What the Hell Do We Need Morality For?

morals and ethics

This blog is about the subject of morality.  Once upon a time, they taught morality in school and in church.   The first system of morality that many older Americans were exposed to was probably the “Ten Commandments.”   This was a code of rules given to the Israelites by Moses on Mount Sinai.  I have always thought it ironic that a set of morals from the “Old Testament” was supposed to be the foundation for a Christian America.  Even today, advocates of this code of morality want to hang it in town halls, schools, courts and government centers.  This is a part of the Bible that promoted an “eye for an eye” and stoning adulterers.

Jesus did say “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).  Jesus added at least one commandment to all others that was even more valuable than the ten TenCommandmentsMoses gave.   Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John: 13:34).  I would be much more in favor of seeing this posted in my neighborhood than the Ten Commandments.

Perhaps even more importantly in terms of a system of morality, Jesus gave a sermon where he proposed what has been called:  The Eight Beatitudes:   (Click here to hear the The Beatitudes Song

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  —- Gospel of St. Matthew 5:3-10

It is my opinion that the Eight Beatitudes constitute one of the greatest systems of morality to come out of the Bible.  I would rather see these taught (if we are going to teach a system of morality) than the Ten Commandments.  I would also not mind these being posted in schools and other public places whereas I am sick and tired of those who want to post the Ten Commandments.

I noted that once upon a time, we taught morality in schools and churches.   Actually, we not only taught morality but morality was also imbued in our social fabric by many traditional stories and the media.  Children from an early age were exposed to Fairy tales, Uncle Remus stories, Aesop Fables, and Tales of the Arabian Nights.  These stories were full of morals on how to live and behave properly.  Early TV was also full of morality tales.  Shows like Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver and Andy Griffith each week clearly conveyed stories of morality and what was right and what was not right in terms of behavior.

sin-guilt-causes-body-pain-sicknessSomeplace along the way, we started losing our sense of morality.  Some have blamed it on becoming a multi-cultural environment.  Some have blamed it on the decline of religion and church going.  Some have blamed education while still others have blamed progress and a business culture that has no room for strict morality.  I am not sure what the actual cause was.  I am more concerned that it did happen.  Studies have shown that our culture has become more amoral than moral and that narcissism now plays an increasing role in our society.  People are less moral and more self-centered than ever before in the history of this country.  A book by Joel Marks (Ethics without Morals: In Defense of Amorality -Routledge Studies in Ethics and Moral Theory, 2012) is one of several that makes an argument for amorality:

“In clear, plainspoken, engaging prose, Joel Marks presents the case for abandoning belief in morality. Anyone who wants to defend the practice of making moral judgments will have to confront the issues Marks raises, and the alternative to morality he proposes.” – Mitchell Silver, University of Massachusetts, Boston, USA 

In the book “The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality (2009)” the author Hans-George Moeller advances the following case for amorality:

“Justice, equality, and righteousness—these are some of our greatest moral convictions. Yet in times of social conflict, morals can become rigid, making religious war, ethnic cleansing, and political purges possible.  Morality, therefore, can be viewed as a pathology—a rhetorical, psychological, and social tool that is used and abused like a weapon.”

In an article “Why Is Narcissism Increasing Among Young Americans?”  by Peter Gray in Freedom to Learn (2014), Gray notes the following:

“For the past three decades or a little more, researchers have been assessing both narcissism and empathy using questionnaires developed in the late 1970s.  Many research studies have shown that scores on these questionnaires correlate reliably with real-world behavior and with other people’s ratings of the individuals.  For example, those who score high in narcissism have been found to overrate their own abilities, to lash out angrily in response to criticism, and to commit white-collar crimes at higher rates than the general population.[1]  Those who score low in empathy are more likely than the average person to engage in bullying and less likely to volunteer to help people in need.[2.]

Over the years, these questionnaires have been administered to many samples of college students, and analyses that bring all of the data together reveal that the average narcissism score has been steadily increasing and the average empathy score has been steadily decreasing ever since the questionnaires were developed [3.]  The changes are highly significant statistically and sufficiently large that approximately 70 percent of students today score higher on narcissism and lower on empathy than did the average student thirty years ago.

