Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Corruption of a Character

Action by action, we build our character.Whether in public, or in private, what we do is both a revelation and a construction of who we are.In a media-rich world, there seems to be a feeling that we can hide behind the illusion of anonymity, and be different people in different places and times. Our actions are without consequence. Here I’m a ruthless business tycoon; there I am a gentle lover. Here I hack into your private information, but there I would never ask you to tell me something that is none of my business. I can do some calculating things, but I am a good person at the end of the day.

The notion of a world free of responsibility, free of consequences doesn’t square with the best of human reasoning, let alone with a Christian understanding of ethics. In one Aesop fable, the birds are warned by the swallow to eat the hemp seeds before the seeds grow up into plants that are woven into nets that will be used to catch them: Destroy the seeds of destruction or they will destroy you. Oscar Wilde, at the end of his life, noted his experience of this reality: “I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetops.” I hope none of those caught up in current events are genuinely surprised when their actions come back to haunt them.

Even business leaders over recent years have been calling for more ethical teaching in MBA programmes because graduates were failing not to exhibit appropriate business skills, but failed to grasp the importance of honesty and integrity. Yet it takes more than knowledge of ethics to make an ethical person. It takes the tough discipline of subjecting every action to a standard that is higher than yourself. It takes more than a decision, though certainly not less; it takes the very formation of a person. In the words of Winston Churchill, 'Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.'

And so we really do reap what we sow. Maybe that is why the apostle Paul encouraged the Galatians not to grow weary in doing what is right. Perhaps he knew how frustrated people might become when they constantly finish last because the more ruthless players fix the rules to their own advantage. Perhaps he knew the temptation to give in, just once or twice, just a little.

But instead, he challenges us to forget about self-interest, and persist in helping everyone as we have opportunity. Because in time, perhaps after a long, long time, and well out of sight, we will reap a good, enduring harvest. This is the potential of a good character, well formed. The longterm reward comes from doing the right thing in secret as well as in the open, rather than using your power and influence for personal or professional gain: Now that’s a number worth hacking into. Sadly, the temptations of power are usually too great. Number by number, call by call, character is corrupted. And everyone loses. 


  1. A sad and telling description (indictment?) of our society. When the analysis of riots is done and everyone falls into the blame game, will we have the courage to say 'the fault belongs to us all, because neither through government, education, home or places of faith did we train ourselves or our young people to daily make the choices to do what was right, no matter what the cost'? Will we then, sector by sector, investigate and invest in how we can put that right one decision at a time? Thanks Anna, for this thoughtful take on what was a chronic, but has now become an acute issue for us all to face up to.

  2. Great idea to start a blog like that! Also, your first topic touches on a lot of issues that concern me at the moment.
    After many years in a politically correct academic environment, I have now taken up work at a business consulting company. Something that really thrills me about that job is that, for once, I get to actually do things as opposed to analysing them! Not all of those things I do and say there are meaningful to me per se, but I can relate to the satisfaction that strategic, creative and successful entrepreneurial actions can provide.

    On the other hand, as I'm getting to know the rules of my new environment, I'm struggling with the question as to where entrepreneurial spirit ends and plain immorality starts. It's not that I've been forced to do anything I don't want to, but I've observed people doing things that I personally object to, such as constantly lying on the phone in order to get through to people, or sharing private information about business clients in order to explain strategic issues to us. Plus, I get the feeling that more dilemmata might pop up the more I will be let in on the details of our business deals.

    So I firmly agree with the idea that it is of great importance to what degree we live our moral standards consistently throughout different contexts. I'm discussing these things a lot with my friends and partner these days. But the idea 'Act morally' alone doesn't help me. The difficult thing in business life is to decide what is right and what is wrong in the first place. Sometimes there are few blacks and whites there. E.g. if I decide not to lie on the phone, is it still wrong to give some jobs to people who I know will lie to get them done? Should I work in that kind of environment at all? Etc.

    Also, your posting kind of implies that the new media have led to a greater compartmentalisation of selves. I don't think so. Watch an episode of 'Mad Men' to get a sense of how easy it was for men in the sixties to maintain a regular family life next to all sorts of inofficial relationships and interesting hobbies. I think that whole concept that the new media cause disintegration and encourage immoral behaviour is way too overgeneralistic. The majority of Internet users have a life of their own, which is why they will mainly correspond with people they know anyway, or watch youtube videos, or buy stuff on Amazon, as opposed to hacking data on some account in Timbuktu.

    The same thing applies to business ethics: the reason why business leaders deplore a lack of morality in that area is because nowadays, credibility and integrity are important elements of corporate branding. Do you really believe that the companies that have sold poisonous household products, tobacco, or cars for so many decades used to be better places than they are now?

    Another film tipp: Compare 'Wall Street 1' and 'Wall Street 2'. The first is set in the 80ies; and in a nutshell, it suggests the same as you did: power and success come with a price; it is hard not to get corrupted, but if you try really hard and listen to the right people, you will succeed. The sequel is much more complex in that it addresses the systemic level of the current state of economy. The question here is: can you ultimately act morally, not just within the constraints of your local place, but also with respect to what your actions do to other actors in this system. I'm not sure you can, but for the sake of my personal well-being, I try to at least act morally on the local level.

    All those thoughts are circling around business situations, though, and I cannot really say a lot about the riots in England. I suppose it's much easier to distinguish between right and wrong in that case.

  3. Thanks for comments Sarah. Keep 'em coming. Thanks to you too Angie for engaging the ideas so thoroughly. I agree that the aspect I covered is only one side of the issue. But I thought I'd start there. Much of my work at the moment is focused on developing a corporate understanding of moral responsibility, so I think you've anticipated a subsequent post. When it comes to injustice, all of us have to accept our part in the system, and then it's not so easy to condemn even the riots without saying, 'and what have we/I done wrong to have helped produce a society where such discontent/criminality/etc prevails?' I don't have any idea whether it's possible to be in business and be completely faithful to ideals/morals. But I guess that's where radical decisions in life have to be taken by all of us. The system might screw me over, and demand compromise in order to participate. But it's my decision whether I decide to play the game - or get out. (What does it profit a man or woman to gain the whole world, and lose their soul?)

  4. Yeah, but for me this is not just about money and "gaining the world" really. All those who "get out" of the system for moral reasons just leave the steering wheel to others who don't think twice about morality - which I actually think does happen a lot, and which explains much of what is going on. So if that is how I'm supposed to save my soul, that seems fairly selfish to me. In the end, we all remain within the system, cause that's how things work in a globalised world. Anyway. Thanks a lot for your response. I get that I'm trying to work out things from a very particular angle. And you really do have a valid point that maybe needs to be made more often. Keep up the good writing!

  5. Keep up the participation - I really value your perspective :-) Now, what kind of pie would you like?