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The Morality of Truth

What is a moral person to think about truth? The epistemology of our modern age does not put a premium on truth. Conventional wisdom values much more relative truths – my truth, your truth, feminist truth, Chinese truth, ad infinitum.

Today, the search for truth among so many Western educated intellectuals and academics is tied to listening – to a moral obligation of hearing the voices of others in a moral cosmos of infinite others. Accordingly, there is no test, no criteria, for truth that is either objective or transcendent. Social convention – the absence of real truth – is all.

On the other hand, each person is born with a moral sense, a capacity to make moral decisions. It is part of our social nature. But the moral sense needs reassurance that what it comprehends is reliable, sturdy, on target, will still be there, more or less, in the same form and with the same intent tomorrow and again the next day and the day after that until, if not the end of time, at least for some respectable duration in which we must commit and live eagerly with our commitments.

Could it be that the truth is that which is sophistry, that which we cannot bend to our will, to which our will must submit?

In short, being moral demands searching for truths which are more substantial than social conventions – the mores which Cicero complained of when they leaned towards dictatorship.

Perhaps the intersection of morality and truth is a process – an intellectual, even spiritual, process of listening and thinking, of going beyond emotions and appearances.

I recently read this comment by a young scholar at the James Madison Program at Princeton University:

“Free inquiry is animated by the desire for truth alone. Humanistic learning consists of reading and reflecting on the reality of things for their own sake, not for their results. The classical philosopher Pierre Hadot described philosophy as a way of life that “translates into self-mastery and self-control, which can be obtained only by habit and perseverance in ascetic practices.”

The pursuit of truth, for its own sake, has other advantages. It sustains civil discourse in a pluralistic society. It helps us forge real connections with other human beings, alive and dead, from different eras, as well as our own. Reading great books enables us to think about science with Newton, ethics with Aristotle or history with W.E.B. Du Bois. This should generate pride in our own intellectual potential, as well as humility when we realize how far short we fall in the endeavor to understand ourselves and the world around us. And humility is necessary to sustain civil dialogue.

The pursuit of truth, for its own sake, also directs us outward and helps create deep friendships with fellow truth-seekers, whatever their age, race or political party.

Such direction towards others nourishes the moral sense.

Pope Benedict XVI in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate wisely said “Truth needs to be sought, found and expressed within the “economy” of charity [love/compassion], but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed and practiced in the light of truth. In this way … we help give credibility to truth, demonstrating its persuasive and authenticating power in the practical setting of social living.” (para 2)

Insights from Herman Mulder of the Impact Institute

I am very pleased to inform you that our podcast discussion with Herman Mulder of The Netherlands is now available and can be viewed above.

Herman is one of the most experienced and astute leaders in the CSR/Sustainability evolution of capitalism, now with the Impact Institute in Amsterdam, a best practice leader in measuring the impacts of enterprises.

He is most notable for the initiation of the Equator Principles. He is currently a Chairman of the True Price Foundation, member of the board of the Dutch National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for MNE’s and former Chairman of the Global Reporting Initiative. He was also a Senior Executive Vice-President at ABN AMRO.

Mr. Mulder played a key role in the creation of NFX, a coordinated platform between the Dutch government and Dutch financial sector focused on finance for development. Herman was Senior Advisor to the U.N. Global Compact and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. He is an Ambassador of the International Integrated Reporting Council and Advisor to the Natural Capital Coalition.

In November 2005, he received a Knighthood of the Order of Oranje-Nassau as a recognition for his active role in the development of the sustainability topics and Dutch economy, after which he was promoted to be an officer in the same order in October 2017 for his work as Chairman of the Sustainable Development Goals – Dutch Charter Coalition.

The Caux Round Table is lucky to benefit from his experience and wisdom.

