The Greater Good
The part of ethics which interests me the most is the principle of the "Greater Good". I think we should all be working on something greater than ourselves, and doing something meaningful with our lives on Earth.
Ethics and morality have been a primary interest to me on and off during my life, but moreso as I get older and understand things better.
This is not any "holier than thou" article. I have done some things in my life, a very long time ago, which I now regret sincerely. As I've gotten older and wiser, I have analyzed my desires and feelings, people I know and have known, and my peer groups, which helps me understand human life and others who make the same mistakes. The most important thing is to learn from them, understand that it's part of the human experience which others go thru, too, and most importantly, not repeat mistakes, and try to advise others likewise with your wisdom. We cannot change the past but we can resolve to make a good future.
There is an instinct to conform with your tribe. In many cases, that tribe does unethical things. It can be the company you work for (which may be the most difficult to deal with due to financial dependency), your social group, the neighborhood people you grow up with, your military unit, or any group you are a part of. You should question what is accepted as normal behavior and belief.
A favorite story is about Jesus coming upon a Jewish mob about to stone a woman to death for adultery. Jesus says "Let Him Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone". That was enough to spare the lady her life and teach everybody a lesson.
Nonetheless, ever since a kid, I have disagreed with people who go to church every Sunday, then go out and repeat their sins all week, and rationalize it by saying Jesus understands we are human, as if it's a license to repeat the same sins over and over or violate a well understood code of ethics.
Most sins I see are totally unnecessary -- it is not really a matter of survival. It's often sins for greed, relative status in the pack, mating, and other emotional=instinctual drives. Instead, people should understand our emotions and instincts, use our intellect to stay mindful and guide our actual behaviors, think independently rather than engage in too much groupthink, learn to appreciate and be content with what we have, and lead a righteous life. We are not cave men, we already live in relative luxury, we mainly need to appreciate what we have, be a good role model for others, and work for a good purpose in life.
What is our purpose in life?
We live in an amazing Universe. Each one of us is just a little individual animal of the dominant species (homo sapiens) which has evolved on Earth to date, in a remote part of a galaxy of 300 billion stars, itself just one of more than 100 billion galaxies. This entire universe is surely just one of countless systems which exist and had natural selection to create greater sophistication, including vastly beyond our own.
Our DNA hardware, which governs our thinking, is based on what was naturally selected over the generations, the people successful in depositing their DNA into the next generation, due to their success in competing for mates, social status, and ability to support their offspring, but also sometimes by warfare, rape and pillage, the result being that some of those genes are with us at birth.
(One of the things I find interesting is psychopaths, and why their DNA is passed on.)
In the modern world, being a male, I have become well aware that many ladies are attracted to men with lots of money, opulent shelter, high financial status, self-confidence and assertiveness in the world (including overconfidence, aggressiveness, and bullshitting trickery), and even overtly questionable ethics. I have none of these traits, nor would I want to try to do these things, just to have a choice of mates. In a way, I was more challenged in a small community. Fortunately for me, the world is a big place.
In my young years, I was very popular with some kinds of ladies albeit a small minority, which I think was because I was seen as caring and compassionate, intelligent, peaceful, able to adapt to situations in a smooth way, listened and understood them, and am very sensitive. I always made it clear that I did not have a lot of money or things, nor was I interested in those kinds of things. I never wanted to attract that kind of lady. I exuded more of a backpacker image. I even carried a small backpack much of the time, which was analogous to a lady's purse.
I guess it's largely just the DNA which has been passed on to me.
Actually, our species has diverse DNA, and includes many individuals who have more than the usual natural empathy and/or intellect, and we are remarkably adaptable to conform to whichever culture we are born into, as well as able to break out of groupthink ... well, at least some of us can think outside the box.
I disagree with a common western society tenet or acceptance that life is for individuals to maximize their personal happiness and that it's OK to not be considerate of others nor for the greater good, and instead it is OK to just indulge to each person's maximum ability. Due to the profit motive, this flash western tenet has been advertised worldwide. Many people who see western economies far more advanced have followed and adopted a lot of practices as standard and normal which are not ethical.
People buy and do things which are inconsiderate to Earth's environment as well as to other people. Why? Because they desire things, and if they have the money, they have the power. After all, so many other people are doing it, too, so go ahead ... it's OK, and even to be honored, people might think. Wrongly.
I don't believe that "greed is good" or in the "invisible hand", either. Just take a look at where greed and the invisible hand have led us as regards Earth's environment, today's money politics, the plutocracy, and so many conflicts, usually over ... money.
It is important to have free enterprise, freedom of speech, and diversity, but within a general framework of ethics.
"That's [is / is not] in our interests" governs decision making by too many individuals, companies, and nations, without consideration of whether a little bit of their effort could make a big difference for the Greater Good.
When I was very young, I was taught to always be considerate of others, and was raised in the President Kennedy generation of "ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."
About my country, I am not so nationalistic. Ask not what you can take from the world, ask what you can do for the Greater Good.
As a nobody in the world, if somebody else could use some help, and if a small sacrifice on my part could give them a disproportionately larger benefit, then I would help, without expecting anything in return.
