Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Absolute vs. Relative Morality

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I was raised to think of morality in an absolute sense. I think most of us were. There was right and wrong, just and unjust. It was binary. For instance, if a child was living on the street, hungry, that was not right, plain and simple. A hungry child was never discussed in a relativistic sense, in terms of it being ok if the child was less hungry than another.

We raised money for all sorts of causes back then, putting pennies and nickels into small blue collection boxes. Any spare dimes went into the March of Dimes collection boxes. When I was very young in Jackson Heights, Queens, my mom would take me and my sisters (if they were not in school) to do the food shopping rounds. Depending on the day, we went to the dairy to pick up milk in glass containers, to the fish monger, where if I remember right she leaned towards sole and haddock, the cheese shop, the butcher and the bakery. I have a recollection of not being able to get out of the cheese shop without being given a piece of Muenster or Swiss cheese to eat on the spot, a slice of salami from the butcher, or a butter cookie with sprinkles from the bakery. (The big soft chocolate chip cookies were my favorite though). Other groceries were purchased at the King Kullen store on Roosevelt Avenue, which gave green stamps, redeemable for merchandise, along with your purchase. Things were different then. Not better, not worse, just different. Morality was learned by what was taught and the behaviors at home, as well my daily interactions with and listening to the conversations of others.

Some of the shop keepers bore the tattoos of numbers on their arms, signifying that they had spent time in and were survivors of Nazi concentration camps. At that time, as a young child, I did not know what the numbers meant. Later on, as a graduate student in Ohio, I found a bakery similar to the one of my youth on Cleveland’s east side, where almost all of the people working the counter, they all looked like my grandmother, had also been branded by the Nazi’s. It was emotional for me to go there as I thought of what these people had gone through, but I went as often as I could. Every customer was patient there, no matter how long the line was and each was greeted by the women working the counter as an old friend. Years later I traveled back to Cleveland to see them again and they, like my own grandparents, were gone. These were my teachers of morality. It was not a specific class, it was not pounded into my head. The values were absorbed through my day-to-day childhood interactions.

Today, morality is seemingly taking on more of a relativistic tone. In a recent dust-up between the British and Israeli Prime Ministers, the Israeli Prime Minister and others within his cabinet, lectured the British Prime Minister on how much better the Palestinians in east Jerusalem have it than their brethren in Arab countries. One of his cabinet members also stated that the Palestinians have it better than when they were under the British mandate. All of these statements are true, but that does not make them right.

In what can only be described as a substance-free, circus or carnival barker environment the Republican Presidential primaries have come down to which candidate can out insult the other. Whichever one’s morals sink the lowest, relative to the others, whomever becomes the best insulter, will be poised to win. Any absolute sense of right or wrong on their conduct or on any issues has gone out the window as they pander to the lowest common denominator.

This is a trend that I am sensing in other sectors of our society as well. For instance, organizations today face many pressures that push them towards relativistic definitions of morality rather than absolute ones. I am a supporter of globalization, but globalization in some respects has become a race to the bottom. There are some organizations whose notions around globalization center on issues like finding a location with the loosest environmental laws, the cheapest energy no matter how dirty, the lowest taxes, or the country with the least amount of worker protection and compensation. Finding all of these things make these organizations better able to compete in the marketplace, but it doesn’t make it right. Not for all of us, and not in the long-term.

Many in the United States take pride in the notion that somehow what the USA stands for, freedom, liberty and justice for all, makes us exceptional. That exceptionalism is thought to have ushered in a level of peace and prosperity never before seen by humans. Some, perhaps many will call this notion simplistic and we can argue from here to eternity about what the absolute standards of morality should be, but I am sorry, being exceptional from a morality standpoint is not relativistic, it is absolute. It is time for all of our organizations and our leaders as well as potential leaders to start acting that way.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 28, 2016 at 8:20 am

Posted in Ethics

One Response

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  1. Makes sense. BUT, there is what politicians say and what they do. And actions speak far louder than words. So judging public comments made by politicians may not be best measure. And once you compare actions, we quickly get back to realitiveness again. Many current politicians seem to talk a moral standard and do opposite when closely examined. And it is very hard to know for sure if the line has been crossed. So due to lack of facts it quickly reverts to making judgements about them.

    So, achieving a framework to make absolute judgements becomes difficult when political actions are being evaluated. Easier with political speeches. Same with corporate strategy. Marketing may present a positive image but it is the actions that matter. And those actions dont get exposed very often.

    So point is, making absolute judgements on morality depends on having facts which are always tough to discover. Consequently, relativity is almost always all we really have. Well stated political speeches could actually totally misrepresent facts and often do. Sound good but could be complete lies and then are actually immoral too! We would not know for sure.

    So morality is absolute. But we only can know for sure about our own actions. Making absolute judgements about others is always going to be limited and fall more into the relative category since we dont have what is needed to make absolute judgements.

    Sure the political discourse has been alarming. But maybe those politicians not involved with it have done things no one would find moral. Would not say it has been moral or exceptional to let the Syrian government continue to kill their people. But we do nothing to stop it. Is that moral? Not in the political discourse but far worse than some misguided words exchanged between candidates we have heard lately.

    gary roberson

    February 29, 2016 at 6:03 pm

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