What it means to be free

Embed from Getty Images

 

In my reading of the early free will debate it became apparent that our modern notion of ‘free’ is quite different from that of the Greek philosophers.

For us the freedom of a ‘free will’ implies an unbounded capacity, the absence of limitations, the ability to pick and choose according to our own desires.

But for earlier thinkers, those who laid the foundations of the ‘free will’ concept, to be free meant to be rational, wise, and virtuous.  Free did mean the absence of limitations, but only the kinds of limitations that stop us from acting and being as we ought.  The apparent paradox is that wise and virtuous people have no freedom in the modern sense: an honest person is not free to tell a lie. We might even say that virtuous people are ‘enslaved’ by virtue, and the wise have no choice but to act according to wisdom.

The ancient understanding of freedom was built around a normative sense of human potential and human virtue, just as a doctor’s understanding of health is built around a study of the correct functioning of the human organism.  ‘Free’ was defined in that context, not in a modern context of existential doubt and an overarching relativism.

Freedom for them was like the free movement of a joint. In a state of health your shoulder should be free to move within its proper range.  If you dislocate your shoulder you may be able to extend it beyond its proper range, but this would not be considered ‘free movement’.

Ultimately, this ancient idea of freedom is grounded in an equally deep understanding of what is good for us, such that being free means having an unrestricted opportunity to pursue and enjoy these goods.

It certainly casts a different light on our contemporary sense of freedom and individual autonomy, which is less about the content of our choices and more about our sense of power and sufficiency in the face of obstacles and limitations.  The modern idea of freedom and autonomy puts an emphasis on overcoming and avoiding obstacles at a cost to our understanding of wisdom and virtue.  It’s why so many people apparently choose to have Sinatra’s “My Way” sung at their funerals.  In the end we take comfort not from diligently pursuing something greater than ourselves, but from what is essentially an egoists self-justification set to an uplifting melody.

I think on some level we know that virtue is a kind of limitation, which is probably why we fear it. Not only is virtue difficult to achieve, but it means giving up attitudes and actions that, for most of us, are the substance of our lives.  To be free of our attachments and desires is indeed an intimidating thought.

 

 

The moral betrayal of corporate dysfunction

Embed from Getty Images

The previous post on careerism sparked some thoughts about my past employment.

My own recent employment was as a researcher within a corporation that did not understand research, but wanted at least to feel like it was doing research, or failing that, wanted to be seen to be doing research.  By the time my employers decided to make their entire research staff redundant, they had, by my estimation, achieved merely the even lesser goal of being seen to want to be involved in someone else’s research.

In the previous post I quoted Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme, suggesting that careerism takes hold when an employer cannot tell the difference between work that is good enough and work that is better.  In my experience this problem was magnified a hundred fold as what was considered ‘good enough research’ from a business perspective would not have been considered ‘good enough’ in a genuine research context.  To be perfectly honest, it wouldn’t even have been considered ‘research’, and I joked with my colleagues that at best it could merely be described as ‘search‘.

It reminds me of an excerpt I read from a book about PTSD: ‘Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character‘ by Dr Jonathan Shay.  In it he explains that the roots of trauma lie in the subversion of the soldier’s moral world, as when in the Illiad “Agamemnon, Achilles’ commander, wrongfully seizes the prize of honor voted to Achilles by the troops.” Shay illustrates his point through the story of a patrol team during the Vietnam War that opened fire on three boats that were suspected of unloading weapons.  When morning came, they found that the boats were merely fishing vessels, and in one veteran’s words: “we found out we killed a lot of fishermen and kids.”

What got us thoroughly fucking confused is, at that time you turn to the team and you say to the team, “Don’t worry about it. Everything’s fucking fine.” Because that’s what you’re getting from upstairs. The fucking colonel says, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it.” Y’know, uh, “We got body count!” “We have body count!” So it starts working on your head.

[…] So you know in your heart it’s wrong, but at the time, here’s your superiors telling you that it was okay. So, I mean, that’s okay then, right? This is part of war. Y’know?