Adam Smith on Doing Good for Goodness’ Sake

Yesterday, I was looking up a point in Adam Smith’s largely overlooked classic on the application of morals to life, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. By accident, I ran across this affirmation of why we should be virtuous:

“But the philosophers of all the different sects very justly represent virtue; that is wise, just, firm, and temperate conduct; not only as the most probable, but as the certain and infallible road to happiness in this life. This conduct, however, could not always exempt, and might even sometimes expose the person who followed it to all the calamities which were incident to that unsettled situation of public affairs. They endeavored, therefore, to show that happiness was either altogether, or at least in great measure, independent of fortune: … Wise, prudent, and good conduct was, in the first place, the conduct most likely to ensure success in every species of undertaking; and secondly, though it should fail of success, yet the mind was not left without consolation. The virtuous man might still enjoy the complete approbation of his own breast; and might still feel that, however untoward soever things might be without, all was calm and peace and concord within. He might generally comfort himself, too, with the assurance that he possessed the love and esteem of every intelligent and impartial spectator, who could not fail both to admire his conduct, and to regret his misfortune.”

Morality in the Atomic Age

Seventy-five years ago today, the American B-29 Superfortress bomber, the Enola Gay, piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets, opened its bomb bay doors and dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, initiating humanity to atomic warfare.

President Harry Truman made the decision to drop the bomb and then a second one three days later on Nagasaki. I have been told that he chose such destruction in place of an American invasion of Japan, which was predicted to result in massive civilian casualties and damage in town after town and city after city and great losses to American ground forces.

One of the founders of the Caux Round Table, Ryuzaburo Kaku, was in Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 when the second bomb was dropped. I once listened to Kaku-san at Mountain House in Caux, Switzerland describe his experience that day. He had been in a basement when the bomb detonated. On going up to the street, Kaku was amazed first at the silence – total silence, not even the sound of birds. Then he looked around – buildings destroyed – no people, not one – in sight.

His response to his survivor’s guilt – why me? What am I to do with my life to deserve it? – was to be exemplary in working for a higher vision in his business career with Canon Inc. He took a Japanese concept – kyosei or symbiosis – and developed it into a global ethic of business responsibility for stakeholders. You can read his article on kyosei in the Harvard Business Review here.

We live with the threat of nuclear war still today. An arms race between the U.S. and China appears to be underway. Both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. Israel is reliably reported to have nuclear weapons. Many worry that Iran, no friend of Israel, will develop nuclear weapons. North Korea, presumably, is very close to having a small nuclear arsenal.

For those who advocate a principled commitment to the moral use of power, what might the date August 6 portend?

First, that a terrible war, a nuclear war, is possible. Our moral powers of self-restraint can fail of their purpose and let a war happen.

More importantly, moral purpose, devoutly pursued, can lead to war: fiat iusticia ruat caelum – “Let there be justice though Heaven falls” or alternatively, fiat iusticia et pereat mundus – ”Let there be justice though the world perish.”

Morality too, taken to extremes, becomes cruel and destructive. Morality can become a heuristic figure of mind, a kind of cognitive bias, calling forth rationalizations, justifications, excuses.

Ethics, perhaps, a bit more utilitarian, balancing considerations of self and other, should be placed in the scales of justice.

In an age when atomic war is possible, hard thinking about conflict resolution, alternate forms of warfare, putting brakes on escalation, insistence on good governance, on a balance of interests and of coalitions of the willing to forestall the dangers of going to extremes are warranted.

International Zoom Round Table on Coronavirus – Thursday, August 20

Please join us at 9:00 am (CST) on Thursday, August 20, for an international Zoom round table on the coronavirus.

We’re planning to create a statement drawing upon the experience of the past several months with the virus and we seek your advice and counsel, as well as lessons learned, to be shared with our international network.

To register, please email Jed at jed@cauxroundtable.net.

Participation is limited to 25 attendees.

For those of you who can’t attend, we would be interested in your suggestions and thoughts, as well. Please send those to us by simply responding to this email.

July Pegasus Now Available!

Here is the July edition of Pegasus.

This issue contains a very detailed and comprehensive study of the history of slavery and its continuing effects on contemporary political, social and economic structures, from its origins in the ancient world right up to today’s precarious state of affairs.  Its author is our Global Executive Director, Steve Young.

Even though the sources used are in the public domain, a lot of this information is not widely known and may be surprising to you.

We would be most interested in your thoughts and feedback.

Podcast with Mexican Ambassador Francisco Suarez Davila

We have posted a podcast discussion with former Mexican Ambassador to Canada, Francisco Suarez Davila.

The video is embedded above or you can watch directly on YouTube here.

