Ethics and Moral Behavior
The basic productive interaction between people is to provide respect and to recognize the other's efforts. In the work place, the basic assumption is that each person expects fair compensation for one's efforts and the corresponding recognition for those efforts. At the start of the third millennium, the world is, in some ways, entering a time of economic disarray. Some of the world's troubles probably arise because of the lack of understanding those basic rules of human behavior.
The basic unit of human culture is a husband and wife. Anyone who has been married knows how critical the mutual respect and recognition is to maintaining the health of that marriage. Just as that environment is so important to a marriage, so it is for any close relationship - including close friends. If your partner or friend does not respect you, the closeness of that friendship will be very difficult to maintain.
As the context for any human interaction is examined, the importance of respect and recognition never lessens in importance. Consider a family, a tennis doubles team, a softball team, a football team, a work group. As a number of individuals seek to share a social experience or work toward a common goal, the respect and recognition will establish a firm foundation for those efforts.
Having identified what is probably the most important aspect of human interaction, next consider the various problems in contemporary economics. At the start of the 3rd millennium, corporate ethics and morality are often in the news, including executive misdeeds and their excessively expensive compensation packages. Some social columnists remark that there is a lack of morality and they have differing ideas on what that 'new' morality can be based on. Some look to a Biblical world view as setting the standard for human behavior. I take issue with that external reference as it is less relevant than the basic rules for human behavior that we all know and understand from our own experiences. Other pages in this web site also take issue with the Biblical world view and this page addresses another aspect.
Consider the start of the industrial age, just a few hundred years ago. As the human community moved from a rural context to an industrial context, the rules for behavior within this larger work group were not immediately appreciated. As certain businessmen became successful, they often took advantage of the less advantaged. In many business circles in the 18th and 19th centuries, there are many stories of mistreatment of workers (slaves, coolies, miners, sweatshops, etc.) just as there are stories of some people accumulating great wealth (robber barons). The less advantaged needed jobs so they had to accept what was offered, even though at very low wages, because families had to be supported. The wealthy took advantage of others, treating them with little or no respect and offering no recognition of their efforts, as they maintained their positions of power and influence.
The reaction of humanity to these conditions included several diversions - socialism and unions. Socialism attempted to rectify the situation by placing much more power in government, to restrict the excesses of businessmen. Unfortunately, when the entrepreneurial spirit (where each businessman seeks to find a community need that can be satisfied profitably) is banished for the sake of a central decision making center, the economic system becomes very inefficient and susceptible to corruption at that level. People that have a stake in their job will find ways to make improvements in the process and/or output (whether the output is a product or service). Without that stake, workers tolerate the job as it sustains their standard of living as there is no incentive to seek improvements.
Unions resulted when workers became willing to fight (and even die initially during the initial union struggles) for their jobs, to make the arrogant management recognize their worth and pay an equitable wage. However, over time, management became more aware of worker's conditions and one reaction to unions included better working conditions and better wages. More recently, some unions have become a burden on their companies, as they strive to maintain jobs even for those that are not willing to contribute to the company or for those whose wages are above what the job market indicates. These companies have difficulty competing because these unions provide an inefficient, uninspired workforce. The unions have lost their focus, whereas previously their role was to protect the workers from abuse, to now they protect inefficient workers from company influence, hindering the company from improving its resources, to better compete in its market(s). Some companies will offer their employees more attractive packages that achieve several goals: the employees will be happier and more loyal but also the resulting contented labor force will tend to keep out the unions that will hinder their business plans.