[…] They wanted to give us a fucking Unit Citation – them fucking maggots. A lot of medals came down from it. The lieutenants got medals, and I know the colonel got his fucking medal. And they would have award ceremonies, y’know, I’d be standing like a fucking jerk and they’d be handing out fucking medals for killing civilians.

The circumstances could not be more different, but the underlying psycho-social dynamics are remarkably similar.  In my case, I and my fellow researchers were given tasks that turned out to be dismally below standard in research terms, but we were told by our manager and senior colleagues “this is part of business”, “we’re kicking goals”, “we’re putting runs on the board”.

Despite knowing on a deeper level that this was not the way to do serious research, it is true that such talk from one’s superiors starts working on one’s head.  Maybe they have different standards? Maybe this is good enough on a business level?  Maybe we really are doing a good job from their point of view?  And in the end, you find yourself standing there like an idiot while the CEO or some other senior executive offers a glowing endorsement of all the ‘ground-breaking research’ our team had been involved in.

By that stage, I think it’s quite reasonable to feel – as I did at the time – that an organisation which rewards such incompetence is beyond help.  In particular it is beyond, and would most likely be antagonistic to, correction by a junior member of staff who just happens to bear the misfortune of knowing what real research looks like.  Like the veteran in Shay’s book, these experiences of moral dysfunction within an organisational hierarchy leave many subordinates bitter, cynical and disenfranchised, while less scrupulous employees choose to cling to the facade of success and achievement for their own ends.

The more I learn of others’ experiences, the more I am inclined to appreciate the peculiarities of my corporate experience: being a specialist in an organisation incapable and perhaps even unwilling to make use of my specialist skills.  It’s like a person who signs up for an expensive gym membership, uses it once or twice ineffectually, and then lets it lapse.

No doubt it’s bad enough being a corporate stooge in a dysfunctional corporate world, but being a philosopher and researcher – a veritable fish out of water – made the dysfunctional corporate experience all the more painful.  While my colleagues and I have each lamented the lost opportunity and squandered potential of our prior employment, I’m increasingly sure that in terms of corporate culture and dysfunction our experience was, to borrow from World War II military slang, SNAFU: situation normal, all fucked up.

The awe-full truth of human dignity

Dignity

“It’s dignity! Gah! Don’t you even know dignity when you see it?” ~Credit: Sophie Vourlos (“A Milhouse Divided” S8E6)

My latest piece on MercatorNet.com looks at the other-worldly essence of human dignity:

a true appreciation of dignity can amend not only the abstract but the personal: spend some time sincerely meditating on, imagining how your whole world, the world where you are the centre of the universe, is reduced to a bit part in the mind of every person you meet from your own family and friends to complete strangers reading your online comments. Try imagining how you look from their perspective, how big or how small a presence you are in their reality, and the result is almost guaranteed to be utterly humbling.

Discovering the New Age author within

In the past I toyed with the idea of becoming a ‘spiritual writer’ or producing self-help books, but held back because I thought it wasn’t enough to be able to talk the talk. I’ve since learned that actual virtue, enlightenment, or profound wisdom and compassion are not necessary; you only have to tell people that you have these amazing qualities, and maintain the appearance of having them. It turns out that the only obstacle to pursuing such a path is being able to live with yourself while you tell people things they want to hear in exchange for money.

When I was devouring religious and mystical texts in my youth the boundaries between mysticism and early New Age figures were quite flexible. You could go from reading books on Zen and Sufism to something on the ‘Fourth Way’ of George Gurdjieff, and assume he was someone who had followed the same path: studying diverse sects and texts and arriving at a method that captured the essence of a spiritual path without the pitfalls of ‘organised religion’. (It turns out that Gurdjieff’s students – in particular his female students – were less successful in avoiding the pitfalls of charismatic, idiosyncratic, sexually exploitative ‘spiritual teachers’.)

Likewise, many books on self-help and psychotherapy took inspiration from Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist themes, or from a kind of syncretic Jungian melange. Such texts were derivative of religious themes, and right or wrong, seemed sincere in their intent to go deeper into the nature of the mind and of reality. I read many such books, bringing an undergraduate philosophical approach to their logic and structure, keen to find any unique elements or novel perspectives that might shed light on my own experiences. Some of it was genuinely helpful, and quite amenable to an individual already committed to questioning and pondering the meaning of life and the nature of reality.

