The following piece is slated to be chapter 3 in the second volume of Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom (itself based on an Internet-based talk radio show of the same name I did in times past). In this dialogue, author and philosophical thinker Jason Merchey is interviewed by noted communication expert and founder of the peace activist group Voices of Women, Jenni Prisk. Her words are indicated by the initials JP, and Jason’s are JM. For paragraphs with no initials, assume they are a continuation of the speaker who was speaking in the previous paragraph. Enjoy this chapter entitled “A Discussion About Values and Ethics in General.” It is also available as a podcast, A Discussion About Values and Ethics in General.
JP: Hello Jason. Let’s begin. I have lots of problems with our current president. Would you want the job?
JM: Hi Jenni. I don’t think I’d be accepted! Honestly, it’s extraordinarily difficult if you are a woman, a black person— basically any type of minority status. Some people think that the only reason that JFK was selected to the presidency was because his father helped to secure his nomination and his election, but his Catholicism would have worked against him otherwise. So, somebody like me who is more liberal than conservative, more authentic than duplicitous, it would just never work; they probably would dig up something from my past that was slightly embarrassing…
But then you have situations like the movie Bulworth and that was a remarkable look at the idea of what happens if a person were to tell the truth, would they stand a chance? Warren Beatty, his character showed that people, in a way, respond to truth-telling. That’s probably what Paul Wellstone from Minnesota— the late Senator— he was very popular, and Minnesota is not a particularly “Left” state. Or at least, it’s not in the “granola” style of liberalism, you know, it’s not Greenwich Village out there. He showed them that he’s different, with his background as a community college professor, and he just told them, you know, I might not have the exact same values that you do, but I promise you I won’t betray you; you’ll understand what I’m doing, and I’ll be open to your counsel. They definitely appreciated the job he did, and so did the rest of us; there were times when was the only person voting no on a bill; standing alone on the Senate floor can be a harrowing thing to do, I think.
JP: Oh, I would imagine so; I think it takes a lot of courage. So, where today — in our first installment of A Discussion About Values and Ethics — how do you think, in a nutshell, we are doing as far as values are concerned in America today?
JM: I think it’s a mixture of something that we can all be proud of and something that we should all be ashamed of. One thing I think is that we’re relatively disempowered. If you listen to someone like Noam Chomsky who speaks pretty intelligently about the ability of people to organize, and get their political needs met, by banding together and being educated and attempting to see through the smoke screen that the media in certain corporations put up.
Thus, we do have a lot more power than we think we do. If you think about how much consumers can really do… If there is a campaign against fur, for example, it makes a big dent in the fur coat industry. Martha Stewart comes out and says, “I don’t wear for anymore,” and it becomes a big issue, like “oh, why doesn’t she wear fur?” and “Other people are doing that too.” Nike – they got plastered by citizens, by the media, for having sweatshop labor in Asian countries, and I think it took something from their image and their market share. So, today’s an interesting time in that, with the Internet, it’s easier to organize, and we’re less powerless. But in a way, the past five or six years have shown that we are relatively powerless, and that’s either because it is on our own heads, or a force or forces keep us like that.
So, on the one hand, I think that it’s remarkable how purely immoral some of the things that our country does are; on the other hand, a lot of people, in their homes, they tried to have the values that we all would consider to be good ones, and they tried to do the right thing, and when they come up against a moral issue like abortion or gay rights or war— they think about these things very carefully.
I have more faith in the people than I do our leaders — or maybe “our controllers” would probably even be an apt term. It’s somewhat of a muddled issue though, because there is plenty of evidence that Americans are not morally upright, rational, and enlightened. In sum, I think there are ways in which we are morally praiseworthy, and certain things we do should be condemned.
JP: That’s an interesting concept. Do you think that perhaps that hidden power – actually it’s not quite so hidden these days, but— that feeling of hard power from our Administration might be causing the general populace to look at their own values more clearly and decide that, “Alright, I can’t get them from being applied in my government, so I’m going to apply them in my home more strongly”?
JM: Hmmm, I would hope that each person understands how fully responsible and free they are to understand their own values and live those values. Luckily, we don’t live in a totalitarian regime where it’s impossible to be yourself. It’s easier if you’re not confused with, say, a Communist organization back in the 1950s, or a terrorist organization today, but for the most part, we still have an understanding and, at least, a face-value honoring of the idea of liberty— that you can do your own thing. Think about how hard it is to get a parent to stop raising their child in an inadequate way; I mean what are you going to do, the parent has to be literally beating the heck out of a child for the State to step in.
