In my previous article I discussed leadership and how this is really about your personal ethics. I defined personal ethics as the answer to the question: “What kind of world do you want to live in?” However, in order to act on your personal ethics and have others join or follow you, they need to shape the common values of the group that you are leading. Your ethics and values need to become shared notions of the common good. Many philosophers have thought about what defines ethics as acting in the common good. Let’s examine a few of their thoughts to inspire us for our next steps in realising our ideal world.
Hume: ‘Good’ is what feels good
Scottish philosopher David Hume thought that it is impossible to define objective and independent ethical rules: “Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason” (Hume, 1739, A treatise on human nature, 126.96.36.199). So what we call ‘good’ is what feels good to us and hence to convince others of something being a good idea in a moral sense, requires us to demonstrate how it will make them feel better, i.e. further their interests.
Nietzsche: ‘Good’ is what is good to others
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche drew a more radical consequence from this line of thinking when he wrote that: ”A man’s virtues are called good depending on their probable consequences not for him but for us and society” (Nietzsche, 1882, The gay science, aphorism 21). Consequently Nietzsche denounced contemporary Western morality as a system designed by the weak to control the strong. As such Nietzsche favoured embracing the strengths within oneself and living them out without regard for the morals sanctioned by society. It goes perhaps too far to say that Nietzsche advocated selfishness, but clearly he was less concerned with harmony and avoiding conflict than with fulfilling ones destiny.
In what kind of world do you live in today?
So perhaps preceding the question of what we should do to act morally, is how do we define the relationship between ourselves and our environment. Do we consider our environment as hostile or as benign, is it full of threats or rather opportunities? Do we take a combative approach to our interactions with our environment or a collaborative approach?
In day-to-day life, many situations seem to only leave room for the combative approach, based on the needs we have and the competition we perceive from others for the resources to fulfil those needs. At the same time, everything we have achieved as human beings to lift ourselves out of the stone age is based on collaboration with other human beings, after applying our minds to see a bigger picture.
Levinas: can you take a step back to regard the Other?
Much depends on what our vision of tomorrow is: is it about protecting my/our interests, suggesting a combative approach, or; is it about growing our common interests, suggesting a collaborative approach.
French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas contended that philosophy’s primary question to answer is ‘how to act’? He did not lay out a framework to answer that question definitively, rather he tried to explain the conditions at work that enable us to find our own response.
To summarise his views very briefly (and crudely):
- Levinas thought that humans naturally pursue their own goals and interpret everything in their environment in relation to those goals: useful, not useful, opportunity, threat. Humans are self-absorbed, almost literally, mentally absorbing the whole world for their own desires – Levinas called this ‘totalising’.
- However, we are not alone in the world. When regarding others we are ‘automatically’ invited to respond to them – we essentially have no choice but to respond. Even if we ignore the Other; that is a response. We are commanded, compelled or invited to respond to whatever the Other appears to require from us.
- However, in order to be able to fully perceive that Other we must be able to suspend our self-absorption.
- This we can only achieve if our dependence on the world is balanced between asceticism (withdrawal from the world) on one extreme and addiction (fully absorbed with fulfilling a certain need) on the other. Levinas calls this balanced state ‘enjoyment’. For example: we all need to eat, but most of us can choose the moment at which we will have our next meal, hence we can ‘enjoy’ eating. This leaves room for us to consider the Other.
Compromising for the Good starts with moderation
The lesson that I take from Levinas’s philosophy is that ‘temperance’ or ‘moderation’ (one of Plato’s four cardinal virtues; the others being ‘courage’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘justice’) is required to morally engage with the world. Moderation is not only required from me, but also from others in order for them to be able to engage in moral collaboration. A world blinded by a desire for ‘more’ cannot be open to the needs of others.
Are we free enough to ‘enjoy’ (in Levinas’s terms) life so that we have a choice on how we respond to others in our environment? Or are we overly attached to what we have, afraid to lose it, keen to protect and defend it, or even wanting more, regarding our environment as filled with threats?
Kant: ‘Good’ is what is good for all
If you conclude for yourself, as I have done, that ultimately the best world is one where all can find a decent way to live based on a ‘live and let live’ attitude, German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s so-called categorical imperatives are good yard sticks to assess your vision with. Their two main formulations are:
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 1785, Grounding for the metaphysics of morals, p.31)
“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” (Kant, 1785, Grounding for the metaphysics of morals, p. 38).
With this brief lecture on ethics I hope to have inspired you to further refine your leadership vision.
The key questions in my opinion to reflect on are these:
- Is the world that I want to live in a place where I am a victor over conquered opponents and threats, or is it place to live and let live?
- Does my vision imply temperance or moderation for myself and for others?
- How does my vision address the needs of others?
I’m curious for your thoughts.