What accounts for this historical rise in narcissism and decline in empathy?  There is no way to know for sure, based on the data, but there are lots of grounds for speculation.”

I think we have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bath water.  I agree we need to keep the State separate from the Church.  I also agree that we don’t need the Ten Commandments as the foundation for moral thought in America.  Nevertheless, I do believe that we all need a code of morality to live by.  Whether it be Christian, Buddhist, Confucian, Agnostic, Atheist, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, Baha’i, or other, we need a set of morals as a template and foundation for our behavior.  We need a baseline that each of us can start from so that we can assess what is good and what is right.  We need to have some system of ideas about what is correct behavior and how we should live in a socially interconnected world.

When I was a kid, (somewhere along the way) I was taught the Seven Deadly Sins.  Sometimes they were called the Seven Deadly Vices or the Seven Cardinal Sins.  I assume that since I attended a Catholic school, it went along with the teaching.  The Seven Deadly Sins included the following:

  • Lust
  • Gluttony
  • Greed
  • Sloth
  • Wrath
  • Envy
  • Pride

7 deadly sins

Some of you might think that this list is old fashioned or out of date.  How could this set of implicit moral values make a difference in our society?  They are so old; do they really have any relevance anymore?

Take a close look around you at the world.  You have only to look for a few minutes to persuade yourself that these “sins” are at the top of the list of major problems.  Greed, envy, gluttony and lust appear pervasive in our culture.  (See my series on Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins) TV shows, movies, magazines, radio, supermarkets, superstars, sports, credit services, escort services, pornography, Las Vegas all portray an American brand of materialism that is nothing short of sick.  Get it now, get it fast, and get more and moreMore is better!  Bigger is better!  Shop till you drop!  He who has the most toys wins!

“If necessity is the mother of invention, then surely greed must be the father. Children of this odd couple are named: Laziness, Envy, Greed, Jr., Gluttony, Lust, Anger and Pride.”  ― John R Dallas  Jr.

Black Friday ( The day after Thanksgiving in the USA) is only a small manifestation of the greed, lust and sloth that has infected our society.  How many Americans have a regular exercise schedule?  How many obese citizens can you count on the street each day?  How many Americans spend more each week then they earn?  How many Americans will go in debt this Holiday Season to spend money that they don’t have on gifts and toys?  Where is the self-restraint that is necessary to push oneself away from the table or shut the TV off and say “Enough.”  It barely seems to exist.  Is it any wonder that so many countries have a very negative stereotype of the “average” American?  We appear to be a group of people who have lost our moral compass.

ARTICLE 29 —  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

  • You have a responsibility to the place you live and the people around you-we all do. Only by watching out for each other can we each become our individual best.

At this point, you well may be asking “What right does he have to be so damn moralistic?”  Didn’t Jesus say “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?”  “Are you so perfect that you have a right to look down on other people?”  “Who does he think he is, Jonathan Edwards?”  “I don’t need anyone telling me my faults.”  “I get enough negativity from work without having to get it from you.”

Please allow me to clarify a few misconceptions.  In some religious circles we are all sinners.  Since I am agnostic, I don’t subscribe to a religious view of sin.  My use of the terminology is borrowed from the religious sphere since I think that the concept of sin has a very useful connotation if we can free it from some of the pejorative and negative associations with which it is fettered.  First of all, I do not believe that you will go to hell for committing these Seven Sins.  Second, you will not be a bad or evil person because of them.  Third and accentuating the positive, you may be happier and healthier if you are more aware of these “sins” and can do a better job of examining the role that they play in your life.  My bringing these “sins” out is to help us all become more aware of the morality that we have allowed to become obscured in our daily lives.

There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.  —-Buddha

We have had a decline in morality that started over one hundred years ago and it still seems to be declining.  More people are worried about their taxes increasing then the poverty facing many people in this country.  More people are worried about their security then the number of people going to jail every day for victimless crimes.  More people are worried about the price of gasoline then the pollution we send into the atmosphere every day.  Self-centeredness has become a dominant fixture of the American landscape.  “Greed is Good” says Ivan Boesky and everyone applauds.