So, we’re really very free and certain ways as a country, therefore, a person has an opportunity every single day to choose what values they are going to support. Like when Gandhi said “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” everybody does have an opportunity in a way to do the right thing, to live the values that they really choose. When you walk down the street, is there trash? If so what are you going to do: pick it up, or are you going to leave it? When somebody gets in front of you on the freeway, are you going to flip them off or are you going to say, “well I guess they were in a serious hurry, I probably should just forget about it. Or even just forgive them. Forgiveness and generosity and honesty— these are things that each of us can do every minute of every day if we keep our eye on the ball.
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JP: In the next question in this Discussion of Values and Ethics, I would ask: How do you think corporate America is doing?
JM: I think corporate America has a lot of incentive to do the right thing; the whole movement of corporate social responsibility… Some people think it’s a silly euphemism or just another smokescreen; others think that it’s changing the way that the world works by highlighting a corporation’s or an organization’s record in regard to some sort of measurement decides profit, and I think there is kind of a sea change nowadays where corporations are being more transparent and more responsible and they are expected to not harm the environment.
If you take a situation like Interface, the world’s largest carpet manufacturer, Ray Anderson, who was actually featured on the movie The Corporation, he said that’s what he was doing – just making carpet and polluting and not having a sustainable business model – he called it “the way of the plunderer” because he was plundering the planet for profit. Well, plundering the planet is an evil thing to do, the wrong thing to do, and, slowly, we’re able to hold people’s feet to the flame and say “what you’re doing is not the right thing; we need to be good stewards of the planet, we need to take care of the people who work for us, make our corporation what it could be.” I think or hope that first-quarter profits are becoming passé as the best— or let’s say, the only— measurements by which corporate leadership should be judged.
JP: I like that analogy about the planet, too. We don’t own this planet, we are merely renters, and I think that the more we embrace social responsibility, it’s a very big deal. So, do you see that any organizations or corporations are integrating their values into their Mission Statements in the future in a more dedicated way?
JM: I think a lot of corporations are choosing what values they want to state and what values they want to uphold, and they are doing a decent job in educating their people about what their corporate values are. And some of them are very good. The list of corporate values ranges from “excellent” all the way to “dismal.” I think people who work in organizations and corporations have a wonderful opportunity to influence the corporation, to make their values known and to choose to work in a place that reflects and allows expression of their highest values.
As we see with Enron and the military and many, many multinational corporations, if people do not firmly hold the helm, it can degenerate into the worst parts of humanity. Abu Ghraib and the corporations that are pilloried in the movie The Corporation clearly illustrate that when people who are morally deficient or extremely self-centered run the show without oversight and corrective mechanisms, people get hurt, the planet is damaged, and our national reputation is tarnished. In fact, a pretty compelling case is made in that movie that a corporation is akin to a sociopath.
I don’t think it is reaching, either. It is not a stretch to liken a corporation – which is just words on a piece of paper if you think about it— to a robots or to a human who has some sort of brain dysfunction that makes empathy, concern for the other, and in general “positive values” completely impossible. If I had my druthers, I would probably ban the legal protections that states grant to corporations and usher in a new era of small business and cooperative enterprise and so on. I think corporations like Exxon do very little positive for the people or the planet. But, I don’t have that kind of power, so that is just pie in the sky. But I think it is right and fair for people to criticize institutions and demand that they behave better.
It is a soul-crushing experience to try to run a home in such a way that one’s children are being raised to be responsible and ethical individuals, only to have to go to work in a morally vacuous environment over which one has literally no significant control. You don’t see teachers jumping off of 100-story buildings in times of crisis, and I think that probably has a lot to do with the fact that their overarching goal is not to make money by taking money from the vast sea of faces out there in Gotham city.
Likewise, that chicanery perpetrated by Bernie Madoff and his ilk would never be possible if Bernie was required to simply be a grocer or a plumber or an attorney. I might have a bias against power-brokers, those in the financial services industry, and upper-level corporate executives, though, so I try to recognize that. I do probably put the world’s teachers, firefighters and doctors on a pedestal, morally speaking.
Well, perhaps I am off on a tangent. I suppose I can wrap this thought up by noting that I think the way of the future is to know what your values are and to work for an organization (if you can’t work independently) whose values are consistent with yours. It can make a big difference in a person’s life, and I think it has been shown to make a positive difference in the organization, as well, including often-times, profitability, and longevity.