I don't believe that if you do good things for others, then good things will come back to you. I don't need the motivation of a reward for everything I do. So often, nothing will come back to you, especially when dealing with strangers, animals, preserving the environment locally, and so forth.
It is simply a life philosophy on this planet in this universe.
As for happiness, I don't pursue it. I have plenty of happiness, simply because I find this world and universe fascinating. As long as I have food in my stomach, reasonable shelter, and the time and ability to read and write, I am happy. I am even happier when I see good results of my work, the greater the better.
I really can't imagine getting depressed, there is just so much stimulation all around, even when you're lazy to do much of anything proactive. I'm sorry to read that many people who do suffer from depression, which I guess is often physiological to some extent, but I am also afraid that depression in many cases may also come from narcissism, isolation, self-absorption, a lack of a greater perspective on life, and integration into working for the greater good, seriously and with continuity.
However, for people who care only about themselves, their money, their ego, their social status, and their inner circles, I can see how they can suffer from distress and depression, in such limited lives.
Humans are a very social species, so that can cut either positively or negatively.
Indeed, I often try to get other people thinking, and I believe it makes many of them feel better, get more energized, and become more positive members of society. Social interactions with other members of our species and organizations is always interesting to some extent, to size up the individuals and systems of the early 21st century. However, the bottom line is what we do and create for the Greater Good, not just for ourselves.
Human Instincts and Ethics
All humans are born with a basic "operating system" programmed into us genetically, but humans are highly adaptable. (Actually, there are some other animals, both primates and non-primates, which have shown compassion and basic ethical behavior, though many which have not. Insects are different...)
One way to look at different species is by categorizing them by the extent for which the individuals serve their community. For example, individual ants will readily sacrifice their lives for marginal gains for the community, whereas many other species have individuals who act only out of individual self interest. There are many species in-between, whereby individuals know when to work for the pack versus for the self.
The bottom line has been which individuals leave their DNA into the next generation, thereby passing on their behavioral predispositions into the species as it evolves, so you can see why individuals act out of individual self interest and against others. Sometimes it's competition only during mating season, a change in behavior. Sometimes it's all the time.
On the other hand, tribes which work together as teams may survive better than those which do not, in passing along tribal DNA vs. the next tribe's or lone individual's DNA. There is a benefit to belonging to an organization rather than trying to do everything oneself. Therefore, DNA which has a conscience and compassion programmed into it gets passed on to the next generation, tribally.
So now you know why many people instinctively feel like rooting for their home football team, and why sports is so popular. It's an unconscious instinct. So is much of patriotism.
In the end, though, it is which behavioral charms and physical attributes are sufficient for females to want to mate with a particular male.
Men can deposit their DNA into multiple females in a short time, so males tend to be more promiscuous and aggressive. Females in many species look for a man who will take care of them and their child, and are more choosy. Thus, there is a large market for female prostitutes (and in some countries, go-go bars with lots of female workers) but not much of a market for males selling their bodies.
The drive to promote oneself as a mate tends to breed traits into humans such as boasting, status consciousness, and ostentatiousness about wealth. You can see this in other species, such as when you watch nature programs on TV.
However, humans have the intellectual capability to go to a much higher class of programming, but this must be learned and goes contrary many of our instincts. The human "software" learned has for some people overriden the defaults of the operating system wired into the hardware.
Feelings are instincts. Thoughts are not feelings.
Sometimes you "feel" like doing one thing, but you "think" about doing the ethically right thing instead.
People who just go by their feelings are people who I have limited trust of. People who go by their thoughts are people who I trust more.
When emotion kicks in, reason is lost. Just about anything can be rationalized if the emotional desire is strong enough.
Culture and Ethics
Studies of tribal cultures in parts of the world which have been isolated from the modern world tell us some things about human history.
For example, in some parts of the African wilderness and Amazon jungle, we can still find tribes which battle other tribes for their females, the males doing the offensive fighting, of course. "Rape and pillage", as the old saying goes...
Western civilization came up with "democracy", which in turn led to individuals protecting their own rights against those of oppressive rulers.
However, this "western individualism" also has made popular the notion that the individual is the most important, whereby the "Greater Good" is often challenged.
Just as individuals are empowered, so are companies (aka juristic people). At some point, a school of thought emerged that "greed is good". (I disagree.)
The result is that humans have been plundering the planet's environment in unsustainable ways, consciously and carelessly as a whole (lip service aside).
At the other extreme, there were experiments with Communism and Socialism, but human nature proved those unworkable, as centralized power just bred corruption, promotion by loyalty rather than competency or productivity, repression of individual opinions, and thus a loss of the checks and balances system of a free press which serves to reform and improve the system by natural selection of what's right vs. wrong.
Humans have proven themselves unable to come up with a sociopolitical system which takes care of our planet as well as each other. We still have wars, terrorists, and plunder the planet.
Humans are the only species on the planet which not only can understand our place in the Universe, but also have the power to either destroy life on the planet globally or else take responsibility for taking care of the planet. We have clearly been plundering the planet carelessly, as a whole, with powerful interests of greed clearly overpowering, by far, the minority interests of taking care of our planet.