If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.   — C. S. Lewis

Why do I think we should care about morality? 

goodevilWithout morality, we are not even as good as animals.  Animals eat, drink, sleep, procreate and fight when they have to.  They do not do it simply to hurt other animals or to wage war against groups or individuals that they cannot tolerate.  Animals care for their young and exhibit many characteristics of moral behavior.  In captivity, animals may display much more aggressive behavior.  For instance, Orcas in the wild have never been observed to kill other Orcas.  This is not the case for Orcas in captivity.  There is no such thing as civilization without a commitment to moral and ethical behavior.  Even animal societies are proof of this.

“I am Envy, begotten of a chimney-sweeper and an oyster-wife. I cannot read, and therefore wish all books were burnt; I am lean with seeing others eat – O that there would come a famine through all the world, that all might die, and I live alone; then thou should’st see how fat I would be! But must thou sit and I stand? Come down, with a vengeance!”  ― Christopher MarloweDoctor Faustus

Without morality, we have no compass to define what is good behavior and what is bad behavior.  We are reduced to the level of opportunists willing to take advantage of anyone and anything that suits our ends.  Listen to the current debate on the use of torture and the recent CIA report and you will find numerous “experts” advocating that the “ends justify the means.”  One man on NPR noted that he thought we should ask the victims of the Twin Trade Towers what they thought about the use of torture to capture Osama Bin Laden.   John McCain (May he Rest in Peace) once said it best when he opined in Congress (12-9-14) that “”Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.”  Nevertheless, he was opposed by his own party in his opposition to torture and in fact to even releasing the CIA Tortmoralityure Report. 

Many Republicans argued against releasing the report, especially as the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria grew and U.S. intelligence officials had warned that its release could cause backlash from nations and groups hostile towards the nation.   American embassies in the Middle East had been put on heightened security alert for its release.

McCain replied that “This report strengthens self-government and, ultimately, I believe, America’s security and stature in the world.”  (CNN 12-9-14)

Finally, without morality, there is no way to transmit values from one generation to another.  A lack of morality has led to the increase in amorality that is now symptomatic of our society.  Amorality is a set of beliefs which deny the value of morality or at best are indifferent to morality.  A rock is amoral.  It is neither good (moral) or bad (immoral) but may be used for either purpose.  Anything or anyone without a conscience is amoral.  It is a fine line and one that is very easy to trespass between amoral and immoral.  Many people today may think their behaviors are amoral when actually they could better be described as immoral.  Harken back to the Seven Deadly Sins and ask yourself, how many of these vices are amoral?  Are greed, gluttony, lust and wrath amoral?   Can anyone with a good conscience say it is okay to partake in these vices?

“Seven deadly sins,
seven ways to win,
seven holy paths to hell,
and your trip begins

Seven downward slopes
seven bloodied hopes
seven are your burning fires,
seven your desires…”
― Iron Maiden

Time for Questions:

What is your moral code? What are the three most important morals in your life?  Do you think everyone should have an explicit moral code?  Why or why not?  Do you know many amoral people?  What do you think about amorality?  When is it justified?  What do you think the world would be like if everyone was amoral?  Would it be a better world or worse? Why?

Life is just beginning.

“Remember tonight… for it is the beginning of always”  ― Dante Alighieri

The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave?

Repeat the words in the title anywhere in the world and they are immediately recognizable as referring to the United States of America.  As Michael Medved loudly proclaims on each of his shows:  “And another great day in this, the greatest country on God’s green earth.”  It is my guess that you have never thought about where the phrase “land of the free and home of the brave” comes from.  Of course, it comes from our national anthem but where did the words originally come from?  Were they from some patriot during the Revolutionary War or from the War of 1812?  Actually they came from a lawyer and amateur poet, Francis Scott Key.  He penned them as part of a poem he wrote in 1814 which was originally titled:  “Defense of Fort McHenry.” 

