Archive for August, 2022


Capitalists in our Culture love to quote Adam Smith.  Here is a quote from Adam that does not get a great deal of play: A profitable speculation is presented as a public good because growth will stimulate demand…the nature of this growth…is that it is at once undirected and infinitely self-generating in the endless demand for all the useless things in the world. 

In our culture today, more than ever before, growth depends on persuading more and more people to buy more and more things that they may want but hardly need.  We need our citizens to be grand consumers, it seems to me, for two major reasons: (1) to provide work of a sort for many of our people (citizens, legal and illegal ‘aliens’) and (2) to ensure that we won’t implode – if each of us were truly to live a ‘simple’ life of ‘need’ and not a life rooted in a covetous want for more our economy would not be sustainable.

‘Work of a sort’ (Charles Handy believes) is generally ‘toil and drudgery;’ it is not the decent nor meaningful work that we espouse for all – this lack of meaningful work is one of the modern fuels for burnout which is a depletion of one’s heart and soul, of one’s humanity.  This is work done for the money – the money that provides for minimal sustenance and the money that we use in response to the marketing seduction that each minute, it seems, washes over us as a tsunami does.

Handy writes that it is a strange irony…To give our people the necessities of modern life we have to spend more of our money and more of their time on the non-necessities, on the ‘useless things,’ the junk of life.  An immoral corollary is that in order to produce this junk we consume the world’s resources, pollute the environment, muck up our country-side, and rain filth down on our cities.  Handy reminds us that: This was not the brave new world that capitalism promised with its freedom of choice in the markets of the world.

As a culture of the individual we have sought and demanded more and more individual rights [and given corporations, by law, the identity of individuals so they could do the same] and have sought to limit, if not avoid, our individual duties [e.g. to pay taxes and vote].  I have often described our culture as one of mid-adolescence – what’s in it for me NOW is our mantra; perhaps we are stuck in this life-stage.  We are not, it seems, rooted in deep caring and empathy; we have worked hard as a culture to deny our caring-empathic first-natures and have successfully developed second-natures of consumerism and egocentrism.  Good for Us!  Let’s go buy something to celebrate!

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Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam [died, 1536], was a Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher and theologian. In 1530 Erasmus addressed a Europe in which the satisfaction of immediate desire was the primary basis for human action; people acted on impulse.  He warned them that unless humans were willing to discipline their desires then they would be just as the other animals; well, not quite even to their level for they would be barbarians.  They would not be civilzed.

Erasmus made popular the concept of civilité, from which our word civility is descended.  Civilité is a way of life comprising attitudes, values, and behavior.  Civilité has an Indo-European root meaning ‘member of the household.’  So, civility as Erasmus understood it is what enables us to live together in civic-community.  

If we are to be moral people, if we are to live civilly with others who reside in our civic-household then we are, each of us, required to limit our ‘behavioral freedom,’ to limit or control our impulses – we cannot simply choose to act a certain way because we want to, or have an impulse to, or a craving to, or a desire to, or even believe we have the ‘freedom to’ [which generally means that we have ‘license’].  In fact, even our ability to follow the standards that support civilized behavior does not depend on whether or not we happen to agree with or even like one another.

Now, we must be careful.  We also know that standards and rules can be used by the majority to harm the minority; ‘civility’ has been used for evil purposes.  Our challenge is to learn from our harms and then to amend, or change, the standards and rules that are not life giving, life supporting, and life enhancing for the majority and minority.  As Erasmus pointed out the rules of behavior are what distinguish civilized humans, who are willing to discipline their desires from barbarians, who do not even try.  More importantly, perhaps, is that if we apply Erasmus’s test to ourselves – our individual and collective selves – we might discover that we are becoming more uncivilized.  As a nation we are becoming more and more rude; yet our rudeness merely scratches the surface – it is a symptom of something deeper.

Consider that we live in an era when the values of the market and of politics – both of which are characterized by an amoral emphasis on getting what we want – are crowding into the social life of our nation, where we are supposed to engage in the moral reasoning that helps us to decide what we want.  It seems that we lack the tools, and the skills to consider what we should value or should want, to say nothing of how we should act – the consequence is that we are, more and more, following our impulses; we are giving into, if not catering to, our baser instincts.  We have already helped the current generation integrate more incivility into their lives; what the next generation or two will be gifted with when it comes to being less civil and with being more impulsive has yet to be written.  What is the next chapter in the story that we, as a nation, want to author and live when it comes to civilité?

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In 1997 I was teaching a course in Business Ethics.  This was a required course for all undergraduate business majors; needless to say, but I will anyway, some of the students really, truly, for sure did not want to be taking this course.  However, we did have our moments when the doors of learning were wide open for all of us.

I had just finished telling a story about Socrates.  A student raised her hand and asked the following question:  How can we recognize a real teacher?  How can we tell the difference between the wisdom figure and the charlatan?  My breath was taken away.  Here was a searching question; here was a question I, myself, had been holding for decades.

I had the ready answer and as I ran through it in my mind I also knew that it was not the answer; it was a response that so many, including myself, had given over the centuries.  I continued to hold the silence.  The students had become used to my doing so.  I wanted to provide a response from my heart.  I paused.  I replied: ‘I don’t know the answer to your question.’  I wanted to respond with conviction and this was it, I did not know the answer.

I then continued: ‘Let’s think about it.’  I added, ‘All the qualities of a true teacher can be faked by one who is not a true teacher.  So, if this is true, then what? I believe we need help and guidance as we search for a response; but we don’t want to be fooled.  We need to think critically but not cynically. We want to be guided more by doubt than by surety.’   

