It’s a paradox of wealth that the more we have, the greedier we get. I have seen little street children pool together their precious few pennies to buy something to eat, even though it may barely fill their stomachs. And I have seen wealthy kids that have to be taught the concept of sharing for years, sometimes with little effect.
This is not limited to childhood though. In fact, the older we get, the greater the greed. And the farther we are willing to go to fulfill our self-interest. It is ironic that we live in times of increasing standards of living, and yet hollower hearts. Chances are we are far better off financially than our parents, and yet, far less satisfied. In the rat race for more, we have become detached with our values and oblivious to the code of ethics that used to guide our actions.
A large part of this is due to the fact that our concept of right and wrong has become messy in a world where wealth and success are seen as synonymous with happiness. We are on a hedonic treadmill where personal comforts and transient incentives dictate our actions and a misguided rationality allows us to justify what we do. David Hume, economist and philosopher in the 18th century, was right when he said: “reason is slave to passion”. We see it in the general acceptance of some level of breach of professional ethics. When it reaches the proportions witnessed at JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs that led to the economic meltdown, we throw our hands up in the air and wonder how people could be so unethical.
The problem does not lie in professional ethics though. After all professional ethics teaches us about the accepted practices and public expectations that characterize the profession. The problem lies in human nature. We are a highly intricate combination of selfishness and altruism. And unless we are attuned with our internal navigational system, we can easily find loopholes in the codes of conduct of our profession with little guilt or qualms.
This is where real ethics comes in. Real ethics is what grounds us in our values and helps us determine correct action. It is what guides us to our inner moral code and prevents us from behaviors that are in breach of it. In earlier generations, it used to be instilled in childhood and stayed with us throughout the rest of our lives, becoming an integral part of us as we aged. But lives have changed and that is no longer the case.
There are many reasons for it, most of which are universal in an increasingly global world. Family structures have changed in that we no longer live in multi-generational or mixed family units the way we did. It had its advantages because it helped us learn to consider the impact of our actions on others and gave us greater chances to witness the kindness and generosity of the human spirit. We had grandparents who took out the time to talk to us about values and good deeds and had the patience to nurture our budding consciousness. Today’s busy single unit households place a lot of pressure on parents who have little time left to attend to the micro moments that can serve as opportune moments to develop character. Nor does the education system take on the responsibility to do so – pressure to perform on academic tasks is the only criterion by which we have come to measure success. This is unfortunate, because it is often the non-cognitive strengths of courage and honesty, of fairness and compassion, of critical thinking and reflection, that guide us in our toughest moments and test our character in the temptations and complexity of real life.
Society has also changed in what it values. It has evolved to worship a totally materialistic and consumeristic concept of happiness. We are bombarded everyday with messages, both subtle and not so subtle, about how we cannot be happy unless we have more of something, better of another, and the latest of a third. This tyranny of novelty and choice has created a chaotic pining for more, of needs that we never knew we had, of self-created disappointments and desires and a never-ending rush to nowhere. It is true that abject poverty cannot make a starving child happy nor bring joy to a mother as she raises her children without hope. But it is also true that we need far less to be happy than we think we do. Except that society wants us to stay greedy for more, at whatever cost.
The cost is that we have become disconnected with who we really are. We never stop to reflect on what we really want or what our own concept of happiness is. Nor do we stop to consider whether we have a responsibility towards the greater good of others. Human happiness does not rest in the transient attachments of consumerism, contrary to what the industry would like us to believe. It is in living a purposeful life of genuine connection to others, of honest personal growth and of making a difference that we find fulfillment and live a life of no regrets. After all, life is transitory, and when we can reflect on this fact often, we find it easier to take principled action, especially in the moments that matter.
It thus makes sense that we return our focus on real ethics and make it a part of the teaching of professional ethics. We used to believe that ethical reasoning is not a learnable skill after the early years of childhood. Science now shows us that it continues to develop well into old age. By bringing it back into the workplace, by teaching it, practicing it and celebrating it, we empower ourselves to deal virtuously with the complexities in today’s workplaces and in the messiness of real life. In return, we build our character and leave behind an obituary that our children will be proud of.