In some military circles, where exceptional individuals are willing to sacrifice their own lives for the Greater Good of one's country or ideals, prospective leaders is taught the 3 M's:
This means that the most important thing is the Mission. The next most important thing is protecting your Men. The least important thing is protecting yourself.
For example, this can be applied in a situation where a superior gives you an order, but you may disagree with conviction because your superior does not understand the battlefield situation or other operating environment enough, whereby either the Mission may fail or else you may incur unacceptable casualties for your Men, in which case you may sacrifice your own career by insubordination.
Some other ways people may abuse the system:
Next, we look at many companies, what I call the three C's:
For example, let's say your company makes a software product which millions of people and businesses depend on around the world, and you are a programmer.
Do you smile at the boss and all your Company colleagues and get along well socially, yet behind closed doors neglect your responsibilities, e.g., play games or work on secret personal consulting jobs for others, thereby neglecting the millions of Customers' needs, as well as compromising the strength of the Company which the other employees you smile at depend upon for supporting their families?
If the product has a bug or shortcoming, does the Company try to fix it for the millions of Customers around the world?
Does the CEO and upper management share or hog personal bonuses?
As a consultant, I have worked for many good companies with good people, as well as bad companies.
Running my own business, I have hired many people who turned out to be both good and bad. I've had to fire an awful lot of people, which is sad to everybody. I've never fired a good person, and have at times paid myself last in order to pay good people on time and well. I have seen other people run their businesses differently.
Of course, we have seen bank and financial services executives do things to enrich themselves but which cause trauma to their institutions as well as national economies.
We've seen journalists who knowingly mislead the public in order to "sell" a story, or to misrepresent a product in order to sell it (as an expert in some fields, being perplexed by a magazine's recommendations which go contrary to my own expertise, I have noted that the magazine's recommendations reflect their advertisers, and have also wondered whether other payment arrangements have been made), for personal gain without caring enough about how it can affect so many people and the greater good.
This is human nature in society.
Early Formative Years in Ethics
Ethics and morality have long been serious issues to me, whereby I clearly remember many events starting in my preschool period. My parents were very thoughtful and moral people, but that is not what I often experienced with some other individuals and groups. It has always interested me why some people are "good" and care about others, whereas others are very selfish and manipulative.
I was born in 1959 and grew up in the 1960s, a time when people loved President John F. Kennedy, who said "Don't ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." This was shortly after World War 2, when good had triumphed over evil. The Soviet Union and Communism were an alternative experiment. We had a great space race. It was a very idealistic time.
I don't sense the same about modern day society. It is as if individuals feel they are each the center of their Universe. It's as if life is about indulgence.
Sure, we give lip service about the environment, but who actually does anything about it? People talk the talk, but a small minority walk the walk, or care to do much substantively.
I was also taught religion in preschool and contemplated the religious morals being taught (less so the stories and dogmas), but became more interested in other ethics and behavior beyond local religion. It also becomes quickly obvious to children that "religious people" often do not follow their own religion, but follow what they feel, which is in their individual self-interest.
As Time Goes On
I don't want to inaccurately portray myself as some ethically pure individual.
My own interest in ethics has been on and off over my many years, and there have been many times when I have not acted ethically, both as a kid and an adult. Nothing major, but many minor transgressions (relative to so many other things I see happening in this world which I would never do).
I regret many of my own transgressions, and since it's too late, I must just chalk them up as part of the human experience to understand. Nevertheless, understanding is no excuse, it is mainly a mechanism to try to prevent recurrence, which is actually the bottom line, as regards the less minor ethical violations.
We must use reason to be ethical, because if we rely on emotional feelings then we will do many unethical things, often by rationalizations.
I have met a lot of very ethical people, and this gives me a lot of hope for the potential for a fraction of our species. On the other hand, I have also known a lot of other people whose ethics were very poor, at all classes. We can understand poor people doing unethical things to survive, but I have seen countless very wealthy people who just continue to rip off others, as well as plunder the world out of greed.
As I get older, issues of ethics have become more and more important, as I have developed a much broader understanding of the Universe and life on Earth, whereby I have gotten very serious about my responsibilities in my generation, and quite dismayed by my species. (Might I say that I'm embarrassed to be of the same species as so many other people I've seen or read about?)
Getting out beyond my local yokel state of Arkansas, my time in Washington, D.C., gave me tremendous new exposure beyond books, magazines, and the mass media, as I dealt face to face with a wide variety of leaders, especially as a consultant in communications and computer networking applications.
I had naively hoped to meet a higher percentage of "ethical" people in Washington, D.C., than in my native Arkansas, just due to the higher educational status and national service. I did find far more highly enlightened and ethical people in Washington, including a lot of idealists. However, overall, what I actually found is that small community people tend to be more ethical, perhaps because tribal instincts kick in. In densely populated urban areas, people tend to get more insular and selfish. I've read this, too, in studies. Also, many status and money hungry people who are unethical are attracted to the power center.
