Saturday, October 13, 2007

Gore’s Talk of a “moral & spiritual” Issue?

Tibor R. Machan

Trust me, please, I have no personal grudge against Al Gore. For me it mattered very little that Bush instead of Gore got to be president—I consider them both bad for the country, only in slightly different ways. True, I find Gore’s style difficult to stomach—his posture of piety irks me a lot. But Bush’s swagger is no better.

So it is nothing personal when I distrust Gore’s climate change/global warming crusade. Part of it is my principled skepticism of all things political these days. And make no mistake, Gore’s crusade is political, despite what he keeps telling us, namely, “We face a truly planetary emergency. The climate crisis is not a political issue; it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity.” He reiterated this point again when he spoke about his receipt of a share of the Nobel Peace Prize recently.

What’s troubling about this declaration is that it is just plainly false. So Gore is being disingenuous. Why?

A political issue is one that is debated with an eye to forging public policies, legally enforceable edicts which if one disobeys can land one in jail. For example, if someone urges that smoking pot be made illegal or legal, one is involved in a political issue. The law will either condemn or liberate those who smoke pot, period. A moral and spiritual issue, in contrast, is one that depends on one’s voluntary actions. For example, if someone chooses to give money to charity, this is a moral issue. Not doing so does not make one a lawbreaker. Doing so doesn’t have anything to do with compliance with the law or some public policy. Or take supporting the arts or sciences or championing sexual abstinence or marital fidelity. All of these are a matter of morality, of freely choosing to do what one believes to be the right thing. You could also consider it all spiritual in that what is involved is one’s personal values, values pertaining to how to live one’s life as a matter of one’s free choice.

The climate change/global warming issue is clearly of the political type. Gore and others who are advocating the idea that “We face a true planetary emergency” want to have various laws passed and public policies institute, nation and world wide. These would be mandatory, not something the millions of those affected would have to decide about on their own, with no legal sanctions attending to what they decide. Quite the contrary.

All this should be plain and to deny it as Al Gore does qualifies as prevarication, lying. So how can someone who does this be trusted? Why should one believe that Al Gore & Co. are leveling with us all about climate change and global warming when Al Gore himself utters blatant lies like the one about whether this is political or moral/spiritual matter?

Or could it be that Al Gore is simply ignorant about the difference between political issues and moral/spiritual ones? Even if that is plausible, surely the guy has a huge staff of experts within his entourage, in innumerable areas of study, so one or two of them would have reached out to him with advice on how confusing his pitch is about what the clime change/global warming issues is about. Someone would certainly have told him, “Hey, Al, stop saying this is not political when it clearly is—you are advocating laws and public policies, not private decisions by people.”

So I just don’t buy it that Al Gore is merely misinformed about the nature of politics versus morality. No. He is evidently trying deliberately to mislead us into thinking that he isn’t advocating anything that would coerce us all to do one thing or another but merely giving us moral or spiritual advice.

And once this is clear, how can Al Gore be trusted about the rest of what he is advocating? It is far more credible that what he is after is power over our lives, power to dictate to us to behave as he judges fit. Exactly why, that is not something I am privy to—why do dictators want to be dictators? Why do tyrants want to be tyrants? That is a vital question but here what is crucial is that Al Gore seems clearly to be trying to deceive and the consequence of the success of his deception is likely to give him immense power over other people’s lives. And that is something to be resisted by us all.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Jesuit Business Ethics?

Tibor R. Machan

Chapman University’s Argyros School of Business & Economics was host to the inaugural Ethics Academy presented by the local Leatherby Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Ethics and the Passkeys Foundation, Jefferson Center for Character Education. The keynote speaker was Dr. Robert Spitzer, Ph. D., S. J., a Jesuit priest and president of Gonzaga University, as well as founder of the Spitzer Center for Ethical Leadership.

I was asked to give a very brief welcoming remark, which lasted about a minute. In time Dr. Spitzer took the podium and delivered his lecture. His first and, to my mind, central point was that there is a decline of ethics in American culture and it is due to the prominence of striving for what he called “comparative identity,” in contrast to what he dubbed a
“contributory identity.”

The former consists of evaluating oneself in terms of
how much better, richer, intelligent, learned, more powerful, effective, skillful, etc., one is compared to other people. The latter consists of evaluating oneself in terms of how much one contributes to family, neighborhood, society, and so forth. As applied to business ethics, the focus of the Ethics Academy on this occasion, having a contributory identity means, in the words of Dr. Spitzer, focusing on “the stakeholders” of the enterprise in which one is involved. Focusing on advancing the benefits of stakeholders secures oneself his or her contributory identity, a far better goal than gaining a comparative identity.

I think that Dr. Spitzer got it only half right. Focusing on how one compares with others has its place (for example, in figuring out the price of one’s goods and services), but it should not be an end in itself. He was right about this—focusing on comparisons when it comes to self-assessment tends to leave one unstable, constantly worried, even unfocused and ethically confused.

But what of Dr. Spitzer’s alternative, striving to gain a contributory identity? Is that really a good idea?

The notion, at bottom, is nothing but the ethical system of altruism laid out in great detail by the French philosopher and father of sociology, Auguste Comte. One should serve others. That is at the heart of the stakeholder theory of corporate management, also, one that now dominates the field of business ethics. It contrasts with the idea that those in business ought to focus first on making their enterprise prosper, for the shareholders and investors. The opposite, the stakeholder theory, is a non-starter, when push comes to shove.