JP: Sometimes when I read about a serial killer for someone who is taken the lives of other people… What do you think it’s happened to their values over their lifetimes? Have they been taught to those values from childhood and they’ve changed and adopted different values by the people they’ve followed or do they come from a place or a culture where those murderous values were instilled in them?
JM: Well, I probably would have to be a really educated follower of sociopathy to give a good answer about that aspect. It’s a remarkable pathology, but it does come out of human nature to some degree. People discuss back and forth, “What is the nature of humanity?”, You know, this human condition we have the capacity for good and for evil. This is a perfect topic for A Discussion About Values and Ethics if you think about it.
So, I think a sociopath is kind of a complicated explanation and I am not sure that I really know it. I recall something about brain damage along the lines of frontal lobe differences in sociopaths. I’m sure there is pretty good literature nowadays on this fascinating topic. And it’s worth remembering that not all sociopaths are murderers; I’m sure far less than half of them or maybe even a quarter behave in that particular manner. But all of them seem to lack empathy and have very curious ways of stimulating their abnormal brains. Clearly, morality is highly aberrant in such individuals.
I know Hervey Cleckley did a seminal book entitled The Mask of Sanity, and clearly there are individuals in corporations, law offices, and investment banking firms who are really only there to feather their own nest and it doesn’t matter whom they step on to get their needs met. But I think it’s worth pointing out that sociopathy is as much of an outlier as is schizophrenia or some other mental illness that when it comes to values and ethics and how those interact with the political, sociological, and vocational systems in which humans are embedded, we ought not to spend undue amounts of time and energy analyzing such individuals.
It is definitely worth looking at something like the way the Germans interacted with the Nazi party in the 1930s; it is fair to say that Hitler was a sociopath either literally or for our intents and purposes and the German people— who, though might be a culture characterized by adherence to rules, and so on— were also more typical of human beings than they were some kind of atypical culture, and the degree to which Germans adopted Nazism and its incredible characteristics is nothing short of remarkable. They were completely cowed and intimidated at first, and later— and especially when you look at the Polish people, for example— adopted the repressive, bigoted, and violent mores of their leaders.
Phenomena such as propaganda, economic insecurity, lack of a free and open press, and the psychology of the shame of the post-World War I situation— and age-old prejudices and irrational beliefs – ran roughshod over the consciences and moral fiber of the good people. There are of course many stellar examples of persons who stood up for right in the midst of such moral depravity, and, sadly, most of them did not live to tell about it. I love listening to Holocaust survivors, though, because those who didn’t get overwhelmed by the rigors of privation and torture often are a beacon of light in regard to their courage, will, insight, altruism, and forgiveness.
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Clearly, one of the highest levels to which a person can aspire is to deal with Holocaust-level offenses and end up making peace with that and rather than going crazy or becoming vile themselves, show love and compassion and care for others. They would, perhaps ironically, be a kind of uber-mensch, not as Nietzsche described it, but in the humane and existential sense of the word.
Finally, on this topic I would note that there are some really remarkable psychological and sociological research findings (Asch, Milgram, Zimbardo, Adorno) about the individuals who simply followed orders and fairly easily and willingly participated in that gruesome situation. The shocking finding— forgive the pun— of Milgram’s obedience to authority experiment, and subsequent findings as well, is how easy it is to take someone who is by all accounts living a normal and relatively harmless life and turn them into a willing participant and enthusiastic minion of a person or persons with evil intentions and power. The study of power is certainly fascinating. When something like 50% to 75% of typical Americans would seemingly shock and experiment participant to death, there is a devastating sociological and psychological phenomenon at work. Studies of groups and crowds and social psychology in general are just incredibly interesting to me.
JP: Good heavens, [experiments like the Milgram obedience to authority study] are frightening. It is frightening because there was nothing wrong with the Germans per se, they were just manipulated and they fell victim to a confluence of circumstances and influences. Hitler in a white coat.
JM: Yes, he said the Jews are our problem, people believed that because they wanted to believe that developmentally-disabled people and gays and prisoners and Communists and Socialists all deserved to die, that they were the cause of the problem, that aspiring to be a true German or an Aryan was the pinnacle of development, and that anyone standing in the way of the German people’s long climb up the dirty ladder of the 1920s and 1930s needed to be dealt with immorally. It does kind of remind one of a society-wide form of sociopathy or megalomania.