The government also seems to be easier to rip off than an individual, because it's always other peoples' money (the taxpayers are a third party), and the government has a whole lot of money so that more can be taken. It's like the biggest bank in the country, and the easiest to tap into because it's not their money, and it doesn't need to be profitable, nor does it need to be solvent. No wonder the annual budget deficit and national debt are so large.
When people are struggling to make ends meet financially, I can understand the poor trying to siphon off of the more well-to-do in various unethical ways. It's less tolerable to see the wealthy ripping off society and the Greater Good.
Then we can look at people deep in debt due to excess consumerism -- people who tap out their credit cards to live a materialistic life, then resort to unethical methods to pay those bills.
Since that time, I have traveled to many cultures around the world and have found it fascinating to get to know the wide variety of people of different origins within each culture, seeing what we have in common all over the world, and what differences we have as well.
The tribal village is one of the most interesting sort of ethical ecosystems I've observed. However, there is a lot about culture and the presentation of the Greater Good in various ways (nationalism, or just community, or environmentalism) which affects peoples' ethical outlooks.
It is interesting to see how many country people adapt to the city, consumerism, and other elements of "development" and modern society.
The Greater Good People
Being more internationalistic than nationalistic myself, like countless others in this modern era, I am most interested in working with others who wish to work for the Greater Good.
By "Greater Good", I don't mean just the interests of our own community. After all, tribes and countries fight each other, as do different religions, amazingly.
That is one of the things which made me more interested in working for international development (e.g., USAID, NGOs, UN) than for the military or specialized big business companies early in my career. I have worked in all of these areas, plus my own entrepreneurial businesses.
This broad range of experiences gives me not only a better understanding, but also first hand experiences so that I don't have to believe what I read on the internet or what is actually reported. The vast majority of unethical transgressions are kept secret for a reason, never to be known very far.
Many people I know have lived their lives in an "ivory tower" dealing with others in their government, academic, and/or wealthy business placements, and may not realize how out of touch they are with other strata and sectors of both their own society and others around the world.
Some of these people were born into high class families, went to the best schools, and had their road paved for them. They have worked and lived among others of similar background. Notably, people who look like they are walking wealth and class are dealt with differently than ordinary folks by most people.
So many don't even deal much with people of other nationalities and cultures, and those they do deal with are often trying hard to conform with their own dominant culture.
It is difficult to have a very accurate perception and understanding of the world if it mostly comes from the news, internet, and maybe some well off immigrants trying to conform to the culture they have immigrated to.
That is NOT me. For better or worse, I started off in the middle class, was bussed to public schools which were majority black (I'm 100% European descended caucasian), and went to my cheap state university where I was a focused academic, before brazenly vaulting into Washington, D.C., to try dealing with the leadership there. Then I quit my fulltime employment to pursue self-employment, which gave me tremendous exposure both domestically and internationally as discussed elsewhere on this website.
One of the things I have observed is that a large percentage of people in small middle class communities (maybe the tribe level) tend to be the most ethically conscious and receptive to things such as environmental responsibility, though they are of relatively low power.
The very poor tend to be focused on survival and basic comforts for themselves, their family, and their offspring, and greater things are usually beyond their horizon of thought, unfortunately. Nonetheless, many of the very poor are also basically ethical.
The very rich are often focused on status, power, and indulgence, and many of them feel they don't have to listen to anybody else, whereby they sometimes find discussions of ethics to be inconvenient, and the concept of moral class to be a potential threat to their own status. Not all of them, mind you, but many of them.
Indeed, how many times have I and friends been ripped off in business in small ways (and big ways, too) by extremely wealthy people ... while some middle class people (and even lower class people) work hard to pay for some of my company's products and services whereby they will go to any means to honor a verbal or implicit commitment. (I find myself pressuring some of the wealthy to do the honorable thing on one hand, while on the other hand trying to find ways to give discounts to those of lesser means while still maintaining their own honor and making them think and feel that they have paid fully.)
In pre-modern times, the bottom line was who would leave their DNA in the next generation, and with it, their genetic personality traits, as discussed before. Ladies preferred to mate with wealthy men (and still do -- it's the size of your wallet!), the "winners". This often meant "winning" in unethical ways, as well as overblown egos, the pursuit of status, bragging, and a lot of questionable behaviors in humans.
Other times, it required ruthless brute force to leave one's genes in the pool and/or gain wealth, status, and power.
Just watch animal documentaries on TV and you'll see a whole lot of both of the above!
There are a lot of questionable traits bred into us, which occasionally show up in realms of business, politics, and society. Greed, ego, manipulation, deception, and the pursuit of raw power.
Rational minds in the modern world can transcend these instinctual feelings, with the right environmental upbringing, whereby we come to understand our own nature and the world and universe around us, unlike other species (and unlike many people in our own species!). Humans are very adaptable because of our thinking abilities.
For example, when given the opportunity and power to rip off another entity, a person may feel tempted, but know the difference between right and wrong and choose to "do the right thing".
Which way their "gut feeling" goes will depend a lot on their environment and upbringing when young, though there will also be an instinctual element to it as well, plus any thoughtfulness they may have developed.