The poem was set to the tune of a popular British song written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a men’s social club in London. “The Anacreontic Song” (or “To Anacreon in Heaven“), with various lyrics, was already popular in the United States. Set to Key’s poem and renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner”, it would soon become a well-known American patriotic song.”  — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Star-Spangled_Banner

Today, we naturally assume that the words refer to our penchant for American independence and heroism.  Our unique ability to save the world from itself and to right injustices wherever they are found.  Our vaunted American exceptionalism that gives us the moral right and categorical imperative to influence and insert ourselves in events and places the world over.  No one dares to question (or at least few in this country) the right of America to influence politics throughout the world.  No one questions the assumption that we are only in it for the greater good of humanity.  How could anyone from the “land of the free and the home of the brave” do otherwise?  Where our boots tread, soon follows democracy and prosperity, right?

But what if the “land of the free and the home of the brave” was not the reality anymore?  What if it was more accurate to say that today America has become the “land of the guarded and the home of the fearful.”  Since 911, Americans have seemed to retreat behind a cloak of ongoing surveillance and security measures that could become the greatest detriment to freedom, this country has ever faced.  As Benjamin Franklin so wisely noted; “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”. 

So I have decided to do some first-hand research and go visit a few “average” Americans.  I took a little road trip across Wisconsin to find some true patriots and to see what they think about our country.  Are we really scared and fearful?  Are we willing to give up our freedom for security?  Have we become more xenophobic?  To answer these questions, I stopped at diners, coffee shops, rest areas, truck stops, libraries and Denny’s Restaurants to visit with real Americans.  Not the 1 percent who make their money from stocks and bonds, but the hardworking “Joes and Janes” who make their money the old fashioned way, by the sweat of their brows.  I will briefly post a few excerpts here from some of my interviews.

Roxanne:  The Full-Time-Part-Time Worker:

I met 36 year old Roxanne in a booth in Mc Donald’s where we talked over a Big Mac, fries and a shake.  Roxanne is a divorced mother of two school aged children whom she is raising with the help of some grandparents.   She works both a part-time day job at Benny’s Cleaners and a part-time night job at Wal-Marts.

John:  Let’s cut to the chase Roxanne. What do you think about America today?

Roxanne:  Well, John, its dam hard to make a living, I can tell you that. Without my grandparents helping me, I don’t know how I would get by.

John:  Do you think we have too much security and not enough freedom?

Roxanne:  I don’t know, seems like there is never a cop around when you need one.  I had a fight with my boyfriend the other day and called the cops, but it took them over 30 minutes to get to my place.

John:  What do you think about the Russians, Iraqis, Mexican Cartels and Obama?

Roxanne:  I think they should all go back to the countries they came from and leave us alone.

John:  Did you vote in the last elections?

Roxanne:  Who was running?

John:  Thanks Roxanne – got to go now.

Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.”  — Mark Twain

 Pete:  The Carpenter

I met Pete while stopping to fill up my gas at a Pilot Station.  I noticed the painted sign on his pick-up truck which read “Carpenters keep it up longer: Call Pete for a good job.”  I offered to buy him a coffee if he would answer a few questions.  Pete was 54 years old, married with four kids. One daughter was still living home with him.  She had been married and was now divorced.  Pete’s wife worked part-time as a church secretary.

John:  So Pete, what do your kids do?

Pete:  Well, one boy works with me when I need extra help. One daughter is married and lives out of state.  One daughter lives with us and the other son works nearby at a local manufacturing plant as a night supervisor.

John:  Do you think this country has provided enough opportunity for them?

Pete:  Yeah, I guess so

John:  What do you think about the economy Pete?

Pete:   Sucks.

John:  I guess a lot of people would agree with you there.  What are your biggest worries for the future?

Pete:  Paying my mortgage and taxes.

John:  Are you worried about freedom and security.

Pete:  Nope, got a concealed carry permit and a good stockpile of ammunition.

John: What do you think we should do about immigration?

