Virtue and Knowledge

Contrary to postmodern relativists, the growth of human knowledge is a fact. But that fact does not make human beings any more likely to be virtuous, or rational. However fast and far science may advance the dilemmas that beset us, ethics will remain as problematic as before. Indeed, since the increase in knowledge enlarges the power to do evil, these dilemmas may be more formidable.

John Gray | Review: Mr. Brooks’s Miracle Elixir | The National Interest.

Is China in a Spiritual Crisis?

An interesting article in the BBC Magazine today talks about the matter of the growing number of Chinese who are turning to faith. The story echoes many points I have made here, so it is worth quoting at length.

What must unsettle the authorities most is the reason why so many are turning to the churches.

I heard people talking again and again of a “spiritual crisis” in China – a phrase that has even been used by the Premier Wen Jiao Bao. The old have seen the old certainties of Marxism-Leninism transmute into the most visceral capitalist society on earth.

For the young, in the stampede to get rich, trust in institutions, between individuals, between the generations, is breaking down.

As one of China’s most eminent philosophers of religion – Professor He Guanghu, at Renmin University in Beijing put it to me: “The worship of Mammon… has become many people’s life purpose.

“I think it is very natural that many other people will not be satisfied… will seek some meaning for their lives so that when Christianity falls into their lives, they will seize it very tightly.”

via BBC News – Christians in China: Is the country in spiritual crisis?.

I cannot disagree. What it means, though, is that the Party is going to have to come to an accommodation with religion in the same way it did with capital.

What the story tactfully avoided was telltale stories about the slow disintegration of ethics and morality in China. While those would have been illustrative and entertaining, such apocrypha merely serve to remind us that ethical rot and moral decline are not limited to a single society, but are, indeed, pervasive.

Assent and Corporate Ethics: The Sinai Question

I wrote a blog post over at Silicon Hutong earlier this week (“The Company Code: Morality, China, and Facebook“) that examined the moral issue around Facebook entering China. While I wrote the post for a secular audience, issues of Torah and Halakah were swimming in my head. It was one of the most difficult posts I have written in seven years of blogging.

One of the issues I wanted to cover, but in the end removed, was the question of assent. When Hashem gave the Torah to Bais Yisrael at Har Sinai, He did not give the Torah until the entire people had confirmed that they would accept the Law (Parshat Yitro). I claim neither Torah nor legal scholarship, but what that implies to me is that a law, a commandment, or a moral code cannot be made binding on anyone – even by the Almighty Himself – unless that person agrees to take that law upon himself.

As troubled as we may be about the potential for Facebook to conduct itself in China in a way that does not meet our approval, we have to ask ourselves whether we can hold the company to a moral code to which it has not formally subscribed. Indeed, I would question whether we can hold the company accountable to a moral code that has not been explicitly spelled out for the people in the company with ultimate decision power: the company leadership and its board of directors.

There are those who would suggest that a common sense of right and wrong should be enough to tell a company what it should and should not do. The history of the corporation, from the South Seas Bubble to the Global Financial Crisis, belies such assumptions. Leaving aside for a moment whether a company can, in fact, be held accountable for moral transgressions, we must recognize that a corporation itself may posses legal personhood, but it does not innately posses a moral compass, or a sense of right or wrong.

There are others who might suggest that merely by operating in the context of a nation or culture, a company gives its implicit assent to conform to the moral codes of that society. In today’s global and multicultural business operating environment, however, it is often impossible for a well-meaning company to identify a prevailing moral code in a single country like the United States, and infinitely more difficult when doing so across national boundaries.

Many companies, particularly small- and medium-sized businesses, that operate in accordance with set moral standards. Salesforce.com, In-and-Out Burger, and Google are among the most prominent examples. What each of these hold in common is that they take the time to spell out the moral strictures under which they will do business, and they extend those principles into the very core of the company through everything from operating manuals to the behavior that is rewarded at bonus time.

The solution is clear: it is not enough for us to simply expect (read “hope”) that a company will naturally operate ethically, nor to impose upon it a code of behavior ex post facto, but to articulate to each company at the outset a requirement that they adopt, publish, and make a part of their operations a clear moral code, one that reaches into the very fabric of the organization. In this, you have not only assent to a code, but collective ownership of and accountability for each aspect of those behavioral guidelines.

As outsiders, then, before we can criticize a company for its immoral behavior, we must first make clear that we expect it to frame what constitutes right and wrong (beyond simply “obey the law,”), or make clear that if they do not, we will do so for them, and then, if they do not set their own standards, we must make clear the code by which we expect them to operate.

Ethics and Tikkun Olam

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Image by onBeing via Flickr

To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

By creating a work that implores not only Jews but people of all faiths to recognize our mutual responsibility to one another, Rabbi Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, proves once again why he has become one of the most eloquent and inspiring advocates of a life lived with meaning and purpose.

Ethics is always a tricky subject, but to his credit Rabbi Sacks is reasoned but unrepentant about his message: there can be ethics without religion and religion without ethics, but it is the joining of the two that deliver the far greater impact over time.

Religious skeptics need not bother: Sacks is not trying to make a case for religion here, but for ethics.

A must read for anyone wondering how to make a real difference in the world.