So when I read German spiritual author Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”, I could see pretty clearly what he was doing. All the elements were there, if not quite of the “Hero’s Journey” then at least the “New Age writer’s journey”: a troubled youth, a period of intense questioning and despair, a plunge into ‘the abyss’ a la the Dark Night of the Soul, a return in the guise of the Holy Fool who sits on park benches in a state of enlightened bliss, a career dispensing wisdom that grows organically, and finally a book that hits the New York Times bestseller list after an all-important endorsement from Oprah.

In terms of temperament, Tolle would most likely be melancholic – an idealist shaped by his struggle with existential despair. In terms of provenance, the esoteric tone and content of Tolle’s work are reminiscent of his early theosophical influences, reportedly through the work of the German theosophist Joseph Anton Schneiderfranken.

Best described as “a sort of New Age re-working of Zen”, Tolle’s work has some interesting ideas in it, but if it weren’t for the Oprah endorsement might well be sitting in relative obscurity commensurate with the arcane tone of the book.

I have a bit of a soft spot for Eckhart Tolle. He looks like a mole that has just climbed out its burrow and is sitting, squinting and disoriented in the daylight. Others have described him as ‘elfin’, but I think the word they’re looking for is ‘gnome-like’.

As such, he lacks the choleric self-confidence of his New Age comrades, those who fall more in the ‘motivational speaker’ and ‘personal development’ categories. Writers and speakers like Dr Wayne Dyer, who counters Tolle’s depressed, esoteric, European persona with the broad openness and plain talk of an American self-made man. If Tolle is gnome-like, Dyer looks like he might eat a gnome. There’s nothing especially esoteric about Dyer’s work, and his focus on motivation, success, and opportunity with a spiritual vibe are well suited to an American audience.

I’m not suggesting that either Tolle or Dyer are frauds, but surely at least one of you reading can see how easy it would be to fake and embellish a rich spiritual journey, and begin projecting to others the kind of enlightened guru they want to see?

The public appetite for spiritual nourishment is unabated despite or perhaps because of the challenges to traditional Christianity in Europe, the US, and indeed Australia. I’ve seen first-hand that people can be astoundingly credulous, willing to believe anything that bears Oprah’s Imprimatur, while reserving their cynicism for the religion of their birth.

With an estimated net worth of $15 million and $20 million respectively, Tolle and Dyer demonstrate there is no longer any need to associate spiritual wisdom with temporal poverty. So do you want to become a New Age writer? The audience is willing to believe – you just have to believe in yourself.

Self-defense as an ethical ideal

The pacifist dilemma is that non-violence leaves us, as individuals and communities, subject to oppression. One of the favoured examples against non-violence is that Ghandi’s ahimsa only worked because the British were not truly bad people. Ahimsa would never have succeeded against a more brutal regime like that of Nazi Germany. From a spiritual perspective, ahimsa is not about what ‘works’; arguing that non-violence ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’ presumes non-violence is about ‘working’, which it is not. Pacifists are generally resolved to embrace the bitter consequences of their philosophy, harbouring no illusions that their path can be both moral and utilitarian.

True pacifists deserve respect, but there is nonetheless a perfectly reasonable ethical distinction to be made between violence and self-defense. If my life and my health are good for me, then I have a right to enjoy these goods. Accordingly, no individual may have a countervailing right to harm these goods or take them away. Unjustified aggression is therefore ethically illegitimate, and the target of that aggression is right to defend against it, to protect their own life and the lives of others.

In defending against unjustified aggression, the target of our defensive actions is not the person, the aggressor, himself. Rather, our aim is the act of aggression, the violence. Hence a legitimate use of defensive force must be constrained by these ethical limits:

– it must be proportional to the threat.

A sense of threat is always somewhat subjective, but in ethics as in law, there is a ‘reasonable person test’ by which defensive actions will be judged. If someone shoves you at a party, it is not – all things being equal – proportional to hit him with a bar stool.

