Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Searching for Eudaimonia

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Have human ethical standards been fundamentally the same over the millennia?

“What would Zeus do?” Given the ethical abuses that we constantly read about in the news and now about the news, I have been thinking quite a bit about ethics and whether changing ethical standards have an impact on our societies and organizations. As you consider the relative constancy of ethical standards over time there are only two possibilities. One is that human ethical standards are constant and the behaviors that we witness which implies differing ethics over time are really an expression of changing standards, driven by societal levels of economic well-being, sophistication or technology as humans search for what the ancient Greeks felt was a major driver of human behavior, called eudaimonia or happiness.  Or second, the possibility those fundamental ethical standards do indeed shift over time.

I would argue that at any moment of time, were you to objectively measure the level of ethical behavior shown by every individual person on the planet, that you would find a normal distribution of ethical behavior, with some behaving with the highest level of ethics (by my standards of course), others would be considered on the edge and still others would be behaving in quite an unethical manner. Further, I would argue that the distribution would be broad enough that you would find more variation in ethical behavior among people within any period of time than you would find across time periods. Those people who operate significantly below the mean or the norm, we call abnormal or criminal and attempt to stop their behavior. Now if we have a normal distribution that means that ½ of the human population is below the mean, so obviously we don’t lock away ½ of the human race, but what we do is to determine heuristically where to draw the cut score. At some point, maybe one standard deviation below the mean or perhaps two, we say that the behavior is sufficiently abnormal to be considered criminal and lock those people away or send them for treatment.

Historically, the Romans had the Coliseum in Rome and 200 other similar venues elsewhere, whose contests resulted in the deaths of millions of animals and the slaughter of uncounted numbers of people. Most of us today would find the killing of people for sport abhorrent, most but not all. But today we do have sporting events held in venues similar to a coliseum aimed at like outcomes, producing a winner and loser and entertaining the masses (or more cynically, providing an outlet for aggression not aimed at the powers that be). On the face of it they seem quite different, for instance after a baseball game rarely do you see the losing team impaled on stakes or fed to the lions. But underneath it all, are the two events playing to fundamentally the same principles in the human psyche, the need for competition, for a winner and loser to emerge, and the need to root for one’s “champion”? Is the popularity of some TV shows really due to nothing more than their nature as virtual Roman Coliseums, allowing us to peer into how people perform under stressful circumstance? Are some news shows that allow us to track crime investigations or court trials similar to the struggle for survival that the Romans so enjoyed viewing? (The normal distribution argument would imply that some Romans enjoyed the blood sport while others tolerated it and others still were perhaps appalled by it. Similarly today some are glued to their sets watching championship wrestling or reality TV shows, while others are not.)

There are layers upon layers to think through as this point is considered. Certainly ethical theories and the corresponding theories of justice have changed and have evolved over time, but the question I am posing is more fundamental. “Have humans changed?” Has our fundamental psychology changed over the last few thousand years causing our ethical standards to shift? Or are we still the same humans, psychologically, that strode the earth during Golden age of Greece, the epochs of the Pharaohs, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the age of Confucius or of the Buddha, or when the 10 Commandments first appeared?

I have to admit to some pre-determined bias, for when I look at the so-called “generational” differences that are supposed to exist among worker attitudes, regardless of what you read in the lay press, I can find no evidence in the data to support the notion that what the various generations want out of the world of work is different on a fundamental level. The differences that do exist are primarily driven by differing economic opportunity, life stage and technology rather than differences in human psychology. For instance you would be very hard pressed to find a worker who did not want to be treated with respect and dignity, have a sense of accomplishment or a sense of fairness of treatment and equity of any generation in any area of the world. And the workers today around the world who accept working conditions that you and I would find unacceptable do so out of economic necessity and for no other reason.

You may consider some ancient practices barbaric, but they were no worse than what people perpetrated on their fellows a mere 70 years ago during WWII. And today things are little better, with an estimated 12.5 million humans living in slavery with 2.5 million of those being bought and sold like cattle (Dahan 2011). Yet we could also point to progress that has been made in the USA over the last few decades with the abandonment of laws that created second class citizen status for many of our fellow humans, and the passage of  laws giving equal rights to others.