Figuring out what benefits others is always difficult
and it inclines people to become meddlesome. They need to concentrate on other people’s needs and wants, something most of them are unprepared for. This is what leads to the pushiness of politicians and it certainly isn’t what is most desirable about people in business. Yes, to some extent businesses flourish by figuring out what other people want, but only in the context of an exchange, of what they can professionally contribute to others in return for payment in accordance with the market price of the
goods and services they can contribute. It is a tit-for-tat relationship, not a contributory one.

As to ethics, a contributory identity tends to involve second-guessing what others want and need and this can involve some pretty wrongheaded notions. What if what others want to have contributed to them is seriously objectionable, immoral? The first thing that must be considered in all professions, including business, is whether one can produce something worthwhile, something important, and then one can see if there is a demand
for this. Otherwise, in a primarily demand driven approach to business—or any other profession—one will again be judging what one should do based on what others want regardless of whether their wants have merit.

But perhaps the greatest paradox of the contributory identity comes from the quip by W. H. Auden: “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know.” In other words, if one’s identity must, first of all, be contributory—rather than, say, thoughtful and professional—what should those do to whom the contributions are made? What
kind of identity should they have? If they too must be contributory, who, ultimately, will be the beneficiaries of all that contribution? An endless daisy chain of self-sacrifice is generated in such a system.

So, I agree, it is unwise to focus on comparisons as an individual charts one’s personal or professional conduct. But neither is it wise to focus mainly on benefiting others. The focus should be on doing one’s work well, including the work of living one’s life and whatever profession one takes up based on one’s talents and opportunities.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Boston Legal Hypocrisy?

Tibor R. Machan

A couple of weeks ago Boston Legal, the TV series created and produced by David E. Kelley—otherwise known as Mr. Michelle Pfeifer—featured a program in which a partner of the firm opted to withdraw her sizable contribution for climate change research to Stanford University because Exxon/Mobile also gave them some big bucks. This plot line gave Kelley, who was credited with having written the segment, the chance to sound off on how big corporations manage to buy research from universities. Receiving huge sums, the thesis goes, even though there are no official strings attached, cannot but bias the researchers in favor of the interests of the donors! That was the basic message and it was delivered in characteristically moralistic tones, making sure no one missed the point that morality in this and other matters with which the program deals lies on the side of those championing Kelley’s causes.

Just how contorted the idea is that Kelley is peddling here can be appreciated from a recent Associated Press story that reports the receipt from the National Science Foundation by the University of California, Merced, of a $4.6 million grant “to start an outdoor laboratory geared toward studying climate change in the Sierra Nevada range.” The direct recipients of this grant will be researchers at various ”UC campuses, including Berkeley, Irvine, Davis and Santa Barbara, as well as scientists from the University of Nevada, Reno and the Pacific Southwest Research Station of the U. S. Forest Service.”

First of all, clearly those favoring the climate change-global warming hypothesis may also have to consider that their motives are likely to be influenced by money. Some big companies may wish to downplay climate change and global warming for purely mercenary reasons, regardless of what the evidence shows. But then government agencies such as the NSF could well have their own agenda and those producing findings that support it could well have biases of their own. Not that they have to, no more than those who receive funds from Exxon/Mobile or other big corporations.

The point is that there are agendas being pushed on both sides, by no means just from private oil firms, and if this must corrupt research, it will do so in both camps. But, of course, this idea never surfaced in the Boston Legal episode. The notion that climate change/global warming researchers might themselves be biased because they receive big bucks from the Feds was nowhere to be heard on that episode, trust me.

Second, when a private company gives a grant to a research centers, taxpayers aren’t forced to contribute. Those who don’t agree with Exxon/Mobile’s take on climate change or global warming can buy oil and other products the company makes from competitors. When the National Science Foundation provides funds to all these universities, it is using money extorted from citizens at gun point. So there is no way to opt out from funding the research by those who believe it is all a hoax, exaggerated or unscientific. Such funding is akin to the sort that many find objectionable when government support is provided to, say, abortion clinics or certain types of stem cell research; or when a highly controversial military expedition is being funded with taxes even though millions of American’s consider it immoral.

Of course, no such considerations made any appearance in Mr. Kelley’s business-bashing episode of Boston Legal. This, too, makes it very clear that all the posturing of holding the moral high ground is groundless. No thought was given to the possible immorality of confiscating resources from those who disagree with some governmental project. Only the purported evil of big oil got a forum.

Finally, notice, too, that all of this business-bashing is being broadcast on ABC-TV, a humongous commercial organization that is about as fully enmeshed in trying to make a buck as is Exxon/Mobile, and probably selling Exxon/Mobile air time to advertise its goods and services. Mr. Kelley and his team are certainly not free of complicity with big business; rather they are all making a very nice living from getting ABC-TV to run their show even as they explicitly and implicitly call into question the integrity and good will of all those who try to earn a profit.

In the end, what’s most important to remember is that the integrity of professionals in science, education, engineering and other fields isn’t all that easy to undermine, not if those individuals will not allow it. To think that a grant from Exxon/Mobile will corrupt researchers could well be a case of projection on Mr. Kelley’s part. Maybe he is easy to corrupt with money, so he thinks everyone is.