– any injury caused must be an unintended side-effect of self-defense.

In order to stop someone from hurting you or another innocent person, an appropriate use of defensive force may result in injuries to the aggressor. These injuries, though foreseeable, are considered ethically acceptable so long as one’s overriding intention is to defend, not to injure. In medical ethics this is known as the principle of double-effect, the recognition that good actions sometimes have foreseeable yet unintended negative effects.

Some people see self-defense as an excuse for violent retaliation, an opportunity to injure others with moral impunity. This is not true self-defense. If we do not abide by the principles of self-defense, we cannot walk away from a violent confrontation with a clear conscience.

At the same time there is something elegant about this view of self-defense: in merely defending the sphere of your own life and rights, it is the aggressor who bears moral responsibility for the harm and injuries that befall him as a result of his own violent intentions.

Violence and the masculine ideal

In the previous post I linked to a column on violence and gender at the New Statesman by a columnist named Glosswitch – “a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.”

I’m not qualified to comment on the intricacies of feminist theory, but as a father and a man I hope I’m not remiss in taking issue with Glosswitch’s claim that:

Rarely is it argued that since men are particularly vulnerable, they should not go out alone at night or drink above a certain limit. Since men are, potentially, both victim and perpetrator, it seems we’ve resolved to let them fight it out amongst themselves.

As a parent of boys, I find this disturbing. While those raising girls might be faced with the awful yet relatively straightforward paradigm of vulnerable girl/evil world, for those of us with sons it’s more complex. If I attempt to protect my son from his own aggression and that of others, aren’t I pushing him towards “girl” status – the status of a victim? But if I toughen him up and prepare him to fight, am I not just creating another aggressor in a world where over 90 per cent of them are male? As long as masculinity remains powerful, it seems there will never be an in-between.

As a powerfully masculine man myself, it appears the author has fallen into a false dichotomy. It is not the case that men must either be a victim or a perpetrator of violence, because we also have the option of self-defense.

Self-defense is a perfectly legitimate and well established use of force with both legal and moral precedent. Furthermore, defense of self and others is traditionally regarded as an ennobling and virtuous application of masculine power.

The author is right to worry that promoting non-violence will leave her sons vulnerable in a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world. But her false dichotomy of victim/perpetrator pushes her towards a gender-based critique of violence that pins individual security on the hope of an ideologically transformed society.

Do you want your son to kick or be kicked? As long as we maintain our obsession with gender, the choice has to be between aggression or victimhood, masculinity and femininity stripped bare.

Anyone familiar with the theory and practice of self-defense will know that there are alternatives to ‘kick or be kicked’ – alternatives that begin with making informed choices about one’s environment. People interested in self-defense will indeed point out the dangers of being overly intoxicated in the wrong venues at the wrong time. A cursory inspection of violence statistics will demonstrate the increased risk of assault that comes from being out drinking in the early hours of the morning.

For people interested in self-defense, violence is genuinely an unwanted escalation, yet something we ought to be prepared for. I’ve met a number of men involved in martial arts over the years, and their unanimous opinion after years of ‘toughening up’ and learning how to hurt people, is that we should avoid it as far as possible: run away, apologise, humble ourselves, call for help, in order to avoid a fight.

None of these people wish to become victims, and many of them are well prepared and capable of using force to defend themselves. But nor are they remotely inclined to become aggressors, using violence to victimise others.

It is a concern when people promote a view of ‘violence’ that ignores the moral distinction between aggression and self-defense. A man can be tough without being callous, powerful without being violent. Perhaps there are ideological reasons for ignoring such options, but I for one will have no qualms in teaching my son the how’s and why’s of the legitimate use of force. And if I had a daughter I would teach her exactly the same thing.

Reason and reality – a talk

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to give a talk at the local Guild of St Luke, an association of Catholic Health Professionals. I was asked to speak as an ethicist, and it gave me the opportunity to revisit some of the most intriguing themes from my bioethics days.

For those who don’t know, Catholic health professionals work in a difficult environment these days. There is a growing push to remove conscientious objection rights from the medical profession, presenting people with an all-or-nothing dichotomy: violate your conscience or give up being a doctor. It’s good that such associations exist to give support and encouragement not only in a Catholic context, but in the broader domain of ethics and ‘best practice’.

