The lesson of ethics and ethical conduct is for sure an important one to all. When thinking about ethical conduct, many different words come to mind. Respect, Honesty, Best Practices, Commitment, Integrity are examples of the type of words that can be found in professional association handbooks or company mission statements. Ethics are the said or unsaid rules that dictate wrong from right, bad from good. Everyone operates according to these rules of ethics. Right?
The amount of lawsuits, social inequalities, political activists, civil-rights, worker´s-rights, women’s-rights movements… or even worse, famine and wars, should be enough proof that something isn’t going the way it should be.
It seems that we all have a great yearning for ethical conduct but something eludes us. Could it be that ethical conduct is un-human? Or too hard to obtain? Or that we are doing everything right and ethical but it the others that aren’t? That we have to defend our rights and not to accord the rights of others?
Something in our understanding is biased. This is very clearly seen by looking not only at our political and economical leaders, but at our religious leaders as well. The different religions all claim to be ethical, right, the only way to behave, yet throughout history, populations have been at war over religion.
The reason is very well explained by multi-theologian and historian Karen Armstrong.
With an absolutely fantastic vision of religions, she explains how they are rooted in history, and how they have become devoid of meaning through the centuries and the variations in languages, and through political and social evolution.
Karen Armstrong is an ex-nun who became at odds with religion, not understanding its meaning and generally not caring for it. Then after leaving the convent, she set out to be an english literature professor with disastrous career results. She the found work talking about, and debunking, religion on TV and to answer all the questions that were asked went on a quest for understanding. Today, with brilliance and unchallengeable scholarly knowledge, she sets out to explain that all religions on earth, Hinduism, Christianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, Daoism, have the very same message: What holds us back from our best self is ego, selfishness, greed.
The behaviour to develop to get out of this ego loop is compassion: the ability to put yourself consistently in a space where you can feel with the other person.
The religions, starting with Confucius 5 centuries before Jesus Christ, have developed what she calls the golden rule: Always treat others as you would have them treat yourself. It has to be all day, everyday. Not just when it suits you, but when it goes against your own perceived self-interest.
Everything else about religions is only commentary.
Another story illustrates how unethical conduct can go unnoticed to socially dominant group for years only to come back haunting us. It is told by James Daschuk in a book titled: Clearing the Plains Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life
The book is about John A. Macdonald’s way of treating the aboriginal population of Canada in order to gain territory and economic dominance in the developing American continent. John A. Macdonald was Canada’s first prime minister and is seen as a Father of the Canadian Confederation. I was taught in school all about the political advances he made to make Canada the great country it is today.
The book relates the slow downfall of First Nations peoples as they were starved and beaten into submission by the government under John A. Macdonald. The Indians, led by Big Bear, repeatedly preferred negotiation as they felt that negotiated treaties would be better than war and massacre. The government itself systematically violated the negotiations and treaties. The Indians went from proud entrepreneurs in a sustainable economy to prisoners confined to desert lands in what can be considered as concentration camps and were denied access to food. They became increasingly sick and literally left to die of starvation.
In a book review, Globe and Mail columnist Aparna Sanyal pointed out “if we do not learn to see ourselves in Big Bear, who, malnourished and subjugated, preferred negotiation to massacre, and not just in Sir John A., who would have his railway at any human cost, we are condemned to keep reinforcing the material gaps between our mainstream and our indigenous populations – to remain, in the ugliest sense, a colony and not a nation.”
If we do not learn to see ourselves in Big Bear we are condemned.
There is more than a moral issue there. There is a founding issue of who we are. Defining Who we are, and aligning our behavior to that standard, brings us one step closer to being a complete human being.
The solution is the golden rule: Always treat others as you would have them treat yourself. It has to be all day, everyday. Not just when it suits you, but when it goes against your own perceived self-interest.
But before we can commit to that golden, as a society, as a business, as a social group, or as an individual, we must realize that we are responsible - Now and in the past. We must acknowledge the actions of others and take responsibility. We can take responsibility by seeing ourselves in Big Bear. By seeing ourselves in other religions. By seeing ourselves as employees, and clients, and suppliers. By seeing ourselves as the men and women surrounding us. All day, everyday, not just when it suits us, but also when it goes against our self-interest.
For those interested below is Karen Armstrong's award winning TED talk on compassion.