It's not often that any of us change a long-held view about an important matter, but it happened to me recently. I got on a plane from Gatwick and when I arrived in Naples I had completely changed my mind on something I have been banging on about for many years. If I am right in my new view, it has profound consequences for us all, especially those of us in business.
The issue at stake involves answering some fundamental questions:
• Is nature good or not?
• Do we have better fortune if we "trust the universe", or are we fools to do so?
• What is the real purpose of business activity?
The Case For Nature
It seems that every product wants to claim that it is "natural" - which implies that we think nature is a good thing. And there is a long heritage of thinking that. In the West and perhaps elsewhere, it ultimately goes back to the roots of religion - a belief, in Jewish, Christian and some other religions, that creation must be perfect because it is the work of God the Creator.
The argument for nature is powerfully buttressed by the progress of science, and especially mathematics, which seems to indicate a secret code behind all operations on earth and in the universe. Given that the physical world obeys certain laws which can be expressed mathematically - and were, by Newton, Einstein, and other physicists - it gives us the sense that there is purpose within nature which we can discern with our own minds.
There is also an argument - advanced for example by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the French philosopher and palaeontologist - that evolution demonstrates a progressive increase in complexity and consciousness, culminating in human spiritual development and the reunion of Man and God. While theories of progress have become unfashionable, it is undoubtedly true that, viewed from a human angle, life on earth has become progressively better - we eat better, live longer, have better education, and know more about the universe and our own nature. Human suffering, though still widespread, is being reduced over time. Viewed in this light, it is possible to believe that far from being a blind process, evolution has purpose and that humankind has a central role in making sense of nature and developing how it operates. In this philosophy, man is part of nature, and, despite all our flaws, potentially the most sublime part.
The Case Against Nature
In the vintage movie, The African Queen, Humphrey Bogart, drunk as usual, defends himself by saying drinking is "in his nature." Bogey is scolded by Katharine Hepburn - "Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above." While I like a good drink, I am with Katharine on this. Human dignity and achievement requires that we set a higher standard than that of nature.
Nature is cruel and follows no discernible moral code - "nature red in tooth and claw". Suffering is inherent in the animal world and only human agency - acting against nature - has saved humans from the terrible things that used to be endemic - droughts and famines, excessive heat and cold, and terrible diseases that disable and kill. Cancer is natural. AIDS is natural. Polio used to be natural. Malnutrition used to be natural. We do indeed make progress by rising above nature.
Though obviously we can also make things worse for ourselves unnecessarily - think of the epidemic of obesity - it is only by controlling and constraining nature that civilization can advance; and advance it does. Civilization consists of actions to impose meaning, coherence, and science on brute and mute nature.
Civilization is not morally neutral. At the heart of civilization is knowledge, driven by the human mind and spirit. Civilization is the alliance between constructive emotions - love, desire for a full life, and sexual attraction, without which creativity would be stunted - and rational thought. The progress of civilization is the progress of mind and spirit. This is not "natural" - if by nature we mean everything in the universe minus men and women.
Perhaps most contentiously, I would argue that all good comes from a force of mind and spirit which is not natural - which, for want of a better word, is "supernatural", or, if you dislike that cosmological metaphor, "sub-natural" or "a-natural".
You can, if you like, choose to believe that all mankind's thoughts and inspirations derive purely from mankind, from the closed system of human creativity - and I will concede that you may be right. There is no way of knowing. Yet I believe that there is something in which we are grounded which is some kind of a-cosmic intelligence, some ultimate reality beyond nature, and by implication better than nature. I believe we connect to this ultimate reality through our unconscious minds. I hesitate to give this any religious connotation, because for many people - perhaps also for me - organized religion is tainted with unfortunate baggage. But this is the idea of a God beyond creation, above creation, a kind of super-mind and super-spirit that reflects love and intelligence, and conspires with mankind to impose meaning on recalcitrant nature. This God did not create the world, but did create the human spirit.
My idea of a God beyond creation is not original - it was held most eloquently and beautifully by the Gnostics who flourished in the first century before Christ and the three centuries after. You do not need to believe in this God or any other to appreciate the point I am trying to make. You can be an atheist and still believe that nature is the enemy and the antidote to cruel nature is human love and intelligence. Whatever your theology or lack of it, the implication is that we cannot trust the universe. We can only trust ourselves and the human ability to create and collaborate.
Business and the Fight Against Nature
Business is in the front line of this battle. Human progress began with business, with the growth of trade and the benefit from the comparative advantage of different groups - nations and city states - and from exploration, driven by human curiosity allied to the search for profit. Whereas war and plunder were always zero sum games - what the conqueror won, the conquered lost - trade and business made more, in all senses, than there was before.
Business, along with its inseparable ally - useful knowledge - is driven by something also transcending nature - the human mind and its invention to new ideas to improve life and increase wealth.
Five Action Implications
1. We should not trust the universe. The universe is natural and cannot meet the high standards that can be set by intelligent, creative and collaborative human beings.
2. Place your trust above all in the human mind and spirit, which can make the world better than it would naturally be.
3. Business is not morally neutral, but rather part of a glorious human endeavour to increase civilization. So we should bring to business the best and most creative part of ourselves.
4. Tap all three of these forces for ideas for improvement:
• Your individual mind
• The minds of other people you know, and of writers about business
• Inspiration from your unconscious mind - from "outside the universe".
5. Recycle great business ideas. When it comes to these, maybe 1 percent of business ideas or less accounts for 99 percent of all business success - ideas such as self-service, automation, drastic cost reduction, superior design, and simplicity. Track down ideas that have been successful in other fields and apply them to your own. Study, repeat, adapt and spread great business ideas. They are the way to improve on nature and create a wonderful world where once there was only a dull, uncomprehending and life-threatening desert.