Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ethics, emotion and ideology

As I was writing an earlier post (bearing on the relationship between personal ethics and business), I found myself confronting the fact that the application of certain modes of ethical thinking to business and investment, etc. leads naturally to left-wing and even totalitarian conclusions.

Specifically, if one applies standard Christian-like ethics to these areas, one ends up feeling one should care for and protect consumers and the general public as one would one's loved ones, not only from 'market forces' but also from themselves. The result is inevitably going to be a form of socialism, or at least a nanny state.

Tweak the ethical starting-point (by rejecting universalism for nationalism, for example) and you may get something like fascism.

But, at any rate, you will be committed to trying to create an extended economic, political and social community modelled on the family or tribe. Something warm and human and emotion-based, but on a large scale.

It is a potent and alluring idea, but, as history shows, it just doesn't work. Or, at least, it doesn't work for long. The consequences, in fact, are generally disastrous.

European-style social democracy could be seen as an attempt to realize this idea of an extended human community without resorting to totalitarian methods. Social democratic systems never really managed, however, to create a true, extended sense of community, remaining cold and bureaucratic (as well as being economically unsustainable).

Paradoxically, one of the cruelest totalitarian regimes of the 20th century had more success (for a limited time and not for the whole population) on the affective front. I am thinking of Hitler's rallies, and the stories told by (non-Jewish) Germans about growing up in the early days of National Socialism (the state-sponsored camping trips, the sense of community and belonging).

I don't have a neat conclusion; only the sense that an emotional approach to broad social questions can be dangerous, and perhaps the best kind of general ethical framework for business and politics will be unemotional and rule-based.

Of course, emotions are part of being human, and all of us are emotionally engaged as individuals in our professional and business lives. The main dangers seem to lie in trying to impose one's own emotionally-charged vision on the broader community.


  1. It helps me to think of emotions as an automatic response to what I have already determined to be of value. To the extent that I consciously choose my values according to facts, my emotions coincide with my ideas. That way, my ethics and feelings are mutually reinforcing rather than pulling me apart.

    1. 'To the extent that I consciously choose my values ...' I wonder to what extent we can. I would have thought that most of our most basic values are formed as we grow up, many of them quite early on. Obviously the evolutionary process in general coupled with the genetic peculiarities of the individual would create strong predispositions, etc. which one's particular upbringing would modify.

      I suspect that some people experience more harmony in this area than others!

      Also, I think the social dimension is crucial, not just in terms of upbringing, but in terms of how we relate to those around us, to what extent we feel part of a particular culture or group.

      The particular question (or set of questions) I was thinking about relates to the scope of application of our personal ethics. Problems may arise when ethics touches politics, especially in the context of an increasingly complex and economically integrated world.