Pete:  Send them all home.

John:  Well, thanks for your time Pete.

True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else.” — Clarence Darrow

 Bob:  The Tea Party Member

Bob is a 47 year old accountant. He is married with wife and no kids.  I met Bob at a local café that I had stopped at on my journeys.  He was wearing a t-shirt that read: TEA: Taxed Enough Already.   I sat down at the counter next to Bob and struck up a conversation.

John:  So you belong to the Tea Party?

Bob:  Yeah, joined about five years ago.  I am fed up with big government, taxes and the present no ethics politicians running this country.

John:  So how is the Tea Party going to change things?

Bob:  Well, for a start we are going to only elect politicians that support our views and are not going to compromise away what we stand for.

John:  So what do you stand for?  I know you hate taxes but is that all?

Bob:  Well, here look at this card.  It says it all.

John:  The card Bob gave me read as follows:

Our Core Principles

Tea Party Patriots stands for every American, and is home to millions who have come together to pursue the American Dream and to keep that Dream alive for their children and grandchildren.

What unites the Tea Party movement is the same set of core principles that brought America together at its founding, that kindled the American Dream in the hearts of those who struggled to build our nation, and made the United States of America the greatest, most successful country in world history.

At its root the American Dream is about freedom. Freedom to work hard and the freedom to keep the fruits of your labor to use as you see fit without harming others and without hindering their freedom. Very simply, three guiding principles give rise to the freedom necessary to pursue and live the American Dream:

John:  That sounds very good Bob, but I don’t see a lot of progressive thinking coming from the Tea Party.  Seems like you guys are more against things then for things?

Bob:  That’s because we want to go back to the way this country used to be run before the bureaucrats, illegal aliens, liberals and socialists took over this country.

John:  What about health care and education and social services for the needy?

Bob:  This country is full of free loaders who sponge off the hard working Americans who work for a living.

John:  So you don’t believe that there are truly needy people out there in this country?  What about new immigrants?

Bob:  No one gave me anything or my grandparents.  They came over to this country with just the shirts on their backs.  People used to believe in hard work and honesty.

John:  What about education?  It is barely affordable anymore.

Bob:  That’s because we give all of these free scholarships to students from other countries and the high salaries that those lazy professors make.  Do you realize most of them work less than ten hours a week?

John:  Well, thanks for the opinions Bob.  Time to go!  You have a great day.

 “Let us take a patriot, where we can meet him; and, that we may not flatter ourselves by false appearances, distinguish those marks which are certain, from those which may deceive; for a man may have the external appearance of a patriot, without the constituent qualities; as false coins have often lustre, though they want weight.”  — Samuel Johnson

Cassie Jean:  The NRA Member

Cassie Jean is a 33 year old single woman who works as an Assistant Manager in a small bakery.  I talked to Cassie Jean while she was on a break over coffee and a cigarette.  I had stopped for donuts and a rest break.  Cassie Jean rides a 2002 Honda Shadow 600 motorcycle.  She is an avid hunter and a card carrying member of the National Rifle Association.

John:  So Cassie, what was the last thing you killed?

Cassie Jean:  Well, got me a good sized buck this past fall and a nice turkey this spring.

John:  How long have you been shooting?

Cassie Jean:  Ever since I was a little girl.

John:  Why do you belong to the NRA?

Cassie Jean:  They protect our rights.  You know the Second Amendment.

John:  Isn’t that about militias?

Cassie Jean:  People have the right to arm themselves.   If we let them take our guns away, we will have no protection.

John:  Protection from what.

Cassie Jean:  The wackos and socialists.

John:  What about our army, National Guard and the police department.  Isn’t their job to protect us?

Cassie Jean:  They work for the liberal socialists that are destroying this country.  The only thing that stands between them and us is our guns.

John:  But what about all the gun violence in this country?

Cassie Jean:  If more people were armed, there would be less violence.

John:  How do you figure?

Cassie Jean:  Well, would you screw with someone who had a gun?

John:  But what if no one had a gun?

Cassie Jean:  Over my dead body.

