Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: morality (page 1 of 2)

Robocop and the Civil Servant

I recently watched the remake of Robocop. It was not a very good film, but it did remind me of the plight of the civil servants in Whitehall and the challenge of how and when to use your conscience.

Hannah Arendt defined bureaucracy as Rule by No One. It is the office that is accountable, not an individual, and that really means no one is responsible. Who, for instance, was responsible for making up fake stories that give the impression that sanctions for people on benefits are fair and reasonable? No one. It was just another bureaucratic task required of a civil service that must carry out the ‘will of the people’ who, in this instance, have been ‘realised’ in the form of Iain Duncan Smith.

Back in 1988, as a young man, having left University with little idea of what I wanted to do, I applied to be a ‘fast-track’ civil servant. I got through the exams, but then went to Whitehall for an intense couple of days trial by interview and workshop. One of the interviews was with a psychologist who asked me what I would do if I was asked to do something that I thought was wrong.  My simplistic response was that I wouldn’t do it; but the psychologist argued that this would not work in the civil service, for you would have to work with politicians of every colour and they were accountable to the democratic process. It was not for me to insert my sense of right or wrong, like a spanner, into the workings of Government. The psychologist also went on to suggest that guilt was a bad thing and that perhaps I took it too seriously (a proposal I didn’t accept). I was then offered a job as a Tax Inspector (which I turned down).

While I can understand the logic of this argument for a neutral civil service it was clear to me that this was not my cup of tea. Moreover, I do wonder whether we really need a civil service.

This came back to me watching Robocop. For those of you not familiar with this science-fiction classic, a policeman, who suffers severe trauma is encased in a robotic suit – hence Robocop. But most importantly, to increase his effectiveness as a policeman, his conscience is ‘turned down’ by a combination of drugs and computer over-rides so that he cannot really be in control of his actions. Of course, it turns out that he is working for a corrupt system and he has become a tool of injustice. The story hinges on his ability to break free and assert his own will and conscience.

I know most civil servants are good people in a difficult situation. They are being asked to do bad things by a legitimate Government that has been elected by 24.4% of the electorate. They are well paid (civil servants have the highest median salary of any group – public or private) and they live in the wealthiest part of the country. They are surrounded by the powerful, the famous and the persuasive. It is hard to imagine circumstances more liable to put conscience to sleep.

Yet, stirring inside them, many must be this question: Did I really enter Whitehall to impoverish the poor and bully the weak?

And those of us outside Whitehall must be asking a further question: Do we really need civil servants if they can do things like this?

The model of the neutral civil servant, the tool of Government, seems so reasonable. But do we really want politicians to be given this kind of power over us? Could we take back this power and make decisions ourselves – in our lives and in our communities? How might we limit or discipline the spread of this kind of unaccountable power?

The ancient Athenians actually filled many public office by lot – subject to some vetting – like jury service: “It’s your turn to head up the collection of customs.” The main thing, as Aristotle observed, was to make sure that nobody had any personal interest in the decisions and so no temptation to cheat. And as they were only in post for a short while, and could be held accountable by the public – their fellow citizens – this system worked well for several hundred years. Perhaps we should try it too.

The Good Samaritan

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

In reply Jesus said:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke: 10: 25-37

One way of bring this story up to date is to replace Samaritan with Palestinian.

Does the Jew have the right to be assisted by the Samaritan? Does the Samaritan have a Duty to assist the Jew? Although we might want to say assistance is a ‘good thing’ it might seem initially implausible to treat it as a matter of Rights or Duties. [Or we might want to say its a different kind of Right or Duty – I think some people call this a ‘duty from beneficence’ – but I’m not sure if this is what they really mean.]

