By Fred Kofman
Philosopher and Vice President at Linkedin
“Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil. (…) To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims.” Ayn Rand, author
Good and evil is the province of morality, not integrity. Values are personal; morality is not.
Consider the following dialogue with a coaching client:
“Are you proud of acting in alignment with your values?” I asked William.
“I certainly am,” he relished.
“So is the fanatic who blows himself up in the middle of a crowd.”
“That’s ridiculous!” William exploded. “You can’t compare me with a suicide bomber.”
“Why not? We are assessing human behavior, and both you and the suicide bomber are humans behaving.”
“Are you saying I am evil?”
“Not at all. The suicide bomber’s actions are evil; yours are not. Yet both of you are acting in alignment with your personal values, both of you can rightfully claim you are acting in integrity. My point is that integrity cannot be what differentiates good from evil.”
In the previous post, I defined integrity as acting in alignment with your values. Some values are evil, and integrity with them leads to evil behavior. Some values are good, and integrity with them will lead to good behavior. So what defines whether values are good or evil?
Whatever it is, it cannot be subjective; it cannot be a matter of personal opinion. No one believes his values are evil. The suicide bomber takes as much pride in his values as I take in mine.
It’s tempting to say that I am a good person, so I know that my values are good and that the values other are evil, but that won’t hold. What gives me the right to apply my standard of goodness and deny the other’s? It can’t just be that I’m right because I am I. The suicide bomber can reverse the argument and claim that he’s right because he is he.
If morality is to mean anything it must go beyond individual beliefs. Personal preferences can’t separate good from evil.
Social standards won’t work. Vikings may claim that “might makes right,” that it is the victor’s right to rape and pillage the vanquished. They may even claim they follow the golden rule because they are willing to be done onto them what they do onto others.
On what basis can we assert that such reasoning is evil? It can’t be because we are moral and they are not, that’s begging the question. The Vikings could reverse the argument and claim that they are moral and we are not.
Legal standards won’t work. In 1800 slavery was legal in the U.S. In fact, it was illegal to help an escaped slave. Did that make slavery moral and helping a slave immoral?
No, and no.
I just watched “The Imitation Game,” a biography about Alan Turing. Turing cracked the Enigma code during WWII, enabling the allies to decript German communications. This cut the war by at least two years, saving millions of lives. Turing was a genius and a hero.
The movie ends on bitter note. Turing was homosexual, therefore a criminal according to British law. So he was given the (coerced) choice between going to prison and taking drugs to chemically castrate him. Afraid of prison, he took the drugs, became depressed and committed suicide. Did that make Turing immoral and his sentence moral?
No, and no.
We need a rational standard of morality, one that goes beyond social and legal standards. Otherwise, anything can be justified as value-based behavior.
In A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise plays defense attorney for two marines who, following orders, disciplined a third one, accidentally causing his death. In a dramatic trial, Cruise brings down their commanding officer, Colonel Jessup, a man of high integrity brilliantly played by Jack Nicholson.
Cruise gets the two men acquitted. The two marines, however, are dishonorably discharged. One of them is hopelessly confused. Why are they being punished if they acted with integrity? “We followed the code,” he protests, “We didn’t do anything wrong!”
Here’s the moment in which the other explains to him that integrity is not enough.
According to Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape, moral behavior promotes the flourishing of another human being, “The concept of ‘well-being’ captures all that we can intelligibly value. And ‘morality’…really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures.” (pp.12-13). Combine this with Murray Rothbard’s perspective:
While the behavior of plants and at least the lower animals is determined by their biological nature or perhaps by their ‘instincts,’ the nature of man is such that each individual person must, in order to act, choose his own ends and employ his own means in order to attain them. Possessing no automatic instincts, each man must learn about himself and the world, use his mind to select values, learn about cause and effect, and act purposively to maintain himself and advance his life. Since men can think, feel, evaluate, and act only as individuals, it becomes vitally necessary for each man’s survival and prosperity that he be free to learn, choose, develop his faculties, and act upon his knowledge and values. This is the necessary path of human nature; to interfere with and cripple this process by using (aggressive) violence goes profoundly against what is necessary by man’s nature for his life and prosperity. Violent interference with a man’s learning and (peaceful) choices is therefore profoundly ‘antihuman’; it violates the natural law of man’s needs.” Murray Rothbard
The result is that behavior is immoral when it initiates a violent interference against another person’s peaceful choices. That is, immoral behavior intrudes upon another person who is not first intruding upon another person’s life, liberty or property.
According to this definition the suicide bomber is evil and the Vikings are evil. Their actions are immoral because they interfere violently with another person’s choices; they prevent people to peacefully pursue their happiness and destroy their lives.
According to this definition slavery is evil and anti-homosexual legislation is evil. They are immoral because they interfere violently with another person’s choices; they prevent people to peacefully pursue their happiness and destroy their lives.
Find more exercises related to mindfulness at work here.
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