When feelings come in, reason often goes out the window. Feelings can also lead to "rationalizations" -- creating and believing in faulty reasoning which is self-serving.
However, there is an instinct for "compassion", an emotion, which may cause a person to not rip off another person or do something bad. The ability for compassion varies from individual to individual. Psychopaths and sociopaths seem to lack it. (Notably, lack of compassion does not necessarily mean lack of ethical behavior.)
That instinct for "compassion" generally does not extend to inanimate or far removed things like ripping off the government, or even a humanitarian organization. That is easier for many people because it isn't so personal, on an instictual level. However, on an intellectual level, it is not only ripping off the taxpayers, more importantly it is also ripping off the purpose of the organization and its ability to achieve its more lofty goals.
Here, we get back to the issue of "the Greater Good".
It is one thing to rip of another individual. It is another to rip off an organization. To rip off the "Greater Good" is awesome.
There is also an instinct to conform with the group. When other people get away with cheating within an organization, or even a sector of society, then others much easily follow suit.
There is a fairness instinct hard wired into us, but it is easily corrupted.
There are different levels of seriousness:
Few people care when crooks rip off other crooks.
More people care when a greedy person and rips off a good person.
The latter may also apply to ripping off a good company, which can affect company sustainability and the lives of its many employees and their dependents (ripping off one's workmates, too, ultimately), as well as the company's ability to serve other customers with its available resources. If a particular company and its staff are known to be rather mercenary in nature, fewer people may care, compared to a company which cares about its customers, quality of products & services, and staff.
(Nonetheless, if somebody desires to rip off a good person out of greed, they can often rationalize a reason over some relatively minor imperfection of the otherwise good person. That is a rationalization. It's important to look at the person as a whole.)
Sometimes it's just ego, that they are clever enough to rip off a company and get away with it, thinking they are superior in natural selection.
Sometimes, it's just thoughtless pursuit of money to fulfill material and other desires. Sometimes it's something else...
Very large companies such as banks can impact the world heavily when the greedy organize scams at the top. (I suspect that the reason bank executives don't seem to get prosecuted is because banks have money and connections, and everybody has their price. Take a look at judges, regulators, and politicians you know. Do they seem to be making more money than you would think a government regulator's or judge's salary would allow? Note also the revolving door between regulators and bank employees, and the well funded private political action committees.)
Governments seem to be fair game for many people to rip off -- ranging from welfare fraud at the bottom to humanitarian programs with lofty goals at the top, and a whole lot in between. Governments have a lot of money, and it's not their money, it's taxpayers' money -- other peoples' money.
I have spent many years working for humanitarian projects. One of the reasons is because I liked working with the majority of these people more than in some other realms.
There are many good people in these projects, but there are scammers, too, especially in government aid projects, whereby as you get towards the top, you come across some greedy gamers who leave you wondering how they got up there, and stayed up there.
In my working experience, I have noticed a lot of promotions due to loyalty rather than competency or merit. (I see most promotions due to merit and competency, but also a lot due to just loyalty -- suckup conformists.) Sometimes, it's shocking to see some of the less competent and lesser performing people get promotions in government circles. Unlike the private sector, there is no accountability in government to turn a profit or compete with other organizations. Also, higher level managers in the government pyramid may want to promote somebody who will be less of a threat to themselves, which is more beneficial to the person than the organization's loftier goals.
This is a major reason why I prefer to work in the private sector -- there is more reward by merit and productivity, and much more mobility. (It's not the only reasons, but definitely major reasons.)
(I also switched to business in an attempt to make a whole lot more money which I could invest into supporting my humanistic projects, since donations and donors did not do enough.)
There is an instinct for conformity to the group, aka groupthink. That is not objective, it is subjective. Governments tend to have more of this than the private sector.
All said, I have seen good and fairly clean government organizations vs. corrupted ones, as well as good companies and bad companies.
From experience, there are of course good and bad people at all levels. I have come to trust people in the middle classes more than from the highest and lowest classes, on average, though there are good people in all classes. It appears to me that a lot of ruthlessly selfish people strive to become rich and powerful in any way, and succeed in being the "winner". At the other extreme, poverty creates desperate situations and sometimes resentment from abuse. Much of the middle class doesn't seem to be too motivated by money.
Theft from poverty is much more forgivable than theft and rip-offs by the wealthy who don't need it and choose greed over ethics.
When you are in a deal where unforeseen circumstances have come up which cost you more money than anticipated as a contractor, and you're dealing in a grey area, you may be more likely to get generosity and flexibility from dealing with a wealthy individual than dealing with a company, simply because a company requires authorization from a group which is usually sure to include at least one person with essentially veto power who will consider only maximizing the financial interests and legal power of the company.
Companies and Governments
Companies are set up to serve both consumers and their employees. Companies give a lot of comforts and benefits to both.
Likewise, governments should take care of their employees well, in addition to the general public.
The main issue here is that employees and civil servants should care about their responsibilities as much as they care about themselves. Not just lip service, but really walking the walk.
Then there is the issue of people rising in rank and power.
