You and I want to think well of ourselves. We need to feel “I am a good person. I am a success”. How is it, then, that there is so much evil in the world? How can most of us strive to be good and yet, somehow, have a world full of violence, injustice, inequality, and crime?
Three Ethical Frameworks
I can be “good” in many different contexts, including:
- As a member of my church, synagogue, or mosque
- As an executive of a publicly traded company such as Walmart or General Motors
- As an elected leader of a government, e.g., as president of the USA.
The criteria for what it means to be “good” are quite different for these three contexts.
As a “good” member of a church, synagogue, or mosque I must love and obey God and must obey the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I am not permitted to lie, cheat, steal or otherwise victimize others. My ethical framework is to obey God and follow the Golden Rule.
As a “good” executive of a publicly traded company I must seek to maximize shareholder profit. This is not only expected but enshrined in the law. If I fail to do maximize shareholder profit, the shareholders can sue me for malfeasance. Maximizing shareholder profit for my company is believed to generate the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
To maximize shareholder profit, I may do some or all of the following:
- Relocate plants to regions with low wages and few environmental regulations
- Routinely dump toxins into the air and water surrounding my plants
- Exploit workers via low wages, exploiting loopholes to avoid worker benefits, skimping on safety issues and providing poor working conditions
- Routinely violate laws when doing so brings profits that are greater than the penalties for breaking the law
As the executive of a publicly traded company, I am not to concern myself with the workers in the plants nor with the well-being of the communities where my plants are located. This is not to say that I, as a human being, am not concerned with workers or the community. However, in my role as executive, I am not to allow concern for workers or the community to interfere with maximizing shareholder profit. Anything and everything which gets in the way of maximizing shareholder profit must be ignored. My ethical framework is to maximize shareholder profit … NOT to be concerned with the workers, the community, or questions of the common good.
As a “good”leader of a government, say President of the USA, one of my primary concerns is national security. National security encompasses national defense and more broadly, national interests. My duty as president is to ensure the safety and security of my nation vis a vis other nations and with respect to internal threats such as economic recessions or political unrest. In this context, I may need to pre-emptively invade other countries, as for example President George Bush did with Iraq. Or, I may need to torture prisoners. I may need a program of assassinating enemies, as for example President Barack Obama is doing with drone strikes in the Middle East. If some policy or action enhances national security, then it is proper and acceptable. If some policy or action degrades national security, then it is unacceptable. My ethical framework in the context of national security, is that questions of morality or ethics are largely irrelevant. Potential policies and actions are evaluated strictly in terms of their impact on national security.
President Jimmy Carter suggested that ethics and morality should guide our foreign policy. He was condemned by almost every pundit and politician for this idealistic and highly unrealistic notion. Foreign policy must be guided, the argument goes, by a “realist” framework that recognizes the evil and the deadly threats in the world. The “realist” justifies evil means because they are necessary for the survival of the nation.
For ease of discussion, let’s apply a label to each of the three ethical frameworks discussed above:
- Golden Rule is the ethical framework for the church, synagogue or mosque
- Maximize Shareholder Profit is the ethical framework for the publicly traded corporation such as Walmart or General Motors
- Realist Foreign Policy is the ethical framework for elected leaders in matters of national security / national interest.
The first thing we might notice is that the same individual might well use all three of these frameworks at different times. The business executive might live out of the Golden Rule with his family and in his neighborhood. The same executive is expected to forget the Golden Rule and live out of the Shareholder Profit framework while at work.
A President of the USA might be deeply religious and strongly committed to the Golden Rule in his personal life. Nevertheless, he is required to live out of the National Security framework in his role as President. As President he is required to authorize actions such as going to war or sending military aide to a dictator who is brutalizing his own people.
Both the business executive and the President are required to take actions that would be absolutely abhorrent to them if they had to do those actions in their family or community roles. Worse yet, the President does things such as authorizing assassinations that would get a private citizen locked up or even executed.
Evaluating “Maximize Shareholder Profit”
The argument for “Maximize Shareholder Profit” is that, in the long run, this maximizes the benefit for everyone. Proponents of this view point to the role of capitalism in helping untold millions out of poverty. They also point to the failures of centralized socialism / communism such as the old USSR. However, both of these arguments really miss the point.