First of all here is what we can say to support this feeling of implausibility:

  1. Rights and Duties imply Law, and Law means politics, policing, and prisons – in other words the only point to reference to these heavy-weight concepts is to bring in the weight of the law – enforcement. But our moral life must not be too closely connected to the Law (a) different things are important to different people and so cannot be legislated for (b) and many important things, like love, involve morality but would still be damaged by heavy-handed interference by the Law.
  2. We want to value the act of assistance but we don’t want to start demanding too much of people. How would we get anything done if people’s right to assistance trumped all the other valuable things we wanted to do? Duties are burdens and we don’t want to let them grow too big and we certainly don’t want then to adhere to us just because we happened to be passing by.
  3. Why should the Samaritan have to help the Jew who despise him. We might accept that the Jew has the right to assistance from other Jews – but there can be no right to assistance from Samaritans.

Despite this feeling of implausibility the truth is that the Jew has a right to assistance and the Samaritan has the duty.

Christ does not call his benefactors loving or charitable. He calls them just. The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbour and justice. In the eyes of the Greeks also a respect for Zeus the suppliant was the first duty of justice. We have invented the distinction between justice and charity. It is easy to understand why. Our notion of justice dispenses him who possesses from the obligation of giving. If he gives, all the same, he thinks he has a right to be pleased with himself. He thinks he has done good work. As for him who receives, it depends on the way he interprets this notion whether he is dispensed from all gratitude, or whether it obliges him to offer servile thanks.

Only the absolute identification of justice and love makes the co-existence possible of compassion and gratitude on the one hand, and on the other, of respect for the dignity of affliction in the afflicted – a respect felt by the sufferer himself and the others.

It has to be recognised that no kindness can go further than justice without constituting a fault under a false appearance of kindness. But the just must be thanked for being just, because justice is so beautiful a thing, in the same way we thank God because of his great glory. Any other gratitude is servile and even animal.

Simone Weil, Waiting on God, p. 97

So let us see if we can deal with the counter-arguments:

1. Disconnecting Law and Morals

On the view of Weil, which I support, Duty and Right precede the Law. The Law is informed by our Rights and Duties, but it is not going to exactly mirror our Rights and Duties. Of course this means distinguishing a Legal Duty or Right and a Moral Duty or Right. But this is as it should be. The Law can be unjust and I can therefore, sometimes, reject the Law. If we make the Law primary we would not be able to evaluate the Law – this would mean that Law could never be Just because it could never be evaluated – morally – by Justice itself.

This view can also reconcile the worries we have about the limitations of the Law. Moral Duties and Rights don’t mirror the Legal but they do extend into other areas of the Moral Life:

a) Many of my Duties are highly personal to me, they may be linked to my choices, vocation, self-development or much else. The Law may or may not offer a helpful discipline to the fulfilment of my Duties. Freedom is not a moral-free zone.

b) Many Duties flow from features of relationships that are outside the reach of Law. Some of the Duties of a husband cannot be legislated for. In other areas relationships do give rise to contractual Rights and Duties.

This raises an interesting question. If the Law is not Justice then what role is there for the Law? If Justice is primary and precedes the Law then there is no reason to expect that Law will merely try to enforce Just behaviour. It may be wiser to ask the Law to do less work. It is not plausible that the Law is always the best means to promote the development of the virtuous person, to encourage self-development or good relationships. The Law may undermine virtue by either intruding where it has no place or in over-specifying human behaviour. The Law is necessary, but clumsy.

2. The Ending of Charity

Weil’s concern is that by trying to separate out moral Duties from some other weaker category of good deeds we are simply letting ourselves off the hook and misrepresenting our relationship with the Right-holder.

There is also the risk – as Weil also notices – of giving too much and this is also an important part of her argument. In human relationships doing good is a fine balance where we can do too much as well as do too little. The challenge is to do what is right – not just to do good.

3. The Universality of Love

It is certainly easier to assist those to whom we are joined in community and our communal relationships may also create very specific Duties – like paying taxes. But it is of the very nature of Justice that it is universal; we must face our Duties despite their costs and difficulties. Duties are, on this reading, simply an aspect of Love.