In my experiences, I have seen how money and power can change people -- how many people have changed when they went from a position of little money or power, to an appointment to a position of authority or a very large sum of money suddenly put at their disposal.
It is always heartening to see people who can handle money and power well.
It is sometimes shocking to see people who cannot manage money and power well, and whose attitudes and behaviors change to questionable.
Like the old saying, "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely."
How do people use their power either for or against the Greater Good relative to themselves?
When is enough wealth and power enough for an individual?
Democracy, and Checks & Balances
Democracy is the least bad system humans have to govern ourselves.
Hitler was elected democratically.
Democracies set up a legal code and checks and balances systems, but these still must be run by human individuals and bureaucratic fiefdoms.
Our government regulators are corruptible. Money talks. Special interest lobbying groups are far better funded and more powerful than nonprofit watchdogs. There is a "revolving door" between regulators and the regulated in companies. Politicians depend on money donations for their election campaigns, and the biggest ones often come from corporate special interests.
A huge chunk of voters choose mainly by their perception of which candidate can help the economy, or can bring money into their district, or who will do something which will benefit them personally. Issues such as the environment, social justice, and humanistic progress are not very important in comparison.
However, a free enterprise economy is far better than a socialistic democratic one. Governments are pyramids which get corrupt, lazy like monopolies, and territorial. Individuals and groups must have the freedom to innovate and create profitable and sustainable "business ecosystems". We learned this in the 20th century, that Marxism and Leninism don't work well, due to human nature.
The main defense we have against excesses is the internet for mobilizing large numbers of people to check abusers.
Democracy is often associated with a free press, which is a major checks and balances system. However, before the age of the internet, to enjoy freedom of the press you had to own a printing press. Now, with internet, it's cheap and easy to have freedom of expression. Internet has bolstered our checks & balances system.
I get most incensed when I see major corruption hurting the Greater Good, especially in humanitarian and humanistic organizations whose purpose is to work for the Greater Good.
Where individuals are cheating each other at low levels, that's bad but happens all the time. However, when an individual cheats a humanitarian or humanistic organization or institution working for the Greater Good, that is shocking. Yet, it happens often, sometimes from the inside and near the top.
This also extends into business, which is the majority of human endeavor. Business ethics has been a keen interest of mine in day to day life, especially since I survive by being a small businessperson.
It is the collection of all my experiences which convinces me, overwhelmingly, that we cannot prevent an eventual human extinction event in our biosphere, most likely due to the profit motive and an accident, but possibly by sinister means as discussed elsewhere on this website.
The only way we will save our species is by space colonization.
Also, it would be good to send individuals who exhibit more morally upstanding characteristics. It may be something in their DNA or it may be a family and community upbringing which overrides their basic instincts, but in either case, it is their culture and better than seeing space colonization by ruthless exploiters. Nonetheless, anybody is better than nobody.
Until this time comes, we can only hope that there will be enough checks and balances in the biotechnology and nanotechnology industry to delay an extinction event long enough.
There are few institutions set up to even try to do so, and finding out about activities and enforcing laws and regulations across national borders seems daunting.
Tips and whistle blower websites are sometimes proposed for things like this, but they are rather controversial, to say the least, and we can question their effectiveness anyway.
Anybody can post anything on any website, but it's usually buried so rarely comes to much, and talking is a far cry from actually organizing and doing anything about a threat, so power may need to come from institutions, whereby we work on the proper channels.
Regarding tips and whistleblowing, it is usually much better to first try to discreetly go thru proper internal channels of reform, and try peaceful rational solutions with the applicable powers who can institute reforms, rather than subject an organization to a media feeding frenzy and possibly sensational exaggerations or oversimplifications which push readers' buttons. It is also best to have patience and realistic expectations. My experience is that most people can be reasoned with, and reformed by reason and setting a good example. However, many cannot, whereby you may start to look at some Plan B, like an end run to a higher level up, or some sort of Plan C.
I have never been interested in whistle blowing as anything but a last resort, despite seeing awesome amounts of corruption in many realms. What happens in the world is not for entertainment or the ego gratification of the posting party, it is real operations affecting a lot of people. Reform is usually a persistent first effort.
Whistleblowing is stepping over a line which does not come easy for a person accustomed to keeping secrets based on trust. People need to be able to speak openly within a group, and there is implicit trust. It is better to use that trust and respect to try to make reforms from within, and to try to maintain one's relationships within an organization, albeit as more of a leader than a follower. You just have to first try to be diplomatic in saying challenging and sometimes unpleasant things.
Organizations are like people -- imperfect. If you expect perfection, then you'll have no friends and associates. Indeed, how could you live with yourself?
Often, people must live with imperfections in order to pursue a larger goal, or risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
As a longtime self-employed businessperson, who keeps a lot of business secrets, both to maintain my own company's competitive advantages as well as protecting my customers' companies, I am accustomed to being very careful about what I say beyond internal circles (and even within internal circles), and all the potential ramifications. (Also, having kept national secrets before, albeit a long time ago whereby they're largely obsolete now, it has been a strong requirement and habit instilled, whereby I didn't have the liberty to judge what I could vs. could not say outside. Millions of other people have been under this system.)
