The Era of High Ideals

Since the time I wrote my blog on The Huffington Post, "The Importance of Being Unhappy," I have been thinking about the importance of the negative instincts leading to unhappiness: envy, cruelty, greed, intimidating anger, hunger for power, and narcissistic self-centeredness. I have been tormented by the renewed realization that the selfish, ruthless, and deceitful behavior gets rewarded with greater wealth at the expense of the good citizens who follow the rules. Is there value in instilling good values in our children? Stories of Americans who have accumulated great wealth through building railroads or becoming news magnates are full of greed and self-centered cruelty towards people who worked for them. Western European countries amassed their wealth by colonizing other countries, not by being fair and just, but through their ruthless hunger for power.

The Darwinian evolution seems to favor the acting out of negative instincts for accumulating more resources. The powerful wealthy male gets more women, not the morally upright male without that much money. The wealth does give an unfair advantage for survival, better healthcare, better living conditions, and a better chance of surviving a crisis. Altruism was a puzzling trait for Darwin, and still is a center of debate for evolutionary biologists: if altruism comes from the selfish motive of spreading our own genes or not. This does not give an encouraging picture of cooperation, extending ourselves to others, compassion, and fairness as traits that would necessarily give you advantage over selfish and ruthless behavior. Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature, in spite of the positive message that the violence in the world has gone down, is a depressing reminder of how violent and ruthless our leaders, kings, and heroes have been. On top of that, it reminds us that the drop in violence is more to do with the law and order institutions we have created and less to do with the inherent morality we may possess as humans.

Philosophers such as Nietzsche have speculated that the moral restraint and piety came from the reaction of the weak and oppressed against the wealthy by declaring aggressiveness as bad. If so, then are lessons in good behavior a trick played by the few cheaters for exploiting the good? Hearing stories of people in power, politicians, bankers, and rich business people, it is hard not to notice the greed, the narcissism, the game playing, and the getting away with it. Do the good and the moral people get the bad end of the stick and need to rely on the charity from the rich guy if they want to have any influence in steering this world in a good direction?

However, this torment is not the reason why I am writing this blog. I am writing this because I believe we may have a possible answer. My answer is based on the following observation.

At this time in our history, we are at a juncture where our new world order, high-tech based and globally interdependent, demands that goodness decides the new direction: the direction of justness, fairness, cooperation, compassion, and equality in access to more resources. We can see this direction in various aspects of our life: business, politics, and medicine.

This realization did not crystalize because of my discussions with priests, teachers, or social activists. It came because of listening to a TED talk in the recent 2012 by a seasoned business consultant and a brand marketer with a history of a successful career in the corporate world. Jim Stengel left his lucrative position as a global marketing manager at Proctor & Gamble to spread the awareness that we live in an "era of high ideals" and that for businesses to thrive in this era they must focus on a purpose beyond profits and that maximum growth and high ideals are not incompatible. In fact, Mr. Stengel was interviewed on Huff TV by Arianna Huffington to discuss his book Grow on the same ideas.

Jim Stengel's inspiring and compelling talk oriented me towards changes that are already happening in so many different aspects of our lives. Students with business degrees want to get into socially conscious businesses (e.g. solar energy, micro-finance, and education for the under-privileged), existing businesses are compelled to support good causes and to advertise themselves as promoting fair business practices (e.g. Starbucks with fair trade coffee, philanthropic donations by Target store contributing to its popular reputation). Young people talk about "optimizing profit" instead of "maximizing profit." Not only that we have moved away from the child labor practices of the recently industrialized Great Britain, today Apple must investigate and answer to the news of sweatshop conditions discovered in its factories in China. In spite of all the game-playing and greed we associate with a successful business, the direction in the business world has been to move more towards fairer and value-based practices. The emerging economies such as China and India may not practice these things today, but once a certain prosperity level gets established, they too ought to be bitten by the bug of "goodness."

The new direction is found in all types of fields. As Dr. Atul Gawande put it in his talk at the TED conference, in the field of medicine, gone are the days from the early 1900s when doctors needed to be bold, autonomous, and practicing brave new methods. Today's highly specialized and technology-based medicine needs three directions -- humility, teamwork, and checklists -- to coordinate and ensure that all requirements for a successful procedure are taken care off. The new direction is shaping our socio-political scene as well. We live in a world today in which not only that the violence is less and less tolerated (ranging from corporal punishment of children to the Syrian government's violence against its own people), more and more countries are vying for less totalitarian, less oppressive and more democratic governments (perhaps not always quite successfully). Through the falls of empires, what gets sustained is the "goodness," the analytical reasoning, the democratic ideas, the law, the justice system, the compassionate monarch; what gets hated is brutality, the overpowering use of physical force.

Does this mean we do not need to have the physically powerful military? Yes, we do need that, in order for protecting our era of high ideals! However, having the power is not the same as using the power indiscriminately. Even in the warfare, one can see the new direction. Gone are the days when the world war veterans received a hero's welcome, and gone are the days when the military atrocities by the winner could be easily hidden away. We also have so many diplomatic tactics available to us, a product of highly interdependent global economy.

Just like any new direction in history, there are always setbacks, false-starts, and counter-examples, but the direction does not get reversed. The human nature riddled with greed and desire for power is still a prominent feature of most material success stories, but once bitten by the bug of goodness, every person, culture, and civilization will always stay bitten.

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