Everyone has the ability to be manipulated to varying degrees, and unfortunately there is a whole system set up in this country, presently, to help manipulate minds – to vote for the right candidate, to buy this or that product, to tolerate violence sports and violent movies and games, etc. oftentimes these people in authority, the powerful people with the evil designs and the white coats often do not have our best interests in mind. They say the love of money is the root of all evil, and that is a decent, partial explanation for why they smart and apparently normal person would spend incredible amounts of time trying to get a doctor to prescribe their company’s drug – which, in just a few years, ends up clearly being a bad product. And you have the FDA often being a lap-dog for those huge corporations and so on. It’s ugly.
JP: We have a lot of “white coats” in [the Bush] Administration, and it’s increasingly encroaching on our civil liberties, as far as I see it personally, in that we are being told how to think. Original thinking is going to be stymied in less we take a stand against that. What was it that Margaret Mead said – you’re better with quotations than I am – that it’s people that want to get things done and governments had better get out of their way and let them do it, they can move mountains. Maybe that movement is just around the corner.
JM: There was a movie made about the Grand Canyon called, surprisingly, The Grand Canyon. It was with Danny Glover and Steve Martin and so on. This was back in 1990 or so, and it was a remarkable movie that depicted society as having its problems – it was exemplified by crimes and the helicopters circling at night and busyness and the vacuous media and so on. They traveled as a motley crew to the Grand Canyon as a way to develop a new understanding of what’s valuable and how big the world is, how vast the universe is, and how there is such a sort-of order to the universe even if we humans are in a state of disorder and, decay, maybe. In the last scene in the movie they were standing in front of the Grand Canyon, peering out, and the father and son who were kind of estranged were connecting and they had a kind of breathtaking or refreshing new perspective, even when there were problems and frustrations going on back in Los Angeles, from where they came.
And so I think that is something that we all should be thinking of that, just because there are problems now doesn’t mean that they’re overwhelming or that we are completely powerless or that all hope is lost. This kind of optimism is a value of the wise, and it sometimes runs up against my more existential belief system. This is not to say that something like global warming is not a serious threat, or that many African-Americans are not still second-class citizens, or that the infringement of civil liberties that has been happening for the past ten, twenty, or fifty years – and only quickened sense 9/11 – are not questionable or even egregious. But it is to say that the Grand Canyon is still there. It’s about the same as it ever was. Despite some effects by mankind in the past 200 years, it’s a beautiful, limitless, remarkable place.
This theme pervades J.R.R. Tolkien’s work in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Within our own minds and within our communities and within our country and within our world, there are glimmers of hope that can help us to stay strong during challenging times. I would like to think that Values of the Wise, in some small way, plays a role in asking certain questions and bringing about certain states of mind and pushing people a little bit to do some things that are hard, but helpful.
I know a woman who is a vegan and it is due to moral reasons, and I am awed, and slightly ashamed, when I think of that kind of insight, will, and respect for life. I am not a vegetarian, so it reminds me that it’s challenging to understand what your values are and even more challenging to live them when there is some cost to you. If you think justice is easy, try having your son or daughter killed by a murderer and reflect on whether you would want the individual responsible to die or not. It’s really difficult to forgive. Harder than abstaining from eating a burger, I would say.
JP: As this is a Discussion About Values and Ethics, in part about corporate America, I am thinking about how corporate social responsibility is becoming more of a key facet in many mission statements and in the vision of many companies, and I think many employees are speaking out if they don’t see the leadership example or the values example coming from the top. Would you agree with that?
JM: It is a big problem for a person when the values that an organization or corporation states are not the same values that are practiced in the hallways; that creates a real rub for people because, you know, they see something on the wall that says “We have to have accountability” and then they see a manager not doing so, or the CEO making a really selfish or poor decision.
Incidentally, I would also question the ethics of CEOs “earning” 200, 300, 400 times what the lowest-paid worker makes. I think that shows a nauseating primacy of next quarter profits as compared to reinvestment, or a more horizontal pay scheme. And I think that is bound to have effects. Some of the workers in big, top-heavy corporations like Wal-Mart have certainly been called on the carpet for doing things like using under-the-table payments to cleaning companies who utilize undocumented immigrant labor, or the nearly-famous example of some employees working full-time and remaining poor. There are documented cases of low-level employees not making enough money to afford to eat, or have a car, or buy medications. Couple that with the society-level issues such as being the only country in the industrialized world who doesn’t provide healthcare for all of its citizens and you have a big problem.