Given my limited time and energy, I must allocate my resources carefully -- i.e., I must choose my battles carefully and I have much bigger and more important battles, for which I could use all the allies I can get, and goodness knows that I don't need enemies.
Another reason is because I don't see viable alternatives in many realms, and if an organization is getting some reasonable results despite its "inefficiencies", that may be better than stalling the organization by an upheaval.
Still another reason is because I consider how public complaints can impact a whole lot more people in unintended ways, like collateral damage.
Revolutions are not always the best things to strive for. They can be setbacks. Evolutions are often better than revolutions.
We have to be realistic about everything, and see both sides -- all sides -- of an issue.
However, sometimes things are broken beyond reform, or you cannot work very productively within a particular personnel structure, and you just need to move on to other horizons. Trying to overhaul an entire organization is a mammoth task that must be worth it.
I choose my battles carefully, given limited time and other priorities. Instinctively, I prefer to keep a low profile.
Once, I blew the whistle after I heard that somebody tried to make me the scapegoat of a project's failure, long after I was no longer on the project.
Before internet went mainstream, I had a successful product for networking people and projects for project management around the world, and I focused on humanitarian projects rather than better paying corporate customers.
A new project came up, funded by the UN to deliver food to starving people in Africa due to drought, whereby they needed my robust and adaptive system to operate over bad phone lines and mobile people, back in the early to mid 1990s.
This was near the time when the US had a military operation in response to starving in Somalia (remember Black Hawk Down...).
There were many countries which had increasing problems due to drought, and a very good USAID organization had set up a network using my software to deliver satellite imagery showing moisture and drought to representatives in countries in Africa coast to coast. It worked great. I had a very solid longterm relationship with that USAID organization, which was one of the best projects and group of people I've ever worked for.
Then the UN came in to deliver food to starving people. And major money.
However, high people in charge refused to use our existing network to these exact same countries. They also refused to use the proven system. It would have been very cheap to use because it already existed in most of the target countries. It would have been practically instantly available. Their deliveries could be supported right away.
Instead, they gave a huge, expensive contract to another company which was entirely separate from the existing network -- which happened to be employing cronies.
That company still couldn't get a working network. Eventually, after a long time, incurring delays to the UN project, the pressure for a timely solution came to bear, so they came to me to set it up for them, under the condition that after I set it up I walk away and let them run it. OK, I did so, for the sake of the hungry people in Afrika, as well as the remaining peaceful sociopolitical systems.
My exposure to that company was extremely limited and the person I trained was so incompetent and inexperienced, it was appalling. However, he happened to be a good buddy of a person very high up and wanted to go to Africa on junkets for adventure and training people despite poor credentials. It was hard for me to imagine him either running the operation or training / teaching others in the field. From my previous work, I had trained many highly competent people, who were well known, but who were not asked onto this contract. Many people knew about it, but also knew about the cronyism, and nobody dared object lest risk their own career be sidelined. My objections fell on deaf ears.
Long after I was off the project, they screwed up the server and the network came to a halt. They blamed it on me even though I had been off the project for months and had nothing to do with the screw-up. Nevertheless, for the sake of the hungry people in Africa, as well as for the remaining peaceful sociopolitical systems, I went in and fixed it up very quickly, rather than make them suffer. It was actually a very simple and elementary screwup. The person in charge, who I had trained, was out on his junket in Africa, not attending to the server. However, I also "blew the whistle" within local circles to protect my reputation by setting the facts straight -- and the responsibilities.
The people in charge didn't seem to care about the hungry people in Africa, nor the stability of those countries' sociopolitical systems. They just wanted the money.
One of my UN contacts said that he had tolerated so much waste and corruption up and down the line. He seemed to be one of those who wasn't getting rich over it. However, he was also one who didn't seem to want to risk his career otherwise.
I actually have many experiences with similar situations, but I cite the above because I was forced to blow a whistle in order to save my own reputation.
At the beginning, I had hoped that they could run that server on their own. I set it up and documented it well. Whistleblowing doesn't do much good when it's already too late.
However, I still believe in reforms over quick whistleblowing when they are feasible, and when the stakes are not too big.
Often, I wonder why nobody else blew the whistle on disasters about to unfold.
There are extreme cases where I would blow the whistle if I were there. For example, if I had been an insider who knew that the preponderance of evidence in 2002 was that there were no WMD's inside Iraq, yet my nation were about to go to war which would cost a lot of lives on all sides, cost immense amounts of money, wreak destruction, and widen cultural rifts, then even if that war would make me a millionaire, I would try to stop it.
Unfortunately, two people who did just that went thru hell, lost their jobs, had to endure a lot of character assassination in attempts to discredit them, were exposed which endangered a lot of their colleagues, while in the end, the military industrial complex won anyway. However, that was a battle worth fighting and I think it will serve as an example to prevent some future hoodwinking of the public.
Indeed, you have to resist temptations to take money sometimes:
On another lofty humanitarian government project which had a lot of very good people in it, I had to leave the project due to other commitments, but still had many days of billable time left. I went to return those days so that they could hire somebody else to take my place for the remaining time of the current fiscal year, and continue performing that role in the project (and I could recommend particular competing consultants).
