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A Return to Ethics and Pragmatism

by Mark Peres

January 8,2009

The New Year brings hope. And let’s hope that the months ahead will bring a return to doing what is right and doing what works. For too long our nation has distracted itself with ideological posturing that has left us divided and dispirited, and deceived itself with a bubble economy built on speculative wealth and greed. We know the litany that has resulted. Where once we were a producer-creditor nation, we have crumbled into a consumer-debtor nation that can only function by borrowing trillions of dollars against future revenue. Leaders lie and line their pockets. Our markets are seemingly corrupt, and are governmental institutions have lost the will to care. We can go on.

The reckoning is underway. The economy and our political system are seeking reset – and the pain is palpable. For many, the good news is that this seismic dislocation has forced families to save and live within their means (often for the very first time), and un-coincidentally, we have had a groundswell of civic engagement ushering in healing rhetoric and demanding competency.

So better days are ahead – but here’s my caution. The mindset that fueled the run-up of unethical conduct and speculation has not gone away. It may be momentarily chastened, but when credit loosens and wealth creation is on the upswing, we are likely to see the same behaviors that got us into this mess (absent remarkable new leadership).

Here’s how I know. I teach a class on business ethics, and I pose this question: business is a game of risk and reward. The object is to make money – the more the better. It is highly competitive, and only the strong survive. It is kill or be killed. It has its own rules separate from everyday life (e.g., the golden rule of do unto others as you would them do unto you does not work nor apply). Agree or disagree? Invariably, the vast majority of the class agrees – and believes anything goes in business.

It takes a long time to unwind the assumptions and mental models that give people permission to act selfishly. We talk about the difference between ‘good greed” that provides incentive in a market economy to achieve great things, and ‘bad greed’ that seeks riches for its own sake without regard to others. We talk about rules – whether they help or hurt innovation; whether they provide order or are limits to freedom; who sets them; how we set them; and how we might undo them. We talk a lot about moral philosophies, decision-making and culture.

And we talk about how ‘good people’ act unethically all the time. Good people are obedient and follow authority, they care about the survival of the companies they work for (and nations they live in), they take their cues from their peers, and believe in certain principles (they may be religious, economic or political) – all of which can rationalize stupid and destructive (and in extreme cases, murderous and genocidal) behavior.

In Charlotte, we have seen a community leader at the United Way, an otherwise good person who has devoted her life to charitable work, act unethically. How so? She was, apparently, not truthful or trustworthy. She allowed personal economic motive to interfere with the best interests of her agency and community. How do we know? We see it clearly in retrospect. But she and several otherwise smart and good people on her board thought her compensation was appropriate at the time – it was ‘good greed,’ not bad. The entire community is now suffering as a result.

This month we will inaugurate a new President. We will hear a call to sacrifice – to live within our means and to invest in activities that will enhance the quality of life of future generations – not burden them. We will hear talk of ethics – of good government and smart choices that honor our better angels. And we will hear about pragmatism – about focusing less on who is right and more on what works. It will take all of us to address the complexity of the challenge.

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