Sunday, 31 March 2013

Ethics is the science of making wise choices. Prevention is better than cure. Look at problems in perspective. Accept the inevitable hassles of life stoically

Learning consists of turning facts into principles for choosing the right course of action. For managers and entrepreneurs, whose success depends on making many decisions at great speed, principles are essential.
"A wise man is not for or against anybody, truth is his only concern," wrote Confucius in the year 510 B.C. 

Ethics is the science of making wise choices

Unfortunately, during the last sixty years, ethics, the science of making wise choices, has progressively narrowed its ambitions. Instead of dealing with general concerns, discussions have turned to life-and-death situations, such as shipwreck survivors stranded on an island with limited food and too many mouths to feed. 
No wonder that, in such intellectual environment, many have given up all attempts to establish universal rules. If you open a newspaper, you will see to what ethics has been reduced: on the one side, pragmatism, on the other, positive thinking. These days, the latter is also being called "neuro-linguistic programming" and "law of attraction."

These two doctrines epitomize the abdication of philosophy. Pragmatism represents reality without principles. Positive thinking prescribes principles without reality. I submit that both are equally unsuitable, but I won't deny that both possess high intellectual appeal and popularity, in particular when it comes to discussing life-and-death situations:

  • YOUR PROFESSION: You lose your job during a recession. You cannot pay the mortgage and bills accumulate. There are no other jobs around and prospects are bleak.
  • YOUR HEALTH: You become seriously sick and cannot work any longer. Medical costs sky-rocket. Then the worst is confirmed. You are declared terminally ill.
  • YOUR BUSINESS: Competition makes you lower prices and your company begins to lose money. Negative cash flow leads to liquidity problems. You are then pushed into bankruptcy. The company that you have spent two decades building disappears.
  • YOUR RELATIONSHIPS: Things at home go from bad to worse. The situation reaches a point where it cannot be saved. Your spouse files for divorce. Your standard of living and your social life are shattered.

Pragmatism will prompt you to pick up the pieces and build a new puzzle, but it won't give you a blueprint, nor tell you which pieces are relevant, nor how to choose them or weigh their relative importance. Positive thinking will disregard tragedy and assure you that a bright future lies ahead. Since positive thinkers considers details irrelevant, little explanation will be provided.

What sustains the popularity of pragmatism and positive thinking is that both work sporadically, like a broken clock who tells the right time twice a day. The alternative to them, rational philosophy, tends to paint less vivid pictures, but those are truthful and reliable. What about life-and-death situations? The rational view on those can be summarized in three points:

Prevention is better than cure

Use rational principles to choose the right course of action long before any sign of trouble appears in the horizon. Sensible eating and exercise will reduce your health risks. Continuous learning will cut down your chances of becoming unemployed. Savings and frugality will get you through difficult periods.

Look at problems in perspective

Unless you are suffering from terminal illness, you have time to rebuild your social life, business, or profession. Disregard infeasible plans and avoid taking random decisions. Let your reason define your long-term goals and align your steps accordingly.

Accept the inevitable hassles of life stoically

Catastrophe can hit people unexpectedly for no good reason. Even the most talented managers make mistakes from time to time. Nobody knows everything and many factors are outside our control. That's life and it is better to face it and accept it. Stoicism and serenity will allow you to make the best of what is left.
As Confucius put it, "a wise man is sound in thought and diligent in action." 

Ethics is not to be discarded, but rebuilt. What we need for our business and private life is a science that allows us to make the right choices. What we need are logical premises, solid arguments, consistency with reality, and predictable consequences. What we need is reason.

For more information about rational living and personal development, I refer you to my book The 10 Principles of Rational Living


[Image by alpha du centaure under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]