And here is Dorothy L Sayers on duty and love:

The creative will presses on to Its end, regardless of what It may suffer by the way. It does not choose suffering, but It will not avoid it, and must expect it. We say that It is Love, and “sacrifices” Itself for what It loves; and this is true, provided we understand what we mean by sacrifice. Sacrifice is what it looks like to other people, but to That-which-Loves I think its does not appear so. When one really cares, the self-is forgotten, and the sacrifice becomes only part of the activity. Ask yourself: If there is something you supremely want to do, do you count as “self-sacrifice” the difficulties encountered or other possible activities cast aside? You do not. The time when you deliberately say, “I must sacrifice this, that or the other” is when you do not supremely desire the end in view. At such times you are doing your duty, and that is admirable, but it is not love. But as soon as your duty becomes your love “self-sacrifice” is taken for granted, and, whatever the world calls it, you call it so no longer.

So, in summary, we should not expect to see all our Rights and Duties mirrored in legal Duties and Rights. Nor should we seek some kind of softer and less demanding form of moral obligation – kindness or charity. It is morality itself that must underpin and interrogate the Law. Morality is experienced though love and, when we are not feeling so loving, through Duty.

Complicity and the Cuts

I know a wise old Buddhist monk who, in a speech to his fellow countrymen, once said he’d love to know why someone who boasts that he is the cleverest, the strongest, the bravest or the most gifted man on earth is thought ridiculous and embarrassing, whereas if, instead of ‘I’; he says, ‘we are the most intelligent, the strongest, the bravest and the most gifted people on earth’ his fellow countryman applaud enthusiastically and call him a patriot.

E H Gombrich from A Little History of the World

Our own vanity, our own desire to be on the inside of the club, is one of the most dangerous human tendencies. It turns out that we will sell our souls very cheaply, as long as we feel we are inside the in-group.

There often seems to be a difference between doing evil and standing back and letting someone else do evil – one is the sin of commission, the other the sin of omission. But both are sins, and the difference between these two kinds of sin can be very fine indeed. In fact, sometimes, not to resist evil is to join in with evil – to be complicit.

For example, currently in the UK, we are seeing the most significant direct attack on the rights and conditions of the poor and of disabled people. By 2015 spending on services for disabled children and adults will have been cut by 33% and the government hopes to cut benefits by £22 billion – about 20% of the current spending on benefits.

You can read more about this in our report – A Fair Society? how the cuts target disabled people.

This is in a country that is already the third most unequal developed country in the world. This is a policy which is far more extreme and far more negative than anything for which Margaret Thatcher is blamed.

Yet, many of the organisations that one would expect to stand up to government, to point out the error of its ways, are silent. A Labour politician justified their own muted response to the cuts by observing that none of the big charities had really come out against the cuts – and the MP is right. Where are the big charities and advocacy organisations and why have they not stood up to government, carried out the necessary research and organised effective PR?

It is impossible to know for certain why so many organisations are so quiet. There are many possible reasons:

  • Some may be focusing on getting themselves ready for the storm – cutting posts, saving money.
  • Some may be worried that they will lose lucrative central government funding if they become too challenging.
  • Some may feel that they must be nice to government in order to negotiate with it – to get on the inside track and to reduce any harm it intends.
  • Some may seek the honour of peerages, knighthoods, awards and all the other trappings of status that are so keenly distributed by our leaders.

Perhaps some do not even understand how bad things are, and how much worse they are going to be. In 2010 the Campaign for a Fair Society published data showing that social care would be severely cut. Not only was this not picked up by the media, it was not even picked up by many in the mainstream of the disability movement. Many seemed to accept the false claim that social care had been ‘protected’ simply because this is what the government had said.

For more information on the statistical manipulations behind all this read this article in the Guardian.

Personally I have been particularly upset by how the organisations that are supposedly in the ‘vanguard’ of reforming social care – e.g. Think Local Act Personal (TLAP), In Control and Helen Sanderson Associates – barely mention the issue of cuts or the injustice of current government policy. For example, In Control’s website talks about:

With significant resource constraints and demographic growth, there are major challenges ahead.

