August 20 Zoom Round Table on Pandemic Recap – A New Moral Frame Needed for All of Us

There were 23 people who attended our August 20th round table on our reflections regarding the pandemic, convened through Zoom.

Remarkably, a common theme emerged from the comments, articulated by participants from different countries, but all pointing in the same direction. That theme was loss – not of money, but of something more important – trust and confidence and the need for virtue to fill that social emptiness.

Individuals have lost confidence in elites and those in authority have lost confidence in themselves.

One participant noted that the black swan event was not the virus, but the collapse of leadership across our elites – political, religious, business and educational. Not even science has provided reassurance. Expertise, the justification of privilege for all modern rational/legal institutions, is falling short in obtaining the trust of individuals.

What is needed now, globally, therefore, is a new culture which can legitimate trust in ourselves, trust in our institutions and self-confidence of our leaders in the efficacy of their own virtue.

That culture can’t be bought. It has to evolve from our hearts. Financial investments and charity, government funding of expenditure through the creation of more fiat currency liquidity cannot create a spiritual good, but what we need must come from the spirit.

The pandemic has laid bare our values – the differential impacts on the poor, the elderly, SMEs, the instinct for self-protection, fears and the recriminations arising from them.

We need to re-establish moral authority to give people reasons to be resilient and live in solidarity with others. But how to do this? A flow down from the “top” is out of the question. It is the “top” which has been exposed as lacking in moral and emotional substance. A bottom-up process is needed where values and vision are made available to individuals and they, in turn, then act charismatically to rally resolve and goodwill.

We need, it was suggested, solidarity, individual acceptance of responsibility and social closeness, not social distancing.

We need a new controlling myth; manners too, ethical norms for individuals vis-à-vis others lifting up acceptance of reciprocal duties. Culture exists in relationships, so to build a new culture, we must engage with those around us, not just stand aloof from institutions and their authority figures. As one participant said, subjects of power structures must become citizens of vital communities.

The world is open to follow new outbursts of leadership, but in such conditions, history has shown that not every flowering of “leadership” leads to good. When culture is threadbare and society is fragmented, it’s not always the “better angels” of our natures which rise up from the ashes of disappointment to direct our fears and passions.

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)

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.

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.

A Practical Plan from The Netherlands

Herman Mulder of the Impact Institute in Amsterdam has just sent me a very thoughtful and practical plan for a more intentional and more moral collaborative engagement of business and government to put in place after the pandemic.

Herman proposed this for his country, The Netherlands, but it applies in my mind to our global community.

You may read his recommendations here.

I would appreciate learning your reactions to his recommendations.

Hagia Sophia and the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad – Informing the Pope and the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch

The decision by the Turkish government to convert the status of Hagia Sophia into a mosque brings to our immediate attention the contemporary legacy of the Prophet Muhammad’s covenants with Christian communities.

As I have reported to you previously, the Caux Round Table has used its good offices to facilitate the study of those covenants, coordinating three workshops among remarkable Christian and Muslim scholars and thought leaders.

To bring to the attention of both Pope Francis and the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch, Bartholomew, the terms of the Prophet’s covenants protecting Christian churches, I have sent each of them a letter on the subject.

You may find a copy of my letter to the Pope here.

And a copy of my letter to the Patriarch here.

In reacting to the decision of the Turkish government, I find myself ever more appreciative of the Prophet’s vision and grace in giving such covenants of respect and protection to Christian communities.

CRT Study of Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with Christian Communities

The Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism has provided its good offices to coordinate three workshops to learn more about covenants made by the Prophet Muhammad with Christian communities. These covenants expressed respect for and promised protection of Christian communities, the Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai and in the city of Najran, among them.

Our most recent workshop was a webinar convened by Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha. Professor Ibrahim Zein, with whom we first worked in 2006 on a study of Quranic principles of good governance at the International Islamic University Malaysia, and his Dean, Dr. Emad Shahin, hosted the workshop.

Subsequently, the university released a press statement on the workshop. The Gulf Times published this article on the workshop:

I am honored by the opportunity to bring forward new research on the Prophet Muhammad’s solicitous concern for Christians in collaboration with colleges from Christian and Muslim faiths.