Amb. Suarez was introduced by our good friend Nicolas Mariscal of the Mexican business coordinating committee for social responsibility – Aliarse. Amb. Suarez is an economist by training and was with the Central Bank of Mexico and the IMF.

We discuss the fundamental need for trust for any social exchange in order for people to benefit from others and to feel confident about themselves. In Mexico, Amb. Suarez sadly notes the trust between government and business has collapsed, making it more worrisome to think about how Mexico can recover from the pandemic quickly and efficiently.

Amb. Suarez is not optimistic about this. He has been through many crises, but never one where health and economics were both negatively affected at the same time.

Michael Wright noted that if we close our fist to others, but expect to get something from them, we can’t receive it – our fingers are closed. To get, you must open your hand to give.

Born April 20, 1943 in Mexico City, Francisco Suárez holds a law degree from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge, King’s College.

During President Peña Nieto’s electoral campaign and until very recently, he served as Secretary General of the Colosio Foundation, the think tank of the PRI. He also held the post of Vice President of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) (2008-2011).

He began his career at the Bank of Mexico where he became the General Manager of International Economic Affairs (1976-1980). He was an Executive Director on the Executive Board of the IMF (1972-1976); Financial Director at Nacional Financiera, Mexico’s industrial development bank (1980-1982); Undersecretary of Finance and Public Credit (1982-1988); and Director General of Banco Mexicano Somex, now Banco Santander (1988-1992).

For two periods, he served as a Federal Congressman (Député) and chaired the Finance Committee (1994-1997). Later, he was Ambassador of Mexico to the OECD (1997-2000), where he headed the Budget Committee.

Francisco Suárez’s extensive academic career includes teaching economic policy and international relations at the UNAM, Iberoamericana University and at the Colegio de México.

He has published numerous articles and co-authored several books. He has written a biweekly opinion column in the newspaper El Universal and served as both a member and Chairman of the Board of Trustees the UNAM.

With my colleagues Devry Boughner Vorwerk and Michael Wright, we discussed the impact of the pandemic on Mexico and the importance of collaboration between Mexico, the U.S and Canada, in line with the Caux Round Table Principles for Business on robust participation in international trade to make optimal contributions to wellbeing.

If Discourse is Morality in Action, What is Moral Discourse?

I ran across two insightful turns of phrase over the weekend in editorial commentaries – one in our local paper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the other in the Wall Street Journal – which illuminated for me the fundamental soundness of one of our ethical principles for government.

We propose that in politics and government, as a recognition of the dignity of all, discourse ethics should determine the use of public power – not arms, not the corruption of money or unjustified preference, not intolerance, not ideology or racism, not any repression of thought or insight, nor of the spirit, which seeks truth and justice in humility and through curiosity of mind with open heart. This Caux Round Table Principle holds that:

Discourse ethics should guide application of public power.

Public power, however allocated by constitutions, referendums or laws, shall rest its legitimacy in processes of communication and discourse among autonomous moral agents who constitute the community to be served by the government. Free and open discourse, embracing independent media, shall not be curtailed except to protect legitimate expectations of personal privacy, sustain the confidentiality needed for the proper separation of powers or for the most dire of reasons relating to national security.

In a defense of free thought, the Star Tribune held up as a problem “deluminating” – the bringing of darkness through the extinguishing of light. This idea was borrowed from the Harry Potter novels and very appropriately applied to currents running strongly in America just now (and not only in my country) which would shut down thinking and speech which is not culturally or politically approved by the self-righteous, self-appointed adjudicators of justice.

In Harry Potter, the wizard Dumbledore had a device – a deluminator – which would suppress light.

The Washington Post imperiously, but rightfully proclaims that “Democracy dies in darkness.”

Secondly, Gerard Baker in the Wall Street Journal also wrote in defense of free expression. He acutely illuminated the harm that poor use of language can inflict on discourse and the search for justice and the common good. He spoke of demagogues and sophists who manipulate and twist emotions, prejudices, ignorance and meanness of soul and spirit. He called out President Trump for aggressive misuse of words.

Bakers’ warning is that “careless rhetoric needlessly undermines the trust necessary for a healthy democracy.”

The moral quality protected by discourse ethics is trust, the basis for social good and personal wellbeing.