Here’s the basic text of my 15 minute presentation:

At university I wasn’t impressed by ethics. I was more interested in mysticism: reading John of the Cross, Zen Buddhism and everything in between.

What I learned from studying ethics at uni was that we couldn’t rationally defend our moral beliefs because of the is-ought problem; the fact value distinction. You can prove a fact, an ‘is’, but you can’t prove an ‘ought’. As Nietzsche wrote: “there is no such thing as moral phenomena but only moral interpretation of phenomena.”

There might be no way to rationally demonstrate that I should do something, or should want to do something. But I still had a sense of the difference between good and evil. Even if I couldn’t prove it, or convince others, I could choose to follow this intuition. It wasn’t until after university, through my work at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, that I came across a system of ethics which resolved the is-ought problem. It was through the work of a neo-Aristotelian named David Oderberg, that I learned it was in fact possible to rationally demonstrate and elucidate moral principles.

The key is the observation that human beings all desire happiness, though they may never agree on what happiness is. This desire for happiness is a fact, an ‘is’. We are hard-wired to pursue what we believe will make us happy. This observation is the bridge from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. It is a fact all human beings share, from which we can derive the kinds of moral statements that are otherwise philosophically so contentious. Given that you want happiness you ought to do the things that will bring about true happiness, and avoid things that undermine it. How do we identify these things? Through logic, observation, and experience. This is the substance of ethics.

Along the way I picked up other principles and approaches that complement this ethical system: most significantly, the philosophical method of argument from first principles.

You see, in university I was struck by scepticism [an attitude of doubt, or a belief that true knowledge is impossible] and solipsism [the idea that only my own mind can be sure to exist, from solus ipse ‘self alone’]: two approaches that emphasise the limitations of our knowledge. How can we be sure of anything? How do we know the world is not a dream or illusion? Can we trust our senses? Is experience reliable? If you take on board too much scepticism, there is very little you can say. Scepticism can lend itself to a kind of relativism – an approach where the standard of truth are hard to pin down and the boundaries of knowledge and speculation disappear.

Modern philosophers are, if nothing else, very good at analytical coherence. They may not know if you are right or wrong, they may not agree on what right and wrong even mean, or if they even exist; but they can at least tell if you are being consistent and coherent. In a world of philosophical disagreement, you must at least agree with yourself.

As with the fact-value distinction, it can be hard to nail even the most coherent philosophising to the ground. Hard to bridge the gap between complex theorising and simple reality. This is where first principles become so important, especially in the practical approach to ethics – the difficult task of working out what I ought to be doing.

The first principles include:

1) An object cannot both be and not be, at the same time and in the same way.

2) Every effect has a cause, and every cause has an effect.

3) A thing is what it is.

These are basic observations of reality, and form also the basic principles of reason.

1) The principle of non-contradiction: a statement cannot be true and false at the same time, and in the same way.

2) The principal of sufficient reason: everything must have a reason or cause.

3) The principle of identity: A is A, every thing is what it is.

Knowledge of these first principles in reason and reality shows that reason and reality are connected. Our reason, logic, is derived from and a reflection of the logic of reality itself.

This is truly profound. And the more I reflected on these principles the more coherent and dynamic and integral they became. In order to speak and think rationally, we must respect these principles. If we don’t then not only are we being irrational, we are being unrealistic.

Reality – coming from the Latin res – simply means ‘all things’; the rules of reality are the rules all things obey. Not the physical rules but the deeper ontological rules. Things do not simply come into and out of existence for no reason. Objects are not both square and round, or both big and small, in the same way and at the same time. All things obey these rules, and these are the same rules or principles we acknowledge is the basis of reason – our reason.

Is it a coincidence that Christian Scripture and the early Church chose the Greek term logos – the principle of order, the active reason pervading and animating the universe, the anima mundi – to describe the son of God, through whom all things were made, and whose life is the light of men?