John:  Well, you sure make good donuts.  Take care and happy hunting.

Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear – kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor – with the cry of grave national emergency.”  — General Douglas MacArthur

 Dick:  The Mechanic

Dick is a retired Ford mechanic who worked for a small Ford garage in upstate Wisconsin for over 30 years.  A bad back and a desire to enjoy more of life convinced Dick to retire early.  Dick is a strange sort of man as he does not like hunting or sports but enjoys literature and particularly good poetry.  He is a connoisseur of fine wines and good music and never misses an opportunity to travel with his wife Paula to see new places.  Dick belongs to a group of retired men who hang out at a local library where they can get free coffee and an occasional donut.  Despite his lack of a formal education, Dick is knowledgeable and well versed on many subjects.  His views would surprise many.

John:  What’s new Dick?

Dick:  I am going to Russia!

John:  For real?

Dick:  Yep, I like the way Putin is running things.  No BS in that country.

John:  What about freedom of speech and freedom of religion?

Dick:  Religion is a farce, just a bunch of know nothing do-gooders trying to live off the backs of hardworking people.

John:  What about freedom of speech?

Dick:  No one listens to you here anyway unless you are a billionaire.

John:  I don’t think Putin would tolerate unions and I thought you were a union man?

Dick:  Unions used to help people now most of them are just parasites as well.

John:  You sound like a libertarian.

Dick:  I don’t belong to any party.  They are all useless.

John:  When are you leaving for Russia?

Dick:  Soon

John:  How soon?

Dick:  Not soon enough.

John:  Well, I imagine many of your friends would hate to see you leave.

Dick:  Yeah, well I can send them a postcard.

John:  Do you think the libraries in Russia would have a men’s group and free coffee?

Dick:  I don’t know.  I will talk to Putin about it when I get there.

John:  Well, if I don’t see you before you leave Dick, have a good flight.

Conclusions:

I arrived back to my starting point in Frederic Wisconsin after several days on the road.  Truly, I cannot say I had any great insights into the subject of freedom and liberty.  My “random” sample of “average” Americans would not satisfy even a lazy graduate student much less a hard core researcher.  Nevertheless, my total observations have literally been based on hundreds of such conversations over the past ten years.  My interviewees are a composite of dozens of people whom I have met and talked to from the shores of Coon Lake in Wisconsin to the rocky Casa Grande Mountains in Arizona.

Numerous books attest to major changes taking place in our country.  Are we going backwards, forwards or perhaps sideways?  Are things getting better or worse?  Are we still the place that everyone wants to immigrate to?  If not, what has changed?  We are surrounded by apocalyptic visions.  The USA will be overrun by illegal immigrants.  Socialists will take over the country.  Fascism will become the norm.  The end days are near and the Messiah will return to judge the good and the evil.  The poor will rise up and destroy America.   The country will become one vast prison with drug addicts and drug dealers on every corner.  No one will be able to afford health care or education.  Terrorists will infiltrate and bomb our most prized establishments.  The country will give in to Sharia Law.

With such gloomy visions of the future, is it any wonder that many people are fearful and ready to sacrifice their freedom for security.  More and more Americans live behind walls either in a prison or in a gated community.   Neither prison walls nor community walls seem to protect us from our worst enemies which may be ourselves.

Beck – It’s All In Your Mind, music video         (Love this Song, click on here to listen)

Time for Questions:

Have you felt things are getting better or worse in this country?  Do you think we need more or less patriots?  Do you think most people professing patriotism are really patriots?  What do you think makes a good patriot?  What do you think makes a “bad” patriot?  Where do you stand on patriotism?

Life is just beginning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 4th of Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins: Commerce without Morality.