“Significant resource constraint” hardly does justice to severe cuts that target disabled people. You cannot advocate the increased empowerment of disabled people through personalisation, while ignoring a 33% cut in social care funding.

There is one other very worrying reason why some organisations may be silent; and that is that some in the voluntary sector may even be seeking to benefit from these cuts, from the increased poverty and from the erosion of public services. This may seem an extreme statement – but it is interesting to look at the recent letter which was sent by leaders of the voluntary sector to government:

You can read their letter here.

The letter pleads that the voluntary sector be given the opportunity to take over public services and in addition it says:

Thirdly, as the Government’s welfare reforms take effect, we know that some of the most vulnerable people in our country will be affected – including children. Our sector will be at the frontline – helping individuals and families prepare for and manage change.

So, instead of arguing against the injustice of these reforms, the voluntary sector offers to pick up the pieces – on the government’s behalf – to help people “prepare for and manage change” – the change of having your income severely cut. This is a dreadful state of affairs. It’s as if, frightened of being steamrollered or forgotten, these groups have now chosen to join the powerful and to abandon the weak.

It is this kind of complicity that makes so many of us frightened for the future. It reveals the true nature of our current social situation. It seems we are no longer a society that believes in equality, citizenship or mutual support. We are a society where the powerful trample on those beneath them. For those of us in between – neither powerful nor weak, neither rich nor poor – then this is the time for making critical moral choices.

We must become complicit or we must resist – there is no room left to claim that this has got nothing to do with us – that it is someone else’s problem.

One strategy, one that has been used in the past, is to make complicity more expensive for those who lack moral fortitude. For instance, it may be possible to name, shame or boycott organisations that are becoming directly or indirectly complicit with government. These policies may seem extreme or divisive – but the risk of inaction is that fewer and fewer individuals and organisations will be left who have not succumbed.

The more of us who are caught up in the implementation of these dreadful policies then the more likely it is that they will succeed.

Thankfully the National Coalition of Independent Action has collected together the signatures of many other organisations who do not accept the approach set out in the ‘voluntary sector’s letter’ to government. If you are interested in supporting this approach you can contact NCIA:

Open Letter from NCIA

You Can’t Overcome Ethics

In what sense do we repudiate ethics and morality? In the sense that it is preached by the bourgeoise, who derived ethics from God’s commandments. […] We repudiate all morality derived from non-human and non-class concepts. […] We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat. Our morality is derived from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat […] for the Communist, morality lies entirely in this compact, united discipline and conscious mass struggle against all exploiters. We do not believe in an eternal morality, and we expose all the fables about morality.

Lenin

And the perfect response to this powerful and emotional nonsense is given by Shostakovich:

Don’t believe humanists, citizens, don’t believe prophets, don’t believe luminaries – they’ll fool you for a penny. Do your own work, don’t hurt people, try to help them. Don’t try to save humanity all at once, try saving one person first. It’s a lot harder. To help one person without harming another is very difficult. It’s unbelievably difficult. That’s where the temptation to save all of humanity comes from. And then, inevitably, along the way, you discover that all humanity’s happiness hinges on the destruction of a few hundred million people, that’s all. A trifle. Nothing but nonsense in the world, Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol once said. It’s that nonsense I try to depict.

From Testimony

Lenin follows the logic of Marxism. The underlying logic of all Marx’s writings is a powerful moral revulsion at crime, injustice and oppression. But he allows himself to be lost in imagined historical forces, necessities and mass movements. In the end his moral vision is fatally corrupted and becomes a tool for the worst of dictators, for the worst elements in all of us.

We must never lose a sense of our own individual moral responsibility – if we do we stop being human.

From Caring Comes Courage

…the most important term of Taoism: Tz’u, which can be translated “caring” or “compassion” and which is based upon the character for heart.

In the sixty-seventh chapter of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu named it as his “first treasure,” and then wrote, “from caring comes courage.”