Then a little piece of light was breaking through the darkness; I was feeling the question as my own and I was feeling the need for guidance and wisdom.  Then the question that shifted us all emerged; actually it was a set of questions that flew from me and from them.  Here are some that I wrote down:  How much do I really wish for wisdom?  How much do I really wish for guidance?  How serious is this need in me, you, us? 

 Together we transformed the question, the new question which challenged us, the question that had emerged from our own collective wisdom was: What does it mean to be a searcher and a seeker?  What did it mean for us, sitting there in that room together, to search together for wisdom?  How intently do I, you, and we truly search for the teacher – the teacher that resides within each of us?

The Chinese have a saying, when the student is ready the teacher will appear.  One way of being ‘ready’ is to truly be a searcher; to be the student who is ‘ready’ and to trust that the teacher will indeed appear.  The teacher does not show up and announce him/her self to us – we call the teacher forth, we summon the teacher.  The teacher shows up in response to our need, not in response to his/her need.  Our obligation is to become aware of our need, which requires deep searching and seeking, and our obligation is to prepare a space for the teacher, and to then be open to receiving the teacher.

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I have been re-reading and re-savoring the writings of Thomas Paine.  Gentle Reader, if you have not invested some time and reflective energy in his writings I invite you to do so.  In order to help you consider my invitation I will, today. Offer you some of Thomas Paine’s thoughts.  He was a prolific and powerful writer. 

As a writer he strove for clarity, clarity, clarity.  He possessed a tireless intellectual curiosity.  He was happiest when he engaged in long searching conversations.  His essay, ‘Common Sense,’ is exceptional for its language, its striking phrases and clean clarity, its sentences as brilliant as fine polished diamonds. 

Paine was guided by two powerful influences:  The Quaker virtues of sincerity and direct address are wedded to the Enlightenment belief in universal moral principles grounded in ‘Common Sense.’ 

Paine’s clarity of style enabled ‘Common Sense’s’ arguments accessible to nearly every Colonial reader, empowering them to engage in political debate concerning the daunting challenges they faced.  He uses powerfully provocative imagery borrowed from everyday life.  He draws not upon Virgil or Seneca but upon a tradesman’s experience or from science or medicine.  Images of health or sickness, of youth and old age abound; these images are concrete, vivid and often unnerving.

After reading ‘Common Sense’ the Colonists discovered they could now believe inevitable what only a short time earlier had seemed preposterous – breaking with the Crown and English rule.  So, Gentle Reader, without further ado I offer us Thomas Paine’s thoughts – thoughts which are just as challenging today as they were in the late 1700s. 


  • The more men have to lose, the less willing they are to venture.  The rich are in general slaves to fear and submit to power with the trembling duplicity of a spaniel. 
  • Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society.
  • Whenever we are planning for posterity we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.
  • To God, and not to man, are all men accountable on the score of religion.
  • Call not the coldness of the soul ‘religion;’ nor put the bigot in the place of the Christian.
  • You have mistaken ‘Party’ for ‘Conscience.’  Those who desire to undermine Democracy rooted in compromise and replace it with autocracy rooted in power are hunting after it with an appetite as keen as death.
  • Nothing can reach the heart that is steeled with prejudice.
  • I should suffer the misery of devils were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one whose character is that of a sottish, stubborn, arrogant, immoral man.
  • In the common occurrences of life, we are not only apt to forget the ground we have traveled over, but frequently neglect to gather up experience as we go.
  • A too great inattention to past occurrences retards and bewilders our judgment in everything, while, on the contrary, by comparing what is past with what is present, we frequently hit on the true character of both, and become wise with very little trouble. 

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The Blackwell Encyclopedic Dictionary of Business Ethics (1997) defines Conscience as inner awareness of right and wrong, good and evil.  According to Blackwell, persons said to ‘have conscience’ manifest three characteristics: 

They evaluate actions, motives and states of character to determine if these are appropriate from a moral point of view. 

They experience feelings such as guilt or satisfaction that are consistent with moral judgments that they have made.   

They are disposed to act on the basis of their moral perceptions.   

Evaluation requires reflection, probably ‘deep reflection’ or ‘intense reflection’ and it also requires that one hold and understand his/her moral point of view.  Then, or in concert with this evaluation, one experiences certain feelings – actually feels them in his/her being – ‘guilt’ or ‘satisfaction’ [versus say ‘shame’ or ‘pride’].  These feelings are consistent with the ‘moral judgments’ – not just any judgments.  Finally, ‘evaluation’ and ‘experiencing certain feelings’ are not enough; conscience is incomplete without ACTION.  Not any action, but action rooted in the first two characteristics, ‘their moral perceptions.’    

So, ‘conscience’ is ‘Evaluation + Experience of Feelings + a Disposition to Act.’  Martin Luther King, Jr. caught this, I believe, when he wrote that: ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’ 

When have I been silent about things that really matter?  How do I define what really matters?  What if it really matters to you but not to me?  When does what matters to the community trump what matters to me (pun intended)?  

When have I compromised my conscience?  Why did I choose to do so?

What has called my conscience forth and how did I respond?   

Do I believe that those I most vehemently disagree with act from this definition of conscience?  Do I dismiss them by labeling them as ‘having no conscience’ or by demonizing them – a common posture in our culture today?

I am no Patrick Henry.  ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ does not attract me today.  Yet, is it possible for me to imagine or image a situation where I would choose to become a ‘Patrick Henry’?    

Patrick Henry and Martin Luther King, Jr were, to me, persons of conscience.

For you, Gentle Reader, who are persons of conscience?  When has your conscience been called forth?  And, how did you choose to respond?  Can you imagine or image a situation when you would choose to become a ‘Patrick Henry’?

One more thought.  Perhaps ‘evil’ occurs, or is invited in, when one does not respond to the call of conscience.

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