Several years ago, a movie was made called “The Corporation.”   It is a documentary film written by Joel Bakan, and directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott. The film examines the modern-day corporation.   It considers its legal status as a class of person and evaluates its behavior towards society and the world at large as a psychiatrist might evaluate an ordinary person. The films thesis is explored through numerous examples and interviews.  Bakan wrote the book, “The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power,” during the filming of the documentary.  I highly recommend this film.  I have shown it in many of my classes and used numerous excerpts from the film to illustrate key points about corporate behavior and the history of the corporate concept.  If you are interested in watching the film, you can do so on YouTube at:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y888wVY5hzw

Most people do not realize it but the modern corporation and rules governing its behavior were not developed until the middle of the 19th century.  True, there were charters and rules governing businesses since the middle ages, but corporate law as we know it today is only about 150 or so years old.  The main point of the film is that despite not being human beings, corporations, as far as the law is concerned, have many of the same rights and responsibilities as people do.  Corporations can exercise human rights against individuals and the state,and they can themselves be responsible for human rights violations. 

However, while people have hearts, emotions, feelings and consciences, corporations do not.  While human behavior and codes of conduct have been developing since the Stone Age, the codes of conduct for corporations are practically non-existent.  Witness how Enron subverted their entire ethics process to allow the company to pursue almost unlimited degrees of immoral and unethical behavior.  In most corporations, the ethics statements are followed only when convenient and never if they conflict with the prime directive: “Make Money.”   Business schools may teach one class on ethics but seldom do students come away with any true sense that there must be an underlying morality to commerce.  Most students yawn their way through ethics since experience has already shown them that business ethics are expendable.  Noted economist Milton Friedman is famous for his criticism of business ethics and social responsibility for corporations.  According to Christine Travis, Friedman makes two key points in favor of his theory.  The first is that there is no uncontroversial morality.   Business owners are not ethicists and thus are not equipped to make ethical decisions.  Secondly, Friedman argues that maximizing long term self-interests will actually bring out the greater good.  (See Travis’s paper Philosophy: Summary and Explanation of Milton Friedman’s Stockholder Theory” for more depth on Friedman’s perspective.)

It is easy to see that Friedman’s theory has nuances which are valid but that there are gaps in his reasoning that allow too wide latitude of behavior.   If we argue that entrepreneurs, managers and business owners are not ethicists, we may as well allow that most people are not ethicists.  True, there is wide interpretation of what is moral and what is immoral but the same can be said for any system of morality and standards. Nevertheless, we would not want our children to grow up believing that because they were not ethicists they could discard any standards of behavior.  The proof of any theory may be in the pudding.  In this case, we can see the results of 100 years of corporate behavior and I suspect that the results do not portray business people in a very favorable light.  In fact, in terms of most admired and least admired professions, business people usually find themselves ranked among the “sleaziest professions.

20 Sleaziest Ways To Make a Living (http://scientificmarketingandadvertising.com/marketing-articles-least-admired-professions.html)

  1. Drug Dealer (0.61)
  2. Crime Boss (0.99)
  3. TV Evangelist (1.19)
  4. Prostitute (1.24)
  5. Street Peddler (1.45)
  6. Local Politician (1.52)
  7. Congressman (1.58)
  8. Car Salesman (1.59)
  9. Rock Star (1.72)
  10. Insurance Salesman (1.76)
  11. Union Leader (1.89)
  12. Wall Street Executive (1.92)
  13. Real Estate Agent (1.92)
  14. TV Executive (1.94)
  15. Oil Company Executive (1.94)
  16. Lawyer (1.97)
  17. Soap Opera Star (2.00)
  18. Movie Star (2.00)
  19. Broker (2.00)
  20. Prison Guard (2.02)

Real Estate Agent, Wall Street Executive, TV Executive and Oil Company Executive all rank in the list of twenty least admired professions.   If you go to the link above you can also find the 20 most admired professions. There is not one business occupation in the list of 20 most admired.  The article that this list is drawn from explores the question of “What can we learn from this list?”  The answers seems to support the thesis developed by Bakan that businesses do not have an incentive for morality and thus giving them “rights” as human beings poses a threat to our society. 