We might add that from it also comes wisdom. It’s rather significant, we think, that those who have no compassion have no wisdom. Knowledge, yes; cleverness, maybe; wisdom, no. A clever mind is not a heart. Knowledge doesn’t really care. Wisdom does. We also consider it significant that cor, the Latin word for “heart,” is the basis for the word courage.

 Benjamin Hoff from the Tao of Pooh

Philosophers also use the word ‘will’. Wisdom encompasses the moral understanding which is the business of understanding what we should do – what is right. And what is at the heart of the will if it is not love – or for Hoff – caring. I must care about something if I am going to stand up for something and that love or care is not produced by factual knowledge or intricate reasoning – it is a matter of the heart.

Brokered by Love

Happiness and virtue are brokered by love.

In moral philosophy there is a significant divide between:

  • Those who think morality has a purpose – telos – or 
  • Those who believe moral action is just about doing the right thing – with no reference to a goal.

In my Phd thesis I have argued at length that the moral understanding cannot be reduced to either perspective, that it is ultimately founded in our experience of duty, but that duties reaches out to virtue both in its respect for rights, but also in its desire for the good.

However another way of looking at this dilemma is much easier.

Think about bringing up your child. You want your child to be happy (and this can have many meanings) and you want your child to be good (and this can have many meanings). But what is the exercise of loving your child if it is not the effort of reconciling these two objectives. The paradoxical hope of true love is that our children will live long and contented lives but that they become the kind of people who know when they must sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

Only love, not empty rationality, can reconcile this paradox.

Selfishness and the Self

The selfish act is not an act overly focused on the self; it is an act which depends upon a narrow or shrivelled sense of self or one which is overly concerned with the self as it appears in the eyes of others.

We must love ourselves – but at its best our love mirrors the best love we have for others. We want ‘the best’ for them – including we want them to be the best that they can be.

As the ancient Greeks observed, if we want the best for our child, it is to want them to be happy only in the sense that we want them to have led a life which is truly worthy or respect. [Hence the paradox that you can only judge someone to be happy when they are dead.]

So strangely – we must love others as we love ourselves; but also we should love ourself as we should love others.

Adam Smith on Celebrity

This disposition to admire, and to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean conditions… is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.

Adam Smith from Theory of Moral Sentiments

Adam Smith gets it right again. The love of celebrity and wealth does not just cause social injustice it distorts the basic fabric of our everyday moral instincts which becomes tattered and confused. We forget where our sympathies should be directed, we admire those we know are not admirable and we drop our standards to the level of those we admire.

Science and Humanity

Science in that sense moderates potential Hitlers [they need the scientists for their own victories and so must take care of them] – but only in that sense. In general it increases man’s power without increasing his virtue, hence increasing his power to do both good and evil.

The total picture is one of great danger resulting from the political involvement of science. Some people assert that we have to reinvent politics in order to meet the danger. Swift tells us that politics was already reinvented by the founders of the Enlightenment, and that is the problem. It turned out that natural science had nothing to say about human things, about the uses of science for life or about the scientist. If he does so, he uses none of the tools he uses in his scientific activity, and his conclusions have none of the demonstrative character he demands in his science. Science has broken off from the self-consciousness about science that was the core of ancient science. This loss of self-consciousness is somehow connected with the banishment of poetry. 

Alan Bloom from The Closing of the American Mind

Social science seems to contradict Bloom: it offers itself up as a science for society, for politics and for human beliefs and culture. But closer attention reveals that social science demonstrates the validity of Bloom’s perspective.

The important judgements about society, about ourselves and about others are moral judgements. They need not be subjective or prejudicial (although the gravitational pull towards mere subjectivity is always present) but they cannot be neutral. Neutrality is just under-cover scepticism and that is a moral perspective in itself.

Towards a View from Nowhere

In the pursuit of justice, positional illusions can impose serious barriers that have to be overcome through broadening the informational basis of evaluations, which is one of the reasons why Adam Smith demanded that perspectives from elsewhere, including from far away, have to be systematically invoked. Though much can be done through the deliberate use of open impartiality, the hope of proceeding smoothly from positional views to an ultimate ‘view from nowhere’ cannot hope to succeed fully.