Management has also evolved into its own class within society. Many managers place their own interests above that of the company they are supposed to 'lead'. The recent Enron scandal is a good example of this, but I have seen many examples in my own work experience. Managers seek short term compensation to the detriment of the company and its employees. The common practice is for an incompetent/unethical high executive to be removed from that position, but usually after the company has been damaged (e.g., bad product, bad market reputation, poor employee morale, usually large staff reductions, etc.), and the dismissal often includes a very expensive compensation package. I have heard of a middle manager push hard to deliver product on time, though not ready, just to make incentives, causing the defective product to be shipped and subsequently fixed in the field. This greedy behavior tarnished the company's reputation, causing substantial expense to make field repairs, and subsequently workers lost their jobs due to the business downturn. I have witnessed many examples of poor behavior within all layers of management, that result in loss of jobs for the workers involved in actual production of the product or service. Managers, and those involved in the education of future managers, must recognize that their position of leadership is endowed on the understanding that they will 'lead' the workforce, not abuse it. Their business decisions are for the benefit of the company, thereby benefiting the employees that work there. If the only person benefiting from a business decision is the person making that decision to the detriment of others, then it is probably a poor decision - in an ethical context.
When studying economic theories, I have found that the libertarian approach makes sense. Each person's rights are most important. As long as each person's actions do no harm to others, then the government has no right to interfere. While a free economic system will result in the needs of the community being met, an economic system dominated by corporate influences lacking humanitarian consideration will not. The purpose of government is to police the community for those that would harm others. Unfortunately, this policing is often to protect those with power and influence from those that lack both. Ethical behavior must be based on human rights, not corporate rights. The recently enacted PATRIOT Act is a good example of the government seeking to trample on the civil rights of citizens with the goal of protecting those in power - thereby rendering the rights of those in government as more important than the rights of everyone else.
For hundreds of years in our Western society, the basic rules of behavior stem from the Ten Commandments, where Moses sought to provide direction for his rural illiterate culture with ten basic rules. Each is basically a rule of what not to do (like steal, kill, etc.). The basic concept was to behave such that the God, who was portrayed as the dictator ruling the world that he created, would not be offended. There are several stories in the Old Testament indicating that God was offended by human behaviors, resulting in God causing great catastrophes to ravage mankind. I think the time has come for a better foundation for our ethics and rules of moral behavior. It is not reasonable to expect to find appropriate rules of behavior in ancient writings for a society very different today. The cultures of 2000-3000 years ago were very different, being based on agriculture (to a great extent) and within a rather small geographical area. Primarily, each community interacted with other communities within only several hundred miles away (often less), and infrequent visitors beyond that. With the advent of the Roman Empire, and later that of the Moslem empire, trade was possible over much larger distances. However, the daily focus of one's life was still very local.
In the 21st century, the daily focus of one's life is much wider. We are aware of the weather within our continent daily. We are aware of religious and political conflicts throughout the world. We are aware of changing business conditions within our community, our state, our country and even beyond. Our children are taught world history, how the different cultures of the world changed over the centuries, and that understanding affects how we interpret those world events. Large companies continue to consolidate into even larger organizations, often with tentacles all over the world. The economic successes and failures in one country will affect other countries around the world.
When we acknowledge that we are a social creature, that we must live within both our local and global community, a different set of rules becomes apparent. Our behaviors must be directed to the benefit of our near and far social relationships.
Our behaviors must be portrayed within our communities, local and beyond. People who lie, cheat and steal are still very bad for the health of a community. However, people who take advantage of others to develop their own wealth are also very bad for the community.
There are far too many stories of businesses that behavior so unethically. Union Carbide in Bhopal, India; Pacific Gas and Electric with their use of chromium; the tobacco industry placing their profits higher than the health (and death) of so many cigarette smokers in the world and continuing to lie for many years about the known hazards; the nuclear power industry hiding the problems of nuclear waste; many other examples of pollution where the alternatives to the polluting item were too expensive for those in charge, to the detriment of everyone affected by that pollution. Such corporate behavior that harms other people should not be tolerated. This should not pass any accepted standard for ethical behavior.
