Updated: Aug 14, 2021
THE CODE OF NOBILITY
The Ethical Dilemma
"The nation's morals are like its teeth, the more decayed they are the more it hurts to touch them."- George Bernard Shaw."
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THE CODE OF NOBILITY
“While it is an absolute truism that what is ethical is always the right thing to do, what seems the right thing to do is not necessarily always ethical. Viewed from another perspective, the right thing may not always seem the right thing to do. Yet, overall, doing the right thing is always the right thing to do.” - Yomi Garnett
One day, my mentor, The Sage, asked me to accompany him on a visit to one of his corporations. The firm, located in a quiet suburb in New Jersey, manufactured power generating sets for export to countries in Africa and Asia. Arriving the premises in an unobtrusive manner, we went in through the main entrance to the administrative block. As soon as we entered the foyer of the imposing building, I caught sight of a large wooden plaque on a wall. On it, embossed in gold lettering were the words, 'To do the right thing may not always appear the more attractive option, but doing the right thing is always the right option.'
"Son, I brought you here just to see this inscription. I have it placed in the foyer of each of my companies."
We went to have coffee in the company cafeteria, where, to my astonishment, no one seemed to recognize The Sage as the owner of their place of employment.
"Don't they know who you are, or are they simply afflicted by the most appalling form of discourtesy?" I asked, totally baffled.
"They haven't a clue about my identity, and I intend to keep it that way."
"Good heavens, sir! Why would you prefer such an extraordinary level of anonymity in a venture that is your own creation?" I asked in surprise.
"I am totally averse to any ceremony borne of protocol in my relationship with the employees of my corporations. In many respects, in my relationship with them, I behave very much like water. Feeling no urge to draw undue attention to myself, I flow discreetly, quietly and effortlessly to the lowest spot. The only person who would recognize me while I'm on this premises is the CEO, and I took care to ensure that we came in his absence. He is away to Africa on a business trip. Even where the CEOs of my companies are concerned, my attitude translates to being there when I am needed, and discreetly taking a dignified exit when I am not needed."
I stared at the man, both in utter disbelief and in absolute awe of his extraordinary humility.
"Sir, your extraordinary index of humility is mind-boggling."
He remained silent for a moment. His next words remain, to this day, some of the most empowering words ever spoken to me by another person.
“Son, my attitude has less to do with humility that a deliberate attempt to suppress my ego. You see, each one of us is composed of two equally significant parts; our Higher Self and our Ego Self. We have each of these Selves to varying degrees. The more you are able to suppress your Ego, or Little Self, the more your Higher Self achieves ascendancy. The greatest dilemma of humanity is that most people have their Ego Self as their point of reference. This ego is fed by a crave for titles, and a feeling of power and importance. It is this ego-centred existence that is responsible for an inordinate and unbridled crave for affluence and power at all costs. Yet, true power is actually reposed in your Higher Self; that spiritual essence that recognizes that, in sacrosanct truth, you are above no one, yet below no one. The more you are able to relinquish your attachment to the demands of the ego, the more your spiritual self rises, and in such a way that you are able to arrive at the stark realization of how truly empty your hands were when you were born, and how empty they will inevitably be when you exit this earthly plane.”
“Sir, clearly, you are saying that ego is what rules most of us unequivocally,” I said, feeling very sober indeed.
“Absolutely, son! A man desires a Cadillac and a mansion today, believing that with those acquisitions, he has arrived at his final oasis of fulfilment and joy. Sadly, within a couple of months, his ego pastes a new list of demands on his forehead. He now wants an even bigger mansion and a private jet!”
“Sir, in other words, until a man has mastered his ego, his ego will remain his master,” I interjected.
“Precisely!” He replied. “It is the ego-driven and mindless pursuit of the toys of life that is actually responsible for much of human turmoil, despair and unhappiness. The shockingly high suicide rate amongst the affluent is sufficient indication that wealth is not necessarily a harbinger of happiness. Yet, the totally astonishing paradox is that the more you relinquish your ego-based attachment to material affluence, the more your Higher Self seems to pull it to you with the same effortless ease with which it attracts happiness into your life.”
"Why did you insist on placing that inscription about doing the right thing in each of your companies?" I asked.
"I did so because of the need to remind everyone that, although the entire world is seemingly mired in an ethical dilemma, we can still toe the noble path by rising above the fray if we choose to do so."
"What is an ethical dilemma?"
"Son, one of the most tragic passes the world has come to is, indeed, an ethical dilemma. An ethical dilemma can be defined as an undesirable or unpleasant choice relating to a moral principle or practice. When we find ourselves in such situations, what critical choices do we make? Do we toe the easy and convenient path to illicit gain, monetary or otherwise, or do we subscribe to the right thing, and do it? Quite often, a convenient lie will serve our primordially based interests by easily concealing an inadvertent, yet totally explicable error. Do we tell that lie? I was once burdened with the unpleasant duty of heavily censuring an executive at one of my companies. At the incipient stage of a potentially lucrative transaction, a prospective client had appeared quite vulnerable. The executive, in a misguided bid to amplify the company’s profits, ingloriously opted to embellish his proposal in such a way that the client would find the potential service to him positively irresistible. Yet, the executive was sufficiently aware that he did not quite possess sufficient competence to render service to the client on that exaggerated pedestal. Naturally, I forbade the executive from engaging in such duplicity, and promptly arranged for him to proceed on a course on business ethics! On the more mundane level, how many of us would return the balance on the incorrect change given to us by a sales clerk?"