Amartya Sen from The Idea of Justice

Sen is rightly cautioning us to avoid any simplistic or reductive attempt to fix what is morally important. We are familiar with the notion that pursuing our own self-interest with no regard to its impact on other people is wrong. But he is also saying that even if we do have moral concern for others the nature of that concern can also be very partial – unfair. We don’t always understand what is in the interests of other people nor can we always trust our own values or ideals. Partiality creeps in everywhere.

However it is also important to notice that scepticism about our own moral perspective can easily slip into scepticism about morality as a whole. This is very different and very dangerous. Becoming sceptical about morality may seem more ‘liberal’ or even (in a highly paradoxical way) more moral; but it is not. Moral scepticism is the death of our shared humanity – it excuses both selfishness and moral laziness.

The fact that an objective perspective, God’s perspective, is difficult to achieve does not entitle us to abandon morality or to stop striving for moral truth.

In fact it is more rational to be humble rather than sceptical. It makes more sense, when in doubt, to look to the authority of those we can trust and to those values that have survived longest, instead of throwing ourselves upon the bonfire of scepticism.

Do Not Harvest to the Edges – Biblical Social Justice Theory

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien.
I am the Lord your God.

Do not steal.
Do not lie.
Do not deceive one another.
Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God.
I am the Lord.

Do not defraud your neighbour or rob him.
Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling-block in front of the blind, but fear your God.
I am the Lord.

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.
Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
Do not do anything that endagers your neighbour’s life.
I am the Lord.

Do not hate your brother in your heart.
Rebuke your neighbour frankly so that you will not share in his guilt.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.
I am the Lord.

Keep my decrees.

Leviticus: 19:9-8

This ancient account of social justice theory is not just interesting because it demonstrates how our awareness of the demands of social justice has a very long history. It also shows that about social justice in the past was often more sophisticated – even if it is framed in terms of an agricultural economy – than our thinking today. Notice in particular:

  1. The priority of making sure the most needy are provided for, but also the way in which this maintains the dignity and the autonomy of the poor – who do not need to beg or receive patronage.
  2. The importance of fair dealing and the imperative to not exploit those who work for you by delaying payments.
  3. The need to create an environment of dignity and respect for all – especially for those who can easily be taken advantage of.

These observations are all reinforced by the fear of God – his knowledge of all your actions and all your intentions. There is complete awareness that enlightened self-interest is not sufficient to protect those who might be  exploited by the more powerful. The constant refrain – “I am the Lord” – puts everyone in their place, reminds everyone that the power or status in this world is illusory – it justifies nothing and entitles us to no special treatment.

Perhaps His Blood is Redder

In fourth-century Babylon, a man came to Rabbi Rava and said: “The governor of my town has ordered me to murder someone [who is innocent], and has warned me that if I do not do so he will have me killed. [Can I murder the man to save my life?]” Rava refused him permission. “Let yourself be killed but do not kill him. Who says your blood is redder? Perhaps the blood of that man is redder.”

Pesachim 25b

This simple and powerful moral dilemma represents an absolute fulcrum for our moral perspective. On any account of morality based upon enlightened self-interest or the power of rationality (e.g. Korsgaard) we will not reach the proper moral perspective represented by Rabbi Rava: self-sacrifice cannot be justified by reference to the self. So, unless we are prepared to accept these lower forms of morality, we must seek a stronger, even if more uncertain, form of justification.

The idea that his blood is redder is simply code for the fact that we are not worthy to judge. Only God can judge. So we must presume our own unworthiness: we must put ourselves last.

