Advocacy of ethics in business and responsible business behavior that takes a long-term view of pricing and other immediate market circumstances presumes the possibility of having good individual character. A concern for consequences to others, along with acts of judgment and self-restraint, reflect a commitment to social values and communal needs. Persons with a low tolerance for the moral sense will often fall short in having such concern and so acting with thoughtful regard for the best interests of others.
Ethics, therefore, presumes some degree of successful socialization in conventional norms offering a vision of the common good. Ethics rejects living by the proverbial law of the jungle where life is “red in tooth and claw”.
If we can’t make such a presumption that business decision-makers can have this certain quality of mind and character, then business ethics becomes a bootless undertaking, a waste of time and money.
If we can have no confidence in character as a social force, then how can we expect socially responsible results from business?
Here is where the intellectual heritage of the modern West has undermined the task of ethics in general and business ethics in particular.
First, there is the advocacy of Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinism that humankind did not evolve with a moral sense.
Second, there are the arguments of Friedrich Nietzsche that conceptualizing with pure reason can deconstruct all propositions, leaving us with moral nihilism and the will to power as our guide to right and wrong.
Third, there is Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis.
I was recently reading, while flying home from meetings in Bucharest, Belgrade, Zagreb and Warsaw, an essay of Carl Jung which mentioned in passing his conclusion that Freud was unduly harsh in his judgments about human nature and potential. Jung was more optimistic than Freud on the quality of our psychic apparatus and our ability to lead morally constructive lives.
For example, in Civilization and its Discontents, Freud wrote that “The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. … Man’s natural aggressive instinct, the hostility of each against all, opposes the program of civilization.”
Freud, as we all know, equated morality and socialization with the super-ego, which was a repressive function within the personality set to act in suppression of our basic instincts, shaped in large part by traumas of infant sexuality vis-à-vis our mothers and fathers. Freud described the super-ego as a “garrison in a conquered city.”
Under conditions of freedom and with a self-satisfying lexicon of free will, repression is not a positive condition. No one wants to live constantly under the supervision of a garrison of conquering soldiers. Thus, Freud’s psychoanalysis predisposes modern thought to rejection of the super-ego and all similar repressive mental operations.
Parallel to Nietzsche’s intellectual nihilism, Freud gave us a corresponding emotional nihilism. The object of his program of psychotherapy was removal of repressions to permit the neurotic individual to find scope of action in freedom for his or her special perceptions and emotional needs. Social truths and norms were thus relativized as personal will replaced common truths about right and wrong.
Freud’s thinking, of course, no longer has the cache and appeal that it did during the mid Twentieth Century, but I venture to suggest that the deconstructive aspect of his theory with respect to moral character has pervaded much of our common understandings of adulthood.
Thus we find the passionate 1958 argument of Normal Mailer in his famous essay “The White Negro.” Mailer therein called for an American social revolution to abolish conventions and hierarchies by letting loose within each of us a “psychopath.”
He wrote “… the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself, to explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness, and one exits in the present, in that enormous present which is without past or future, memory or planned intention, the life where a man must go until he is beat, where he must gamble with his energies through all those small or large crises of courage and unforeseen situations which beset his day, where he must be with it or doomed not to swing.”
Nice morality for the trading rooms of Wall Street, don’t you think? Chuck Prince, former CEO of Citigroup, said that “as long as the music was playing, you have to get up and dance.”
Mailer’s morality was: “what made him feel good became therefore The Good”.
Mailer concluded with respect to character: “Character being thus seen as perpetually ambivalent and dynamic enters then into an absolute relativity where there are not truths other than the isolated truths of what each observer feels at each instant of his existence.”
The goal was to free ourselves from the “dead weight of the institutions of the past” which were but “inefficient and often antiquated nervous circuits of the past which strangle our potentiality for responding to new possibilities which might be exciting for our individual growth.”
Mailer advised white American males to pick up the cultural dowry of the Negro who, Mailer actually wrote, “could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization.” Such a new, and more attractive to Mailer, personality-type he called the “hipster” who would “shift the focus of his desire from immediate gratification toward that wider passion for future power which is the mark of civilized man” but with a difference: the hipster would bring to the task of using power the “sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle.”
Today, along with Norman Mailer, we place much less hope in character that was the case before Freud. We don’t raise children expressly so much any more to develop habits reflecting “good” or “strong” character. We are quite cynical about the motives of those in power, be they business people, politicians or just neighbors. Our media – from Hollywood to the New York Times – takes it for granted that a major task of reporting is to blow holes in appearances of high ideals and good character. To expose the feet of clay that we all walk on to some degree.
Thus, serious reform of business practices and short-termism in financial markets may require re-thinking human nature and rejecting some of the past implications of psychoanalysis.