I related my own personal experience in this regard.
"Sir, once, I strolled into a small delicatessen in The Bronx to purchase an item of minor importance. On my way out, I discovered that the sales clerk had given me far above my due change. When I returned it, he looked at me in what can only pass for amazement, if not mild horror. He actually asked if I was feeling unwell! Aghast at his consternation, I asked him what the matter was. The poor fellow explained that it was practically unheard of for customers to return change! I patiently explained to him that what did not belong to me was simply not mine to keep. As I made my way out of the shop, he continued to stare as me as if I was an alien from outer space."
The Sage erupted in laughter.
"Son, the man's incredulity was perfectly understandable. He had come to expect the worst slant of dishonourable and ignoble conduct from his fellow man. That is how low mankind has sunk on the ethical scale."
"But, why do people descend into unethical conduct?" I asked.
"When people decide to make unethical choices, it is usually explicable on the basis of one of three reasons. The first is that people tend to do what is most convenient for them in the circumstances. The second reason is that most people, almost invariably, will do whatever it takes to win, fair or foul. The generality, the win-win philosophy being as distant from them as our planet is from the sun, find the faintest notion of losing absolutely abhorrent. Businesspersons, in particular, crave the intoxicating thrill of winning through achievement and success. The real tragedy, more often than not, is that they labour under the fatally flawed and totally misguided obligation of having to juggle the two choices of ‘being ethical’ and ‘winning.’ Not unnaturally, ‘winning’ wins the mind race, and supplants any other consideration to the contrary. Permit me to relate the story of a senior executive at a leading company here in the United States who, at the company’s brainstorming session for an imminent sales convention, enthusiastically offered to present a seminal paper on ethics. A previously clamorous room suddenly went as silent as a graveyard. You could hear a pin drop. An awkward moment later, the cacophony resumed, almost as if the hapless executive had never uttered a word in the first place. She did not pursue the matter any further. However, she brought up the same subject with her CEO when she ran into him later in the day. Fully expecting his support for, and acquiescence to, what she considered an eminently brilliant idea, she was taken aback when he responded that, while admittedly, the question of ethics was an important issue, he did not consider the convention an auspicious time and place for it. He was more inclined towards an upbeat and motivational sales meeting. He felt the subject of ethics was altogether a rather negative one for the times! Son, this opinion, without an iota of doubt, is shared by the overwhelming majority of businesspeople, who labour under the fundamentally erroneous belief that ethics can only constrain their options and opportunities, thereby truncating their potentials for business success. Indeed, in subscribing to the pedestrian maxim that ‘the good guys always finish last,’ most people simply believe that morality is not only old fashioned but is also a rather costly luxury item! Quite often, people find themselves presented with only two choices; to succeed by doing whatever it requires, even if it is unethical, and to morally subscribe to ethical conduct and lose. Let us make no mistake about the unsavoury fact that this can be a very stark and real ethical dilemma. The rather paradoxical fact is that few people actually set out with a dishonest mindset. Yet, the equally valid fact is that even fewer people desire to lose, even as the win-win philosophy continues to elude them, even at the most elementary level of practice. The third reason why people adopt unethical choices is that they would rather resolve their ethical conflict by opting to do what they perceive to be right in that particular moment, and in total accord with the dictates of the prevailing circumstances. Expressed differently, people find it infinitely more convenient to set their own standards, in which the right and proper thing to do is necessarily determined by the prevailing situation. That, naturally, presupposes that standards can, at the drop of a hat, be revised from one situation to the next. To render matters infinitely worse, most people have a natural inclination to be lenient with themselves, rather conveniently judging themselves according to their supposedly noble intentions, while, however, setting much higher standards for others, and judging them by their own worst actions. Son, fortunately, there is hope on the horizon. With each passing day, there is a burgeoning universal desire for ethical dealing in commerce. We are beginning to witness a renaissance in which, even while corporations still task executives with making as much money as possible for their companies by taking tough decisions, conglomerate heads like myself still demand an unflinching commitment to a high index of integrity in business dealings. One of the key principles I instil in my executives is the need to ensure ethical dealing of the highest standards. Because of this, my corporations have built a solid reputation for integrity, even in the face of the need for executives to achieve corporate goals that can sometimes be quite tasking. My basic corporate philosophy is that it remains perfectly within the realm of possibility to do what is right and still succeed in business. In fact, my corporations have proved conclusively that dedication to doing the right thing, and insisting on a commitment to uncompromising ethical responsibility, is much more profitable in the long run.”
“Sir, is there, perhaps, some formula or code by which one might scrupulously police one’s ethical conduct?”
“Indeed, son, in arriving at any decision that lends itself to ethical consideration of any complexion whatsoever, simply ask yourself four questions. Is it ethically right? Is it absolutely fair to all concerned? Is it based on what is right, rather than who is right? Will it do the most for the most? Son, what is your educated opinion on the entire matter?”
“Sir, the conclusion of any well-adjusted businessperson must be that it is eminently possible to do what is right and still superlatively succeed in business. In fact, I am perfectly willing to wager that companies that are dedicated to doing the right thing, and consistently act on doing the right thing, are in the long run likely to be much more profitable than those who do not.”
“Standing right before you is the ultimate testimony to that absolute truism! I am definitely not poorer than I was ten years ago!” The old boy announced, laughing with unabashed glee at his own irrefutable checkmate.