For me this was the point at which philosophy and Christianity first intersected, a coming together of natural and revealed theology. In practical terms, and remembering ethics as practical reasoning, this understanding of the logos at work in reality and in our own minds is one of the most reassuring, comforting, and inspiring things one could hope to learn.

It means that no matter how difficult life may become, this universe, reality itself, is not absurd. The stones themselves cry out in the language of reason, declaring the first principles and thereby telling us something of the nature of our maker.

Reason is some part of the life and nature of God, the ipsum esse subsistens; and in our participation in reason, I think we are more truly taking part in the life our creator intended for us. Any philosopher will, I hope, attest to the joy and delight of elevated reason.

The ethics of management: hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is defined as:

the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case.

In ‘The Prince’ Machiavelli argues that it is much better to be seen to be virtuous than to actually have virtue”

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

In my experience, a corporate environment encourages the same duplicity. The values may differ – more popular keywords like ‘communication’, ‘connectedness’, and ‘creativity’ replacing traditional ones – but the pressure to keep up appearances is as real in business as it is in politics. It is not necessary for a manager to have these corporate qualities, but it is necessary for a manager to appear to have them.

Sometimes there’s an aspect of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ at play. No one has the courage (or rather, the disregard for their own career prospects) to tell a seemingly enthusiastic superior “I have no idea what you’re talking about”. But the difference is that the emperor believed in his clothes, whereas a hypocritical manager merely pays them lip-service.

Nonetheless, lip-service is powerful. Studies such as the Asch Conformity Experiment have shown that most people will change either their belief or their external behaviour to conform with majority opinion; how much more so when majority opinion is reinforced with financial and career considerations and the authority of a corporate hierarchy?

Hypocrisy in a superior is demoralising. The problem with a manager who is adept at “claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case”, is not that such a facade actually convinces people, but that it hides the truth, coerces conformity, and prohibits genuine communication. A manager who likes to gush gratuitously about how “I love my team!” is either a simpleton, on the verge of a mental breakdown, or very clearly demonstrating the tone of discourse she expects from her subordinates.

I once had a manager who was put in charge of a research department despite having no research qualifications or experience. In this context, hypocrisy translated into publicly talking up the supposed research goals and achievements, with liberal use of terms such as “world’s best practice”, “evidence based”, “rigorous”, and “validated”, while at the same time lowering the bar in terms of actual standards of evidence and methodologies employed, under the guise of ‘business priorities’ and the need to ‘kick some goals’.

Such was the magnitude of this hypocrisy that we, the researchers, mistook it for ignorance. Surely no one in their right mind would falsely claim such objective research standards? Surely the manager was just naive or confused? It took a long time, given our minimal one-way communication with our manager, to confirm that she had never intended for us to do real research in the first place, and though ignorance of research had clearly played a role in claiming such high standards, the gap between PR and reality was seemingly of no real consequence to our manager, the business, or the supposed mission of the ‘research’ enterprise of which we were a part.

By the time we confirmed this, no less than the Chairman of the Board had already publicly described as ‘ground breaking research’ a piece of work so hamstrung and hobbled by a ‘business’ mindset that it hardly warranted the label ‘research’, let alone the embarrassing hyperbole of ‘ground breaking’.

Yet this vindicates management hypocrisy: it was indeed beneficial for our manager to be seen to have presided over ‘ground breaking research’ without the uncomfortable necessity of having to actually facilitate such research, with its impractically indefinite timeframes, dangerously uncertain outcomes, and awkwardly un-businesslike ethos. Much safer to initiate a project with predetermined outcomes and just tell everyone how ground-breaking it was. The Chairman of the Board might be right at the top of the corporate pecking-order, but when it comes to assessing the merits of alleged research he was, ironically, as susceptible to the hypocrisy of middle-management as we, the researchers.

Last I heard, our former manager was still in charge of a research department with dedicated admin support and business development personnel, but no actual researchers. The irony is delightful, and entirely appropriate to the business ethos of style over substance.

In the end Machiavelli was right, hypocrisy is indeed of great advantage to the Prince. But in embracing hypocrisy the Prince becomes a contemptible creature without moral or intellectual integrity.