Jenni, what would you do if you worked for a company whose values were either contradictory or simply not prioritized, where you knew what you valued, and you knew what the corporation said it valued, and there was some consistency but, overall, there was a significant difference between what was stated and what really goes on?
But every act of morality has some challenging aspect to it. Even something simple like giving up your seat if someone claims they were there first, or being quiet when one asks you to, has some degree of difficulty. But usually those things are cut and dried: someone says excuse me, you move. It’s ethical dilemmas that I quite love thinking about. At some point I want to have Judy Boss on the program; she literally wrote the book on moral dilemmas.
JP: As you know, not only do I head Voices of Women, but I also have my own consulting business and I am a public speaking and communications coach, which takes me in and out of many, many companies and most of them nowadays have their set of core values. You asked me what I would do, well, I am experiencing a sense of unrest from many of the companies with whom I work where the core values are practically patched in stone around the company and yet those who lead the company, and much of middle management as well, do not seem to be living them. I find that employees fall into two camps: there are those who will speak out and take the risks and there are those who won’t. The latter can become very unsettled and even miserable in their day to day work life. Those who speak out are occasionally at risk too because they are seen as telling the Emperor he or she has no clothes, and I know of some very real examples where people have either been gradually eased out of the company or they had been moved from some senior positions. If you were intervening in an organization, how would you do it – where you help them to clarify their values and to set a new path?
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JM: One has to make a determination whether you make institutional changes at the very top that hopefully then can be sent down, or whether you’re working with the workers. And that’s a big difference. Usually, I think the top management says “Come on in and make the workers more [fill in the blank].” That is something that can be implemented, with dubious success. Then on the other hand, sometimes organizational leaders will say that they need help establishing our values and reinforcing them, more than, say, fixing them, or dealing with a morale, productivity, or attrition problem. Grassroots changes that are not supported by upper- and middle-management’s decisions and actions of course will fall short, just as a military squadron with an ineffective commander is in peril.
Is very important that there is a feeling of accountability and integrity that ranges throughout the organization, so that individuals feel like they are a true part of a culture with whom they have an intrinsic desire to affiliate; just as it is hard to get a teen to clean their room – unless a visitor of the opposite sex is expected! – it can be unnecessarily challenging to hire people of a certain caliber and tell them that they are going to find x or y culture, only to find out that it is more like a or b culture.
Productivity is already hard to keep near 100%, what a shame it is when the leaders undercut the efforts at organizational success by an environment that saps employee morale, functioning, and cooperation. I think there is some evidence that the best-run companies often perform the best. Couple that with realistic, long-term, diverse measures of success (e.g., beyond the next quarter profits and shareholder demands for instant gratification) and you have the makings of a progressive, functional and competitive business.
I like the books Companies We Keep: Employee Ownership and the Business of Community and Place, by John Abrams and Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the classic The Power of Servant-Leadership by Robert Greenleaf.
It is so obvious how to create a positive work environment, I shake my head when I hear of examples of greed, laziness, self-service, ignorance, inadequate ethics, and misdirected goals subvert that goal. It seems obvious that one would want to have their team in tip-top shape in order to compete in a capitalistic system, but alas, you have a stack of examples of failed potential. Since it is people’s livelihoods, their mental health, their health and longevity on the line, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
It is also worth mentioning that I have learned in a very informal manner, kind of like a grassroots method of gaining insight into organizational psychology, workplace dynamics, and leadership, primarily by reading, discussing, and picking up hundreds or thousands of quotations relevant to the topic. However, as with nearly all the branches of psychology, one can’t use anecdotes, intuition, and pure creativity to understand or effect change in such environments as businesses and organizations.
I would like to know more, but I really am just shooting from the hip at this point in my development. There are many good books and wise interventionists and coaches out there that could be listened to if those in power would only take change seriously. As I indicated, so much is on the line, I feel they have a moral responsibility to be good leaders. If one wants to be a selfish jerk, in a cabin in the woods, that’s one thing; but Lehman Brothers is a spectacular example of how much damage can be caused by irresponsible and immature leaders. Unfortunately, there is a mountain of examples of companies that fail to reach their potential.
JP: Well, Jason, that is our time. I enjoyed this Discussion About Values and Ethics, and I hope we can do it again. Stay well.
JM: Thanks, Jenni, you too.
I hope you enjoyed this chapter entitled “A Discussion About Values and Ethics in General.” It is also available as a podcast, A Discussion About Values and Ethics in General.