So with ethics. Volumes can be written about specific problems. Should a broker advise a customer to move funds at neither loss or gain so that the broker earns commission? Is it ethical to cause the downfall of a person who has by action indicated she was your political enemy? How must minorities be treated? Is it fair to sell a product that the public will buy but that you know is detrimental to health? If not a volume, at least a chapter or two can be written about each of these problems. But an adequate solution will not be found starting from the problem. It will be found in the beginning.
As the person beginning a business asks what capital will be required to sustain this business, the business person who thinks ethically asks: What will it take to make me happy?
Which may seem an unlikely question.
Ethics are usually seen as strictures standing between us and complete happiness. "If I could manipulate my customers, punish my enemies, flock with my own, risk the public good and devote myself to making as much money as I possibly can without going to jail, I would be happy. Unfortunately I have these ethical standards that get in my way."
But that is not what the science of ethics is about. It is not about setting limits on the pursuit of happiness. It is about finding the way to be happy.
The Orthodox Jews of today limit themselves with an ethical imperative blocking the eating of pork. This imperative, whatever its present day purpose, historically rose from the pursuit of happiness. The lawgivers knew that when people ate pork they frequently became ill and often died. Thus, "God's" prohibition of pork. Buddhists counsel detachment from worldly goods, not so that they may suffer more than other people, but because the original Buddha found himself happier when he gave up his own considerable possessions. Jesus of Nazareth counseled love because he found that it brought him more joy than living in the service of self.
The world religious traditions, while extremely diverse in their mythologies, are close to unanimous in their ethics. Their picture of the happy person is remarkably consistent: A person of love, humility, caring. A person unbounded by own ego. One more interested in giving than getting. A person who trusts self, and others, and the universe. A seeker and follower of the truth.
It would be quite reasonable for today's businessperson to dismiss these traditions as similar cases made by people with the same ax to grind, the ax of the common good. Quite reasonable, if somewhat arrogant.
In this our own day we have some scientific data and a mass of anecdotal data on what makes people happy.
From 1945 to now people have been assembling in sensitivity groups, encounter groups, and personal growth groups in pursuit of a variety of goals, including managerial excellence. In these groups they were supported as they learned to work together in loving, trusting, and ethical ways. The intensive research on the groups is ambivalent about their worth in teaching people to continue behaving in these ways when they returned to their places of work and to their homes. But the research is definite, that while in the groups and being together in ethical ways, the group members report that they are happier than when they are outside of these groups subjected to pressures to behave in non-ethical ways. So happy that, to the consternation of the educators, many of them will return year after year to these settings without regard to whether or not they are learning anything they can use back home. They just like who they are when they are there.
Examine the paperback section at your local discount store. Count the books by people who have chosen the ethical life and found happiness. Can you find books by people who have chosen the unethical life with similar results? Of course, you can find books praising the unethical life, but they are not by authors who have experienced both life styles and then chosen between them. Can you find books titled: How I Solved My Mid-life Crisis with Scotch, or How Gambling Improved My Life, or My Recovery from a Loving Family, or Learning to Lie: the Secret of Joy. The anecdotal and scientific evidence supports the somewhat strange notion that happiness is found in a lifestyle that might be most simply described as an ethical lifestyle.
Abraham Maslow, the father of self-actualizing theory, and the unwitting grandfather of its bastard child, the "me" generation, assumed out of the inherent goodness of his own heart that the self to be actualized would be the better self. I think he would be upset to discover that people are actualizing their greed in his name. He thought that they would actualize their potential nature, the nature that has burst into history in the form of some extraordinary people. People who were extraordinary only because they chose to be what any human person is able to be.
The most complex of business ethical questions become relatively simple when they are examined not as they arrive in our laps, but in the light of the first ethical question: "What will make me happy? What will bring me closer to experiencing the inner joy of a Buddha, an Eleanor Roosevelt, a Jesus of Nazareth, a Gandhi, a Nelson Mandela, a Crazy Horse, or a Lao Tse?"
"Should a broker advise a customer to move funds at neither loss or gain so that the broker earns commission?" In the light of the primary ethical imperative the question becomes: "Will I be happier as a broker if my central purpose is to make a buck, or will I be happier if my central purpose is to serve my customer?"
"Is it ethical to cause the downfall of a person who has by action indicated she was your political enemy?" becomes: "Will I be happier as a political murderer or will I be happier as a person who forgives, forgets, and moves on to important things?"
"How must minorities be treated?" becomes: "Will my life be richer surrounded by people who look just like me, or will it be richer through interacting with, learning from, and teaching people different than I?"
"Is it fair to sell a product that the public will buy but that you know is detrimental to health?" becomes: "What will please me more, telling my grandchildren I outwitted the public, or telling them that I served the public?"
The ethical questions of business are simplified by beginning at the beginning with what ethics is about, the pursuit of happiness. With the question so simplified, ethics becomes, not the method for blocking the pursuit of happiness, but the method for discovering the road to happiness. Which strikes me as not only simpler, but more fun.
The author of this essay is John Cowan. He has written two books of similar essays: Small Decencies and The Common Table Each is approximately 160 pages in paperback. To purchase either book by mail send a check for $10 per book to him at 1498 Goodrich, St. Paul, MN 55105. Price will be negotiated for any order over 20 books. If you wish to discuss consulting or speaking engagements or attendance at a workshop he may be reached by e-mail. His address is Johnedie@aol.com