Coherence of character

In ethics we typically look at actions rather than people. But part of ethics involves understanding what actions can tell us about the people who perform them.

Confucius said:

Look at the means he employs, observe the sources of his conduct, examine what gives him comfort – where can he hide? Where can he hide?

In other translations: “In what way is a man’s true character hidden from view?”

We can indeed separate a person’s actions from their character, but when a person’s actions become habitual, or are chosen ‘freely’ without external constraint, then we can also make assessments or at least hypotheses about their character.

Someone might lie to you once under pressure, and we forgive it. But if they lie regularly, we recognise that this is somehow their habitual response, part of their character. Likewise, if someone lies when they are not under pressure, ie. they lie gratuitously, we realise there is something wrong with them personally.

Let’s say for the sake of the argument that a person is habitually manipulative and a liar at work, yet seems to be a ‘good mother’, friend, or partner in private contexts.

Typically we try not judge someone ‘as a person’ because we may not see the full picture – they may exhibit different qualities in different contexts. However, I would argue that a) behaving differently in different contexts can most likely be coherently explained, b) it is possible that some people behave incoherently/inconsistently, and c) either a or b actually further implicates the person’s character.

Let me explain:
If someone is willfully manipulative of others in a work context, I would not be at all surprised if she is equally manipulative in other private contexts. I would never broach this in public of course, but we can take the disarray of a person’s private relationships as another ‘data point’ in an ongoing assessment of their character.

If she is *not* equally manipulative in a private context, there must be reasons. The reasons may be that her manipulations are only really motivated by money or by power, and her private relationships at present do not happen to impinge on those motives. Yet in theory there would always be potential for the line to be crossed.

If, on the other hand, someone truly behaves inconsistently, this is far from a redeeming feature. Inconsistency is not a good character trait, not a virtue. There’s a story of a senior Nazi officer who would quite happily murder Jewish children and then go home to his own young family and be a ‘loving father’. There is no virtue in this…the fact that he didn’t murder his own children, or the fact that he didn’t feel any love or mercy toward the Jewish children…in either case, he clearly had some kind of deep incoherence in his psyche. Call it a lack of ’empathy’ if you will.

Let’s say I lie to everyone at work, but I never lie to my wife. There’s no real merit in this, unless perhaps I constantly struggle not to lie to my wife, and in that sense am fighting with the ‘thin end of the wedge’ in my lying behaviour more generally. But if I am stable in my behaviour, lying to others but not lying to my wife, I am either acting out of an irrational incoherence, or I am acting rationally according to some arbitrary moral principle such as “you can lie to anyone *except* your wife”, or something more utilitarian such as a need to have my wife’s support in case everyone else turns against me.

Such character assessments should never be taken as a definitive judgement or total condemnation of an individual. But the fact is that a person’s character cannot remain hidden, and for our own sake we can draw reasonable conclusions about how a person is likely to behave in future.

As Confucius’ schema suggests, a person’s ‘true character’ can be ascertained from their actions, motives, and where they turn for comfort. In a truistic sense, we can tell how a person is likely to be by observing how they already are.

The ethics of management: honesty

Two readers have asked me to elaborate on the earlier post in which I touched on the issue of ethics in management.

Ethics in management is a subset of ‘business ethics’ or ‘corporate ethics’ in general.  As someone with a great deal of experience in bio-ethics, I have to admit that business ethics never struck me as particularly complicated.  Whatever challenges business may face, they pale alongside the complexity of issues such as human cloning, xenotransplantation, or ectogenesis, to name a few.

I assume (let’s call it an educated guess) that ‘business ethics’ is just a matter of applying regular ethics in a business context – the kind of problems that could be resolved merely by not ceasing to act like a good person during your day-job.  So let’s start small and see if we can devise some applications for ethics in the realm of business.

Honesty

In a previous role with a corporate not-for-profit aged-care provider, the manager once emailed our team of eight to organise a meeting with the director of our department.  The email included the time and date, noting in advance that two of our colleagues would be busy and unable to make it, with ‘apologies’ suitably noted. It was unusual for our director to want to see us, so I emailed the manager to ask what the meeting was about. “Just a catch up” she replied.