I submitted my letter with my intentions to the lady who handled the accounting matters and knew me fairly well. After she read it, she looked up at me and asked why I didn't just bill out all my hours. She noted that other people do it. As many readers know, this is called "overbilling". It was well known that there were a few people on the project who not only overbilled for far more money than I ever could, but who also did a bit of somewhat careless work and went on junkets. They were kind've resented by some very good people on the project who were incorruptible. However, as there were some very good people on the project who seemed incorruptible, especially the person who had the authority to hire me, as well as my closest coworkers, and I believed in the project, there was no way I would overbill. I told her what I thought, and that I am returning all the unbilled days, whereby she graciously accepted it.
She didn't have to point out what others were doing. I knew already. Gossip gets around. It was an interesting dialogue.
It had already crossed my mind that it would have been easy to take my government's money for a different humanitarian project and use it instead for PERMANENT which received no government money.
The customer had little idea of all the technical computer stuff I needed to do, as they were not techies. I could have gotten away with it easily, with no problems, by exaggerating technical issues. However, it would have been taking advantage of some good people and their trust. It also could also have left a humanitarian project without a budget for an alternative techie for the remainder of the year, and put them into a difficult situation to solve the problem.
If it had been another group, then things may have been different.
In the purely private sector, there are some companies I've consulted to which practice overbilling -- consciously billing for more hours than they actually worked. It is interesting to watch young newcomers of good upbringing when they realize this dishonest practice by the company they work for, and are expected to go along with it. Some conform, others distance themselves.
There are also the "stick it to them" attitude people, who provide a careless service and then stick the customer with a big bill, demanding payment.
Fortunately, those have been a minority of companies who I have consulted to, and I didn't stick around with them for long if they were sticking it to good companies and people.
Then there are managers who are credit greedy, who will take others' productivity and accomplishments and try to steal them for their own accolades, while hiding or downplaying the individuals who really had the creative solutions or skilled analyses. For example, they will task work to more talented and skilled people working under them, take their analysis and results, then go to the "customer" and present all that as their own, while keeping the real brains isolated, not even citing them by name or giving credit where it is due. Both staff and manager should be properly credited, not just one or the other. With outside customers, it becomes apparent in meetings when the manager can't answer questions. With inside crony customers, they may get awards and the like. The talented and skilled people should move on to where they can move up instead of feed parasites.
Of course, when there is a success, it often seems like everybody wants to take credit. When there's a failure, people often avoid it and try to point the finger at others.
These are all things which I have seen repeatedly in different realms, and steer away from. It's much easier to do in the private sector.
Just because other people are doing questionable things like those companies and government cronies, even if they're a clear majority in your realm, doesn't mean it's OK to do the same yourself. Neither beat them nor join them. Just move on. It's a big world, lots of good groups and people out there. Don't fight, just "beat it" like the Michael Jackson song says. Keep your ego in check. Forget it and move on.
Sometimes, it's not just isolated individuals, it's endemic to an entire organization.
I have often wondered about some individuals and groups -- had the same ones lived in Germany in the 1930s, would they have gone along with the majority and persecuted the Jews, heiled Hitler, and invaded other countries?
There are current trends in this world which we must buck, too, despite being a small minority. Sometimes, we must lead, not follow. However, we must carefully choose our people and groups to try to lead.
You must be the kind of person you want to be. If you become like them, then you become a corrupt person. If you are true to higher principles, then you might set a good leadership example, but at the very least you are being true to yourself and your principles in life.
Besides, money comes and goes. You have to live with yourself for the rest of your life, as well as be one of those who set a good example for others to follow.
You can choose to be like the lower species, acting chiefly on self-interest. Actually, you join the majority of not only other species on this planet, but most people in the world. You "belong", you will be more typical, and will be more popular with many people and groups who do not want to have other people around of higher ethical status.
Financial class is not the only class there is. There are also moral class and intellectual class. If you had to choose one over the other, which would you choose?
It is clear enough to me that our species is headed towards extinction in Earth's biosphere due to advancing biotechnology, whereby either a commercial accident or else a government military laboratory will create a super pathogen which will get away.
It is also clear enough to me that a very tiny percentage of our population is interested enough to try to do anything about this. Even if we are successful in getting a much larger percentage of people to become interested, they would not have the power to enforce safeguards worldwide, for obvious practical reasons. It may also encourage some nuts (such as religious zealots) to try to bring about the end of the world, for religious, environmental, or another reason.
The only security for our species is space colonization, so that people still exist after some entity makes Earth's biosphere uninhabitable to humans.
However, the wealthy people who have the power to promote this ... do not. They mainly pursue even further enrichment and lavish consumption.
I don't think ethics will save our species on Earth. Thinking about the "Greater Good" has the potential to improve the world, but there are too many genes in our DNA which too often represent themselves in a phenotype which is very dangerous to our survival once we develop the technological tools to create new, man made biological pathogens.
Then the judgement day will come, which we will face with our children.
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