The constitution of the United States (written over 200 years ago) recognizes that the American people can manage their own ethical behavior. The three parts of the American government were designed protect the system from abuse, as each monitors the others. The frequent elections make it more difficult for inefficient leaders to remain in a position of influence. (I must admit that career politicians have been able to trash some of the principles that our founding fathers expected of their future leaders.) The constitution allows itself to be amended so that changes that are required based on new technologies can be introduced into the laws being enforced. Not all nations in the world have advanced to this form of democratic government, where everyone can be involved in the civil process. Unfortunately, the nations still with a feudal form of government (like in the Middle East) have a difficult time dealing with modern technologies, and in many cases their peoples are not allowed the basic freedoms that should be commonplace because an informed populace will not tolerate the antiquated forms of government.
We need a new basis for ethics and moral behavior. That basis must come from the knowledge that we are all part of a human society. The basis is not in ancient writings for an illiterate people.
There are consequences from the belief in a life after death. The hope for a life after death leads to the perception that this life as a human being is like a 'one-night stand' - where the one-night experience is just a transient, perhaps meaningless, event within the bigger picture of life. The life after death expectation leads to the human existence having little meaning relative to a subsequent eternity as a spirit.
With this religious perspective, what is the guide for moral behavior? The reward for some is the afterlife. That results in a search for behavior that does not offend God. I have heard they live for the city of God not the city of Man - so the implication is their human culture is not as important as their perception of God's wishes. Unfortunately, for the many that doubt the God-dictator figure and the accompanying heaven/hell alternatives but are still burdened with the after life belief, there is not a good guideline.
The moral behavior guidelines come from the knowledge that we are all part of a human community. We are not isolated individuals. We rely on others for much of our human experience, especially our social interactions with others. Just as a rule 'thou shalt not kill' makes sense for any social organism, the rules for treating others with respect and recognition make sense for the human social animal. We are all unique individuals, with unique wants and desires, but our lives are intertwined with everyone around us. When the rules for moral behavior come from acknowledging our social structure then some of the social and ethical problems will be seen in a new light and our social structure will be better equipped to deal with those that behave immorally or unethically.
The last decade here in the United States has seen a widening of the economic classes. The rich are getting much richer (and the Bush administration is trying its best to help) and the poor are getting poorer. I find that social responsibility is in short supply among business managers. The owner of any business (or the top executive(s) of a public company) is obliged to accept some responsibility for the effects of that business on the lives of its employees and its community(ies). In too many cases, the top management of a company take millions of dollars from the company and its investors (Enron being a prominent recent example, but certainly not the only one). I have had the misfortune of working for several companies whose CEO nearly ruined the company just before leaving with an expensive 'golden parachute'. Such behavior should be considered criminal but our culture seems not to recognize moral duties and obligations. Many large companies are moving operations (and the associated jobs) to other countries. These actions can be a disaster for the employees involved as well as their community. The top managers try to justify their actions as being required for the company's bottom line - but so often the elimination of others' livelihoods results in their own financial reward. The real reason is often to find other cultures willing to tolerate lower wages at the same time as poor working conditions - perhaps with pollution as well. These managers are moving jobs because the Americans do not tolerate such inconsiderate treatment or such damage to our environment. Other countries have caved into pressure from businesses without realizing the consequences - or the foreign leaders bringing in these businesses care much more about their own compensation and less about the well being of their people.
I wonder whether the Business Administration programs in today's colleges teach the young managers how to advance themselves no matter the cost to others (or even to the health of the company). There must be the recognition of the important role that each business has within its community and it is wrong for today's managers to deny the inherent responsibilities that come with that role. (Please see my future society page for further comments on this concept of social responsibility.)
Can there be Good without God?
In April 2003, on Christian Family Radio, I heard a comment that without God, there is no definition of good. Without God, our values would be arbitrarily derived, and perhaps we would have a culture 'where we would eat our young like guppies'. I found the conclusion to be incredible.