On the day of the meeting the director and an HR manager arrived at the office where I worked with two of my colleagues.  The HR manager’s presence was slightly ominous, as was the non-appearance of our own manager, or any of our other colleagues.  As it turned out, the email setting up a ‘team meeting’ was a ploy to ensure the three of us could be made redundant without any fuss, awkwardness, or opportunity for difficult questions.

To identify this as an ethical lapse would sound naive in a business context.  No one would be losing any sleep over the fact that our manager told us a blatant lie.  Anyone we might complain to would see the complaint as merely a reflection of our bitterness over having being made redundant, and would interpret the ethical critique as a churlish attempt to throw mud at our former manager.

So perhaps the need for ‘business ethics’ is real after all – not because business throws up unique ethical challenges, but because people acting under the auspices of professional authority need a specific reminder that ethics still applies.

In a business context the fact that our manager so obviously lied to us would not be viewed as an ethical failure, but simply as how she chose to deal with this particular management scenario.  She could potentially be criticised for her management style, but even then the lie would be viewed merely as a tactical failure, not a moral one.

If we were friends or relatives instead of subordinates, the lie would take center-stage.  No one would critique her ‘friend management style’ as though there are a number of techniques and tactics for controlling and manipulating one’s friends; they would immediately recognise that the moral issue of honesty was the point of concern.

The Ideal

Why is it wrong for a manager to lie to her subordinates?  We could spend all day looking at a number of contentious ethical theories, but let us confine ourselves to the understanding that honesty is a virtue.  As a virtue, honesty is the habitual inclination toward the truth.  An honest person prefers truth over lies and acts in accord with that preference.  Lying is a breach of that virtue, and an unrepentant lie suggests a dishonest character. Naturally, a dishonest person cultivates distrust in those around her.  Looking back through the two years we worked with that manager, it is now unclear if anything she ever said to us was worthy of trust.

In this sense, a dishonest person is bad for subordinates and colleagues who cannot trust her, and bad for superiors who cannot rely on her.  Distrust and unreliability are bad for morale and undermine the culture of the organisation.

But more importantly, dishonesty is bad for the individual herself.  Dishonesty means routinely putting other motives ahead of the truth. It is a sign of a disordered soul that does not value the truth and can no longer preserve a sense of reverence or even obligation to the truth.  It also signifies a lack of respect for others, a callousness towards colleagues, subordinates, and superiors that ultimately implies a deeply egoistic individual.  Whatever her deepest motives, a manager who lies is simply a person who lies; and a person who lies has a disordered soul.

An organisation that encourages its employees to lie – either tacitly or overtly – is itself disordered.  But the reality is that any ‘organisation’ is, in ethical terms, no more than the sum of its parts.  That means a director who encourages a manager to lie, or a colleague who turns a blind eye to it, are increasingly complicit in the dishonesty at play.  It is not possible to hide behind the organisation any more than it is a viable excuse to be a passive bystander to some kind of group violence.  We cannot look at others being lied to or otherwise deceived by a colleague, say “glad it’s not me!”, and then move on with ‘business as usual’.

Ultimately we too are culpable for making ourselves accomplices to such deeds.  A dishonest manager wreaks havoc on her own character; colleagues who excuse or rationalise such behaviour as ‘just business’ damage themselves in the process.  At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves who and what we wish to align ourselves with: powerful people who have forged careers with scant regard for the truth and respect for others?  Or do we prefer truth and respect over money and influence?

What price do you put on your own good character?  And do you truly recognise the price you are already paying for your dishonesty?  These are hard questions, and they are meant to be.  Ethics is not about basic rules or protocols, but about the substance of your own life – what kind of person you are, and what kind of person you are becoming.  The problem with business ethics in general is that when money is involved we lose our normal sense of priorities.  We act as though the organisation shields us from culpability. But this sense of being ‘shielded’ is already a kind of damage to your psyche.  It’s an unsubstantiated dissociation from one’s own moral sense.  It is what allows dishonest people to thrive, and honest people to let them.  Can you imagine what would happen if every employee of an organisation took personal moral responsibility for their actions?

More to come…