Yet positively, sports like baseball can also have a helpful effect in bringing together people who can find common cause in their efforts, including those that go beyond the sport itself. In tsunami ravaged sections of Japan, baseball is providing an aura of normalcy at some schools allowing people to see beyond the day-to-day devastation they are dealing with (New York Times 7/10/11). So I want to be careful and not paint with too broad a brush in my statements about various activities.

Here is a statement for which I have no evidence, since I did not measure the attitude nor have I been able to find any organization or person who did, but never-the-less I would argue is accurate: “Slaves were never in favor of slavery”.  Those who got the short end of the stick due to the unethical behavior of others were never pleased with their lot and why should they be? Humans have had an uncanny knack, an ability to take advantage of other humans for as long as we have been walking this planet. At the same time others give unselfishly of themselves to benefit the broader society of which they are part.

I recently got back from a trip to Costa Rica (go if you ever have an opportunity), and during the trip we stayed for a few days in a town of about 1500 people called Tortuguero. We went to this location which is accessible only by boat or plane, to see the Green Sea Turtle lay its eggs, during the start of the annual mating season. You need to have a permit to go onto the beach where the turtles aggregate and a registered guide needs to take you to make sure no damage is done to the turtles or their nests. Our guide happened to be a fellow named Fernando, who went by Don. It was truly an honor to spend a few days with him and to learn from him about the wild life and plants in the area. Don and I had several conversations over the course of a few days about how the town of Tortuguero is structured socially and politically. Tortuguero’s original residents were escaped slaves from Caribbean islands and from a slaving ship that had sunk. They chose to make a life, however hard, rather than return to slavery, they were searching for eudaimonia. Remember, “Slaves were never in favor of slavery”.

Interestingly, Tortuguero has no local government. There is a provincial police station manned by federal police, but there is no mayor, no elected officials, no one in authority to get things done. Over the last few years though cement walkways have begun to replace dirt paths in town, a major recycling facility has been built, in line with the theme of Tortuguero being an eco-vacation location and importantly creating jobs for residents, potable running water has been supplied to each house and other improvements have been made.

How do these things get done? Don indicated that a group of about 7 citizens who simply want to make things better get together regularly and figure out how to accomplish them. I asked if they were elected, but he said they were volunteers. My feeling is that they were volunteers that the other residents of the town greatly respected and willingly followed their lead in decision making, making life better for all. These volunteers in my opinion are operating with a great deal of ethical integrity attempting to improve life for all 1500 residents of the town (they are also likely acting with self-interest). And if anyone is listening, according to Don, what the town really needs next is a bank. A bank would give the residents a place to safely put their money, it would provide small businesses a place to borrow for startup costs, and it would make the town feel more substantial. Don indicated that a bank would give residents more confidence in the future of the town, with all of the corresponding benefits and is sorely needed.

No matter how much we may wish it, ethical issues and challenges, among business leaders, politicians, and others are not going to go away any time soon. Humans are not about to achieve some kind of breakthrough in our evolutionary pathway that will fundamentally change our behavior. But there are a large number of people, and I want to positively think, an increasingly larger number of people who are willing to do the right thing, not giving into the fears of our baser emotions in order to make life better for all as we each find our own personal form of eudaimonia.

_______________________________________________________________________

Dahan, Y., Lerner, H., Milman-Sivan, F.,  2011, Global Justice, Labor Standards and Responsibility, Theoretical Inquiries in Law, Vol. 12, 117-142.

Hursthouse, R, “Virtue Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/ethics-virtue/.

© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

July 13, 2011 at 11:28 am

One Response

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  1. Jeffrey-One of the main take-aways from your experience in Costa Rica, with respect to Tortuguero, is that, in general, if the population possesses few significant competing self-interests, then a more unified ethical focus is possible. Of course, there is always the decision of group hierarchy which, if the process is respected by all, results in the Tortuguero model for significant overlap of self-interested, but mainly altruistic leadership. When one’s true self-interest is aligned to primal considerations, such as group survival, then the model works very well. It would be instructive to return to Tortuguero ten or so years following the establishment of a bank to identify any unintended effects that banking practices might have on their presently high ethical standards. The history of banking practices when first initiated in Europe, especially in Italy, might serve as a guidepost against which to compare. Good article! – George

    George Cernigliaro

    July 18, 2011 at 11:42 am


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