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Ethics, Self-Interest and a Purposeful Life

Ethics, self-interest and a purposeful life

I wonder if we can find our way to “redemption” through service to community, the earth or perhaps the divine?

ethicsIt seems to me that everyone from news reporters to the Occupy Protesters are questioning whether “normal business practices” are ethical.  Good question – there have been lots of wrongdoing exposed of late – but before we simply damn the business world as unethical lets look closely the nature of ethics.

This blog proposes a means of examining business practices within a larger and more comprehensive ethical framework.

A Sand County AlmanacEthics change and grow over time.  Professor Aldo Leopold called for an expansion of rights to include environmental ethics in his classic essay, The Land Ethic (published in A Sand County Almanac in 1948).  Speaking of an earlier time, he wrote “when god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence.”


Now hanging slave girls would certainly not be considered ethical human behavior today (even on Wall Street), so I guess we’ve made some progress.  Homer’s Odyssey reminds us that concepts of right and wrong were not lacking in ancient Greece, but the rights of slaves had not yet been included in the ethical framework of the day. Over the past 3000 years, basic human rights have expanded from the family (Odysseus was very loyal to his family), to the immediate tribe or village, and in some places to all people of the nation.

In spite of this seeming progress, business ethics in the 21st century seem to be that “anything goes” as long as you don’t get caught breaking the law.  And then, if you have enough money or political power – even this is okay.   And of course, what seems immoral to some of us is just a standard business practice to others.  We live at a time in which extreme relativism has become a social norm. That is, what is right and wrong for you is different from what is right or wrong for me.  Taken to its logical conclusion, extreme relativism would contend that there is no evil other than that which I proclaim to be evil for myself. In this context, as long as I am serving my self-interest I am acting ethically.

An Abolition of ManNevertheless, many cultures across the human spectrum have shared ethical traditions.  C.S. Lewis gleaned eight principles from the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Koran, the Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, and ancient Egyptian and Babylonian texts, that express the universal nature of what he called Natural Law.  I believe humans can (and must) agree upon an ethical framework or a perennial truth that holds true for all people.

But how can we think usefully about business ethics in a world in which self-interest dominates our sense of what is right and wrong?   Rather than damning business ethics as being inadequate, what if we looked at business ethics as part of a expanding circle of ethics founded on enlightened self-interest?   And further, what if we understood “the self” as much bigger and richer than merely the “economic self?”

The business world and quite often government officials refer to humans as “consumers” (as if buying stuff was our primary purpose in life).  We know this isn’t true, yet many of us seem willing to accept this diminished view of what it means to be human as normal.

What if we saw the “economic self” as an important and legitimate subsystem embedded within a larger system of “community self,” which itself is embedded in a still larger system of “ecological-self”? And what if the “ecological-self” was yet another subsystem embedded in a larger system that we might call the “universal-self”? Finally if we push this theme beyond the mere material, we might even see the universal-self as part of a cosmological or divine-self.  Each level of “self” is important but when we work toward enlightened self-interest in this framework, we are no longer limited to serving the economic-self alone.

By acting from our higher self (the family, community, the earth or the divine-self) we may discover of sense of meaning and purpose much richer than mere financial success (which beyond some minimum level doesn’t make us happy).  Without this broader perspective of self however, we are left to find meaning in common distractions like drugs, alcohol, recreational sex, video games, passive consumption of violent sporting events, and of course our number one distraction – recreational shopping.

I believe that many ills in society result from a diminished understanding of who we are as humans.  As long as we believe we are primarily economic beings, we will never be happy – because we can never have enough.   We we become the people of “more” – more money, more stuff, more college degrees, more shoes, more promotions at work, more gadgets, …. more.

And in this quest for more, we are hitting a “bottom” as a society that is much like the bottom of an alcoholic or drug addict, or someone who has maxed out their credit cards.  While this is a painful experience for individuals and society alike, it is in fact good news because the bottom is where recovery may begin.

I was on a panel a few years ago with Jordan Belfort, the self-proclaimed “Wolf of Wall Street” who told his story of riches, extravagant lifestyle, and eventually jail.  Mr. Belfort seemed to have redemption from the disease of more and told a group of entrepreneurs at UMass that “crime doesn’t pay.”   But the story of depravity, suffering and redemption is not only the story of unethical stockbrokers. The line between good and evil passes through every human heart.  We are all capable of unethical behavior. But we all also have the opportunity to experience redemption by serving a higher sense of self, and we may begin whenever we choose.

I believe we can find our way to redemption as a society through service to community, the earth or perhaps the divine – or we can find our way to redemption through pain and humiliation (for individuals this means jail – and for a society it may mean economic collapse).  I believe we have a choice.  If I see myself as merely an economic being serving a narrow self-interest, then fear of punishment may be an effective incentive for ethical behavior. But when I see myself as an economic, communal, ecological, universal and cosmological being, the result is not only “right” behavior, but a joyful and purposeful life.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Written by John M. Gerber this can be viewed along with comments and discussion at World.edu.


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