The Biblical world view teaches that God brought guidance to humanity. However, the Bible consists of historical writings for only one cultural group, the ancient Jews. All the rest of world, which the Bible ignores, did not benefit from this supposed guidance. If good comes only from God then the logical conclusion must be that the rest of the world, not endowed with God's guidance, is probably many amoral savages.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world also possessed rational 'just as good' civilizations (of course, terrible human behavior can be noted everywhere at various times in history), untouched by the Biblical teachings, not many loners roaming the countryside having no understanding of social skills or of religion. Rather large communities were growing in the Americas and Asia. These communities did not grow without an understanding of community welfare, with different people taking on different roles based on their skills to tend to the health and growth of the community.
Not too many years ago, bones of an old Neanderthal were found. The bones were certainly old but so was the person at the time of his death. The bones revealed a person that would have been somewhat incapacitated, requiring help of others to survive. The conclusion to be reached from this archeological finding is that even these early human being already had a social structure. As a social creature, each person has a responsibility to contribute to the well being of others and this person survived only with the help of his community. In other words, even the early human beings (long before the time of Genesis) already had developed concepts of 'good' that we accept as 'good' even today.
As is explained elsewhere in the web site, humans are social creatures. Recognizing that social nature allows one to also accept that our basic values come from that nature.
Of course, each of us is also a special individual, with unique hereditary, cultural, and social influences. In just the last 100 years, there are been far too many atrocities in the world committed by people against other people (sometimes based on racial or religious grounds). The search for proper moral values will be successful not from within the Bible but when all of us recognize our social nature and acknowledge that our standards for proper moral behavior must come from that status as social beings.
The ongoing 'War on Terror' is tempting some people to justify their violent actions based on religious teachings, sometimes using interpretations of the Bible or the Koran. Humanity is showing that it still does not have the collective maturity to recognize the folly of such actions. Mankind should not be swayed by such feelings of supernatural guidance, where one side has God's backing while the other side does not. Many innocent people, including children (so humanity is, in a manner of speaking, still eating its children), are dying in such senseless violence. It is readily apparent that, even in the 21st century, 'good' is not coming from the Bible or the Koran.
The Nature of Man - Natural Law
In February 2004, I had the good fortune of obtaining the book: The Ethics of Liberty, written by Murray Rothbard. This was originally published back in 1982 but has been republished in 1998 with a new introduction by Hans-Herman Hoppe to highlight Mr. Rothbard's contributions to economic and libertarian thought. As Mr. Rothbard states in the book's preface: The focus of this work is on the positive ethical theory of liberty and of the outlines of libertarian law. The beginning of this book convincingly takes on the controversy that man's nature is a theological concept so it must be dismissed from any scientific discussion. For the purpose of this web page's topic, I must offer a quote from one of the book's early statements (page 17): If, then, the natural law is discovered by reason from the basic inclinations of human nature... absolute, immutable and of universal validity for all times and places, it follows that the natural law provides an objective set of ethical norms by which to gauge human actions at any time or place." The understanding of ethics does not require a religious influence.
In my day to day living, I consciously try to never lie, cheat, steal or vandalize. I behave this way not because there is a story about a man who many years ago went to the top of a cloud shrouded mountain and returned with a number of commandments engraved in stone tablets. I behave this way because it is obvious that this is the proper way to behave as a human being. If I cannot behave in such a manner to warrant trust and love then how can I expect others to behave the same. Such a moral standard helps my life to be emotionally satisfying. I behave rationally and I expect others to do the same - and in most cases they do. Other people are often something of a mirror of yourself.
Even if the Moses story has any truth in it (about getting tablets while at the top of the mountain) this is not a story of mankind getting the rules for moral behavior from God. Before that moment, all the cultures around the world were not cannibalistic savages. The rules for rational moral behavior were already known by most cultures since they are readily apparent to anyone learning how to interact with their families and neighbors. All that Moses was doing was putting some of the important rules into a form of writing for his followers. Written laws are easier to enforce than verbal laws. I often hear that the Biblical world view is the only one for good moral values but that claim is a complete misunderstanding of that Biblical story.
created - Oct. 2002
last change - 12/05/2004
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