Worker owned / worker managed coops, especially the Mondragon conglomerate, have demonstrated that a broader ethical framework works even better than the “Maximize Shareholder Profit” framework. Mondragon currently consists of about 258 separate businesses. In their entire history only three of their startups have failed. Overall, they are innovative and highly profitable. They almost never lay off anyone. Worker owned and managed coops never move their plants overseas. They do not pollute their own water and air. Their executives make only slightly more than the others (for Mondragon the limit is a factor of nine between the lowest and highest paid employees). In short, for worker owned / managed coops, profit is required for survival but is only one of several important considerations.
If we look to nature and systems theory for clues to effective ethical frameworks, we find an example of something that maximizes growth in animals: it’s called a cancer. Healthy natural systems never maximize any one criteria. Survival for cells, animals, and ecosystems always requires a balancing act. The animal must breathe, eat, drink, regulate body temperature, etc., etc. Maximizing any one aspect is pathological and ultimately deadly, e.g., a cancer. Maximizing Shareholder Profit is similarly pathological for the firm.
If we look at what is actually happening in the economy today, we see all sorts of pathologies from the ethic “Maximize Shareholder Profit”, including:
- The already rich become massively richer
- Most people become relatively poorer
- Wealth flows from the 99% to the one percent
- Wealth flows from the underdeveloped world to the developed world
- Communities are routinely disrupted by plants moving to lower-wage / lower-regulation areas
- Corporations routinely breaking the law because the penalties imposed are far less than the profits earned from doing so
- Our air and water are increasingly fouled by industrial wastes
- Our commons are increasingly privatized for corporate profit, e.g. water, schools, jails, roads, and seeds for food.
The ethical framework “Maximize Shareholder Profit” clearly generates evil outcomes. We should drop all notions of maximizing any one thing and require that our corporations provide value for all of their stakeholders and the larger community.
Evaluating “Realist Foreign Policy”
The argument in favor of the “Realist Foreign Policy” is simple: survival of the nation requires it. Any other approach will not allow the nation to survive.
The first thing we might note is that nations using this framework do not always survive. The USSR is a recent dramatic example of a nation that is no more. Other examples include all those nations defeated in war and subsequently absorbed by the victor
The “Realist Foreign Policy” framework also depends upon a set of assumptions about the efficacy of military force as compared to strategic nonviolence or economic development. Given the numerous successes of nonviolent mass movements in recent decades, including the overthrow of numerous tyrants, the unquestioning adherence to military force by the Realist approach seems problematical. Further, there is at least some evidence that our attempt to stamp out the Middle Eastern terrorists is in fact creating more terrorists than we manage to kill. Finally, there is pretty compelling evidence that people who are well-fed, prospering, and hopeful about their future are unlikely to become terrorists.
Even the proponents of the “Realist” framework, for example Dick Cheney, readily concede that it often requires acts that in any other context would be considered evil and criminal.
The question is can we find an ethical framework for foreign policy that is less evil, more “ethical” than the “realist” framework. Probably not, so long as we humans think in terms of “my tribe” vs. “your tribe”.
However, we humans are clearly moving away from a primary identity with small groups and toward an understanding of ourselves as members of the human race, all of whom are passengers on a spaceship earth. Part of this understanding is that, in the not-so-long run, we are all in the same boat and that we are all in trouble if we do not learn to live in harmony with the planetary ecosystem.
Reduced decision frameworks which single out one or a few values produce decisions which are evil. The Golden Rule is universally accepted and revered precisely because application of it requires us to consider a very broad context. The “other” includes everybody. And the Golden Rule requires us to give the same consideration to those others that we give to ourselves.
Two of the most important and powerful ethical decision frameworks producing evil results today are the “Maximize Shareholder Profit” and the “Realist Foreign Policy” frameworks. Both of them need to be replaced with more human, more ethical, more effective frameworks.
Contact me: I love to hear from readers. Email me at cyberneticapress at gmail dot com. Thanks, Barry Clemson