Three (or Four) Kinds of People

Three officials were assigned to guard the king’s treasures. They proved to be corrupt, and dividing the valuables, ran away. One thought better of it, and returned of his own accord. The second was persuaded by a friend to return. The third witnessed the execution of an embezzler and returned out of fear. The first was restored to the king’s confidence; the second received a less responsible post, the third was appointed executioner of the embezzlers: 

“There are three kinds of people in the world who act like these three officials with respect to the fulfillment of God’s injunctions” explained the Pulnoer.

An Hasidic Tale

This story reveals a theme which runs through moral philosophy. Are we motivated to act rightly because of duty itself or because of external influence or fear?

In my own work I find the similar fourfold distinction useful – not for analysing moral behaviour – but in terms of attitude to change:

  1. Motivation by belief – to have a vision of the possible and faith in the unseen – these are the natural innovators
  2. Motivation by status – to seek evidence  and stay close to authority – these are the followers of fashion, the makers of movements
  3. Motivation by price – to look for the consequent value of the innovation: it makes life easier, cheaper, more fun – these are the utilitarians who wait for trends to be set and for prices to drop
  4. Motivation by fear – to know the negative value of the innovation: to fear the loss, the change and the unknown – these are the sceptics

Notice that each of us takes a different attitude to change in different aspects of our life. Nobody is an innovator in every walk of life. Notice also that each attitude has a positive purpose and that the tensions between these perspectives are legitimate.

So if you value an innovation remember that the other person, who does not seem to understand the value of the innovation, is not being purposefully stupid or wicked. Instead they are either:

  • Worrying that there is not enough evidence – What would it look like if they backed something that proved false?
  • Worrying that there is not enough value yet – Is it the right time to invest in this? What will my return be?
  • Worrying that they will lose something else they value –  Doesn’t this threaten me?

For social innovators it is important to respect these fears – knowing that you cannot resolve them at once. You also need to develop strategies that:

  • Increase data and improve understanding of the value of the innovation
  • Reduce the price, increase simplicity and ease of application of the innovation
  • Design the innovation so that it is sustainable and respectful of other values and approaches
Perhaps most importantly, if you have a vision of how things could be better, you will need to find ways of sharing your vision. Most powerfully this is achieved by making your vision real – even if its just in some small way.

The Citizenship Imperative

If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would help an alien or temporary resident, so that he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.

 Leviticus, 25:35-38

This is a powerful moral test. Notice that the imperative to help a fellow citizen is put on the same terms as help for the alien. This may seem strange to us – because we have forgotten the ancient imperative to take particular care of the alien. To the Greeks Zeus was the champion of strangers. To the Jews – who really understood slavery and isolation – the duty to the stranger was absolute. So here the imperative to treat a fellow country man as if a stranger is to lift him on to the same, honoured footing. This means not taking advantage, demeaning or exploiting him.

We believe we are so advanced. But we treat the stranger as if he shouldn’t be here and we treat the needy as if they deserve their fate and anything we do for them is not from duty but from our own patronising kindness. We have fallen down from these ancient Greek and Jewish standards, but we close our eyes and pretend that we are rising. But we are simply rising on the back of the success of industrial production – there has been no moral advance.

True Leaders in History

True leaders
are hardly known to their followers.
Next after them are the leaders
people know and admire;
after them, those they fear;
after them, those they despise. 

To give no trust
is to get no trust.

When the work’s done right,
with no fuss or boasting,
ordinary people say,
Oh, we did it.

 Lao Tzu

This complex and multilayered thought from Lao Tzu is often quoted – but it is still fresh and relevant.

If it is true it means that all our histories will tend to be distorted by the greater visibility of the worst sort of leader – for the best will be invisible to historians and increasingly so over time.

It can be seen as good management advice: delegate, empower, trust…

But its truth depends upon faith in the Tao, the way, Providence. Only if we believe that morality does reflect some deeper reality will it make sense to do the right thing quietly. However, in a moral vacuum, where there is no sense to things, we can have no such faith. So we will be impelled to force things – to try and shape reality as we see it, rather than let it unfold.

Noisy leaders lack faith,
They don’t trust you
They don’t trust God
And they struggle to trust themselves

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