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On Cultural Ethics


    To be truly effective, ethics must not just be a concept, but a core value of a culture; it is the culture that ultimately is the enforcement vehicle to support ethics.

    Most people instinctively comprehend the term ethics as "doing the right thing," but the process is often more complicated than that. Much like getting a driver's license, you take the car for granted because you just step into it and hopefully it runs. The system of ethics is really the car itself, how it was designed and built, what makes it function and how it works—all must be understood if you want to repair it or improve it.

The Tree of Civilization

    I have tried to make the comparison to a tree, which helps to separate the parts and better understand the process. A tree has four major component parts: roots, trunk, branches, and leaves. Each has a function and all are interrelated. If one has a problem such as lack of water to the roots, the whole tree is affected. For the sake of simplicity let us look upon the roots as conscience, the trunk as morality, the branches as ethics, and the leaves and fruit as the resulting environment of individual good acts and courtesy. The issue is not whether you have a few bad apples, but whether the tree is diseased and the roots are rotting. Different conditions affect temporary health but the system itself is where focus must be placed.

    Conscience has been written upon throughout history because it is the basis of human character. Positively, it is the choice of conscience over convenience; the exercise of individual responsibility where you choose to put the interests of others above just your own interests in many cases. Freud looked upon it as a consequence of environment and training, many others as an inner guide that was a part of man. In any case, trained or natural, it is the development of this sense of right or good that is the base of all else. If the roots are watered and fed then the tree prospers, if not it suffers. The trunk, if we look at it as morality, is how men decide to work with other men. They develop a set of values and standards so that they have judgment criteria of what is good or bad. Religion often plays a major part here but some basic values such as the Golden Rule and the Common Good are found through most societies.

    Like the tree trunk, morality involves the cultural values that most accept, so it is the compact straight part of the tree. Issues here may get down to broad issues (Angels vs. Devils). The laws of society are here when you go from an individual to group concept. The branches, the concept of ethics, are where difficult choices have to be made. Ethics is really the philosophy of morality, how it should be administered when the choices are more difficult and specialized. It is the battle between conscience and convenience that is more difficult because the issues are not so clear and are more easily rationalized. Economics and morality are a part of almost all issues, individual and political, and it is in this arena that the tough choices are made.

    As the limbs of a tree are gnarled in many directions searching sunlight, you realize the environment makes for constant change here. There is a natural competition in the world and good vs. evil, conscience vs. convenience are not absolute issues that can be won. The very nature of self-interest drives market economic pressures from one side, but there is a difference in self-interest and in greed. Greed, in going too far, often is not in one's best interest because of its ultimate costs. The point is that the study of ethics is a refinement of the philosophy of morality and the cultural values. It either teaches the values, analyzes them or attempts to refine them into moral education.

    The leaves and the fruit are the individual acts of good, of kindness, or of courtesy that make up the environment of civilization. There can be few leaves if it is a drought or winter. The ruthlessness of some periods parallels it well. On the other hand, if you have a lot of leaves in a good season, it strengthens the tree by building reserves. It creates a culture or environment that leads to a strengthening of the roots as the leaves eventually turn to sod.

Chamber of Commerce Recruitment Parallel

    In Texas, we have an old saying "if you give a person or a critter a lesson in meanness, you should not be surprised if he learns it." Every action has a reaction. It is the creation of an environment where being good is expected through strong positive cultural values that has to be the goal. It is not unlike the comparison of a chamber of commerce working on recruitment and on economic development. They are very different. In recruitment you go after a company individually and try to recruit it to move to a town. Economic development changes the town. It makes sure you have good education, fair laws and enforcement, low taxes, and strong culture, so that companies want to come there. Teaching ethics is a lot like recruitment, it works on specific instances more often than being oriented to changing the culture or creating the environment. The cultural environment that supports ethics is the policing mechanism that helps enforce it by peer pressure.

Culture of Service / Cultural Ethics / Discipline In Society

If you look upon cultural ethics as a center point of a scale, with culture of service and discipline in society as the two baskets for weights, you appreciate its significance. If the culture of service has a dominant position with the people working closely together for higher purpose, the discipline in society will be less powerful because the culture instilled much discipline. Or the reverse can be true

Culture of Service

    The basic component of the environment comes from pushing the culture of service through nonprofits to develop leadership, but it also begins with watering the tree by families and institutions sensitizing youth and themselves to the concept of conscience. Concern for others and the Golden Rule set the tone. The nonprofit involvement helps build the culture of ethical leadership as well as the skills to lead.

Ethics Programs

    I have been asked to help several universities with the development of ethics programs, particularly in business schools. It is most worthwhile because the concepts need refinement, but the more I looked at this issue the more I realize it is a cultural issue. We could teach them the concepts, but if the corporation they enter has a culture of greed, it will likely overwhelm anything taught unless their core beliefs are so strong they leave the environment or will not be corrupted. That comes from much earlier training, usually by parents, church or other institutions.

    When you rise in the levels of influence and power you encounter much stronger issues that can be dominated by convenience. Conscience often affects us at lower levels of choice; convenience always emerges in arenas of power. The higher the level the more ambition self-interest, and competition affect judgment. To put conscience into power, you must make it convenient for conscience to dominate, coming from the creation of a culture of values in which you gain power by an appreciation of your conscience. However, it is important that conscience not be thought of as compassion. Strength to do the right thing for the right reason is the more appropriate definition.

Married Men Analogy

    Perhaps the best example of why you have to look at the whole tree, or system, and not just a part rests in an analogy. For many years it was argued that men that were married earned substantially more than single men. The arguments were put forth that the stability of family life, the responsibility of children, and the necessity to provide caused the difference. Now other studies put forth the concept that there is a preselection, that in effect women choose the same characteristics as employers. They marry men they think to be the best providers and most dedicated. So even though the second may be true as well, the determining decision was made earlier. In ethics, it is not just how we refine our decisions to conscience, but how strongly our heart holds them from our youth and core values.

Ethics Issues

    Similarly we can think we can teach ethics, but I think the values of society predetermine much of this issue and at early ages. It is not so much what you are taught, but what you learn that matters. In this section, presently under construction, we will pick up on the ethics issues by tying links to key organizations studying these principles. The two books, The Language of Conscience and The New Legacy, make the effort to explain the roots and the trunk of the tree, why conscience matters, and how to look at conscience in a very complicated world through the perspective of the enlightened conservatism triangles. There are many types of cultures—institutional cultures such as the military, corporate cultures, pop cultures —that all combine to make the cultural values of society. It is cultural ethics, as well as individual ethics that must be a point of focus.

    What we hope to do with this section is to eventually ask appropriate thinkers on all sides of these issues to give their analysis, perspective, and where they think society is heading.We hope to link to major organizations that provided leadership on these ideas so that those that wish, can participate in changes they think are appropriate by enhancing the level of appreciation of conscience in society. But our bottom line is to access how actions taken will enhance or detract from the ethical component of the culture. Are we incentivizing the creation of good or bad apples by our polices and are we strengthening the unseen roots of the tree for the future. Please visit Commentaries, under Transcending Generations, and review the articles on Cultural Ethics.


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