Let’s take a second to see what the Gandhi Institute says about Commerce without Morality: 

As in wealth without work we indulge in commerce without morality to make more money by any means possible. Price gouging, palming off inferior products, cheating and making false claims are a few of the obvious ways in which we indulge in commerce without morality. There are also thousands of other ways in which we do immoral or unethical business. When profit-making becomes the most important aspect of business, morals and ethics usually go overboard. We cut benefits and even salaries of employees. If possible we employ “slave” labor, like the sweat shops and migrant farm workers in New York and California where workers are thoroughly exploited. Profit supersedes the needs of people. When business is unable to deal with labor it begins to mechanize. Mechanization, it is claimed, increases efficiency, but in reality it is instituted simply to make more money. Alternate jobs may be created for a few. Others will fall by the wayside and languish. Who cares? People don’t matter, profits do. In more sophisticated language what we are really saying is that those who cannot keep up with the technological changes and exigencies of the times do not deserve to live–a concept on which Hitler built the Nazi Party. If society does not care for such people, can we blame them if they become criminals?

One of the key points that I glean from the Gandhi Institute is that Gandhi was against “Profit superseding the needs of people.”  Friedman would argue from the enlightened self-interest perspective that they are the same.  If the corporation takes care of profit, it takes care of people by creating jobs and value for the society.  The proof of value creation is evidenced by the fact that only corporations that make a profit survive.  People are free to choose where and what they spend their money on.  Thus if they support Corporation X over Corporation Y, it is because they perceive more value for their money in doing so.  This argument would have more merit if people had access to perfect information and were perfectly rationale.  However, since people are often deceived and given erroneous information and since Madison Avenue has built up numerous ways to convince people to spend money against their best interests, Friedman’s argument is perpetually, inevitable and indubitably doomed to failure. 

The primary force that protects human existence and all of humankind has been and always will be moral behavior. No amount of police, regulations, lawyers, prisons or inspectors will ever be enough to replace the moral force of human conscience and caring for other human beings.  Corporations have no incentives or mechanism to be kind to anyone unless it somehow provides a path to increased profits.  On the numerous occasions when this is not possible, profit trumps concern for employees, concern for the country, concern for the environment and concern the future of humanity.  The proof of what I am saying has been demonstrated time and time again.  You have only to pick up the morning paper to see yet another example of short-term corporate thinking and focus on greed above the well-being of any other factor.

Just to test my own hypothesis, I turned to CNN Money.  What did the headlines show today?  A list of The Top Twenty Most Profitable corporations in the world!  Would it surprise anyone to find that out of the top ten, there were four oil companies?   The price of gas keeps going up, but our dependency on the gasoline engine driven by the greed of the oil companies insures that there is still a steady stream of profits to the largest oil companies.  Whose well-being is being served by the outlandish incentives that continue to drive the oil industry?  Is the oil industry an example of “corporate morality?”  I doubt few would say yes to this question. 

To conclude, Gandhi believes that Commerce without Morality is a sin or social blunder.  I think it has shown itself to be an unmitigated social evil.  Our present laws do not provide an adequate solution to this problem.  A corporation is not a human being and should not be treated as a human being.  It is time we rethink the laws developed in the 19th century to govern corporate behavior.  It is time to put human well-being as the primary directive for all corporations and not the making of profit.  We cannot be blamed for putting the cart before the horse because we have never really attached the horse to the cart.  There is no mandate for a corporation to be either moral or ethical.  Any statements to the contrary are simply straws in the wind. When the accountants look at the ledgers, profit trumps every other card in the corporation.   Can you imagine if we simply judged people by the same standard?  Those people who made the most money were rated as the most well-adjusted and socially responsible people.  Is this what we want our culture and society to be remembered for?  Simply how much money we made!  I think our Founding Fathers would roll over in their graves at the thought. 

Ok, time for questions:

Do you think the Oil Industry is guided by a set of moral or ethical codes? Should it be?  Do you think corporations have an incentive for ethical behavior?  If so, I would love to hear your comments on this question either way.  Do you think we can change our corporate law to make them more responsible? Should we?  Why or why not?  Would you want the caption on your grave stone “I made a lot of money?”

Life is just beginning.

 

Next Newer Entries

%d bloggers like this: