nature as capable of embracing a very high degree of humor in some of the evil and stupidity I see in the world.  I have never been very Pollyannish.  I want to stay away from embracing a view of the world that resembles the “Happy Days” syndrome.  All is good, nothing is wrong, everything will be all right.  Just sit back and watch TV.  This attitude can lead to the pitfalls of complacency and neutrality.

6836-do-you-look-at-life-through-rose-coloured-glasses-i-crushedGetting repeatedly too close to the position of “dark” humor on this continuum also has its pitfalls. I think I have lost many friends along the path of life because I have sometimes become too critical and carping on the evils and stupidity of the world.  You start condemning evil and stupidity and before you know it, you are attacking people.  It is easy to start associating individuals with policies, ideas and positions that you loath.  Soon, you are surrounded by former friends who are all stupid and evil.  The final stage in this process is to see nothing but a world that is evil and stupid populated by evil stupid people.  Everyone in the world becomes your enemy.  The exact opposite of Pollyanna becomes your gestalt.

happiness in moderationI do not choose to follow either extreme.  I want to follow the Greek “Golden Mean.”  In ancient Greece the Golden Mean meant to pursue moderation in all things.  I don’t really want to hate all Republicans despite the fact that today I can see little good in the Republican Party.  Nor do I want to love all things associated with the Democratic Party.  In some ways, the Democrats have helped to create the Tea Party and Right-Wing extremists in the Republican Party. Though I doubt many Democrats would either see or confess to their culpability in this matter.  There has always been and there always will be excesses and vices in both parties.  Politicians of either stripe have more in common with each other than they do with the average middle class worker in this country or any country.

death of socrates bookI was really too honest a man to be a politician and live.” —  Socrates (Ancient Greek Philosopher, 470 BC-399 BC)

Things do not seem to have changed much in respect to politics since Socrates was executed for his anti-political beliefs.  Socrates openly expected the youth of Athens to challenge and question authority.  This stance was no more valued in ancient Greece then it is in 21st Century America.

Apocalypse revelationsThe title of my blog this week was meant to be somewhat humorous and somewhat satirical.  Hence the question mark on the end of the title is not an accident.  I know many people who think that the world has never been in a worse state.  One of my ex-friends kept reading Revelations to me and telling me that the world was going to end about a year or so ago.  Our friendship ended but the world did not.  I have other friends who say “Obama has ruined this country.”  Many Americans say that the USA is in decline and that the end days are near.  I don’t understand this negativity.  I understand that much of the world economy is coming out of a bad recession.  I truly see that the world has more problems than anyone can count on two hands.  We have poverty, war, famine, drought, global warming, disease, inequality, injustice, tyranny, evil of all sorts and a great deal of stupidity and ignorance.  Is there a silver lining in this maelstrom of disasters?

good_old_days_specials_magazineSome people believe that if we can only go back to the “good old days” that everything will be all right.  I don’t want to say too much about this option since I think it is a fantasy.  Only in the movies, can you go back in time.  Time marches forward and waits for no one.  Either get on the train or they will bury you where you stand.  We are not going to go back to pre-cellphone days, pre-internet days, pre-abortion days, pre-global warming days, pre-nuclear power days or pre-any other days.  We can only go forward.  We can embrace many of the old values that made our countries great but we must pay them forward.  We must embrace new values and blend the old and the new together in a modern version of the Golden Mean.  This is not an easy task.

I published a book about fifteen years ago that I called “The New Business Values for the 21st Century.”  The book did not become a best seller but it had several good chapters which IMHO have stood the test of time.  The basic idea for this book was based on a model that I called the “Five I Model.”  My mentor Dr. Gary N. McLean told me to always work from a model.  I tempered his advice with the advice of Dr. George Box that “All models are wrong but some are useful.”  My Five I’s included the following:

  1. Informationnew business values
  2. Improvement
  3. Innovation
  4. Inclusion
  5. Incentives

The premise of my book was that new organizations must revolve around these five key elements which I had elevated to the status of values.  I think these same five elements or values also pertain to building a great nation or great country.  I do not want to repeat what was in my book; you may still be able to find it on Amazon or E-Bay if you are interested.  However, one element that I think has significant relevance to this blog today is the 4th Value of Inclusion.

Inclusion is a value that embraces diversity and working together in a win-win fashion rather than working in opposition.  Inclusion abhors a culture or position of divisiveness such as we see in politics today.  In fact, many of the conflicts in the world today are caused by the divisiveness that is the enemy of inclusiveness.  Inclusion is a friend of immigration and not an enemy of immigration.  I have a T-shirt that reads “We need a fair immigration policy and not an anti-immigration policy.”  Too many of our politicians today are preaching a divisiveness that borders on hatred and bigotry.  I do not need to mention names here.  All you have to do is read the newspapers or listen to the TV to see the politicians that are preaching exclusion rather than inclusion.

We cannot go backwards into “happy days.”  We can only go forward.  To do so we must practice the old values that made our nations great alongside of the new values that have become critical to success in the new millennium.  My book addresses at least five of these new values.  Do doubt there are others.  I am not certain of what they are, but I am certain of what they are not.  They are not values that foster:

  • Exclusivity
  • Divisiveness
  • Inequality
  • Anti-intellectualism
  • Anti-immigration
  • Bigotry, racism, sexism or discrimination of any kind

There is a major US election coming up in the next fourteen months.  No doubt the news will be full of “trending” stories concerning the pros and cons of various candidates.  It will be easy for many of us to take sides.  He is a Democrat.  She is a Republican.  They are independents.  He belongs to the Tea Party.  She belongs to the Coffee Party.  Such identification can and will only lead to more divisiveness, more intolerance and a greater inability to understand the arguments that are often critical to a comprehensive solution that can result in a win-win.  There is an antidote to this problem.

I suggest we look at all of the candidates running for office and ask ourselves “Will they bring our country together?”  “How do they rank in terms of the new values?”  “How do they compare in terms of the negativity values in my list above?”   I offer that we need to care less about party affiliations and more about the values that we see our candidates espousing.  We are no longer a “New nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  The USA is nearly 250 years old now.  We can remain true to the values of our founding fathers only by realizing that it is now the 21st century and that there are new values that must be added to the old values that made our nation great. This truth applies to every country in the world.  The path forward can be to a future that will be a happier world for all of us to live in.  As Jesus said:

“No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  — Luke 9:62

Time for Questions:

What can we do to help create a better world for everyone, not just those in our country?  Which of the USA candidates for president do you think will most care about people?  Are you picking your candidate out of fear or distrust of the future?  What candidates will do the best to be inclusive, ethical and moral?  Are you supporting these candidates?  Why or why not?

Life is just beginning.

“Nothing brings me more happiness than trying to help the most vulnerable people in society. It is a goal and an essential part of my life – a kind of destiny. Whoever is in distress can call on me. I will come running wherever they are.”   — Princess Diana

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