Some of you may wonder what philosophers do. I can’t speak for others, but I’ll tell you what I do:  Mostly I try to solve the world’s problems by thinking about them in different ways.


…What it’s all about

And we have a problem so massive and overpowering that many of us don’t even see it. It affects so many people and institutions so deeply that untold millions of us think that it’s the way things are.  We assume it as a necessary part of life, and live on a daily basis without even thinking about it.  Perhaps it’s even the way it should be.  But I don’t think so, and I think that you might agree.

Let me ask you something: How do you deal with someone you can’t trust?  Oh, I suppose you can on some level, because we all do this on a daily basis.  We tend to accept most people at their word, even though we know that they might not be giving us the whole story, or bending the facts a little, or even outright lying to us.  We accept this as the way it is, and deal with it piecemeal, as it comes up.

But when you really come down to it, aren’t your friends people whom you trust?  Isn’t that a reason they’re your friends?  There’s a message here.

Now let me tell you something.  Some time ago I tried to organize an ethics workshop for a professional organization.  I solicited papers, guest speakers, everything, got other organizations and professions on board, even a meeting place donated.  They would show a tidy profit.  A win-win situation if ever there was one, with very little effort asked of the membership.  It didn’t happen.

Some members were solidly behind it, but there was considerable waffling.  Comments: Why there should even be a program on ethics?  Who needs it?  Who cares, and who would come?  After all, they opined, “we’re all ethical.”  There’s a message here, as well.  A telling one.

These examples illustrate not only a gross misunderstanding of the stuff of ethics.  More important, they expose apathy.  Apathy with regard to, of all things, truth.

And the problem I referred to earlier is our society’s widespread apathy regarding truth.  We accept evasion, equivocation, deceit, duplicity, even outright lies as a way of life, and I think that most of us are apathetic about it.  After all, what can you do?  It’s just the way things are.  Deal with it and go on.  We are so inured to it that we ignore it.  It’s no big deal.

But it is a big deal.  It’s a problem that, if not subject to outright solution, needs to be acknowledged and dealt with on some level, because ignoring it has only made it worse.

And lets not hear that we’ll let the law handle it.  Truth has nothing to do with the law–truth isn’t a legal issue.  Law is a social construct; it applies to society.  Truth is universal–it has to be dealt with universally, on the level of mankind.  And it will take nothing less than individual effort to do this. Sound strange? I’ll get back to this subject shortly.

Wouldn’t life be easier, more rewarding, more pleasant if we could trust people?  Wouldn’t things move along more smoothly if we weren’t always steering around unnecessary obstacles caused by evasion, deception, deceit, artifice, distortion and outright lying?

And let’s not hear that this is impossible because that’s just the way people are. Are you that way?  You’re ethical, aren’t you?  (Ask around and you’ll find that everybody is !?)

Seeing this problem–taking liberties with truth–for what it is, is a first step in dealing with it.  And we would expect our institutions of higher learning to join us in our quest.  But they don’t.

            Some Examples from an article, “Should You Lie?”  in the November 1999 issue of Fortune Small Business:

From a professor of Business Ethics at Utah: “We all carry around two sets of ethical standards” which he calls gaming ethics and/or personal ethics. (Well, if we do at least one of them is wrong.) Further, he says that it’s OK to do some wrong things sometimes. (While this may be true, it’s not ethical.) From Albert Carr in the Harvard Business Review: “The ethics of business differs from the ethics of religion,” And Benjamin Selekman tells us to “sin bravely” in business. These statements tell us all we need to know about business ethics. From the ethics chair at the Harvard Business School: “What is a lie under circumstances in which no one expects the truth to be told?”  Telling us even more. A Professor at the Chicago School of Business agrees, telling us that people lie because they are expected to lie–he calls it an “expectations trap”.   We are victims, after all. There’s lots more, but the article concludes: “A little lying might, indeed, go a long way.”  Want more?   From “Why Be Honest if Honesty Doesn’t Pay?” in the Harvard Business Review: “There is no compelling economic reason to tell the truth or keep one’s word.” One of my favorites is “How To Cheat On Your Boss,” in the March 1999 “Entrepreneurs’ Business Start-Ups.” It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here are some pearls:  “(W)ith a proper ethical perspective (?!) and a keen eye toward caution, stealing a few hours off the time clock can actually prove to be beneficial…even for your boss, since many “cheaters” admit to working harder at their day jobs to keep from getting caught.” An entrepreneur, apparently following this axiom, admits to working on other projects while billing a client for his time and, “as long as I feel (?!) like I’m providing the service I’m being paid for, then it doesn’t bother me at all.”  We aren’t told if it bothers his clients. These two examples seem reasonable when the ethics chair at Harvard teaches that “there are no concrete rules when it comes to ethical implications of cheating.” This same pillar of  integrity believes “as long as you’re getting your work done, (cheating is) forgivable and…. forgettable.” And: “ethics depends on the specifics of a situation.”  Remember, this man is teaching your kids. By the way, he is an author of the “right vs. right” school of ethics (wherein apparently nothing is wrong). But in promulgating right vs. right, Joseph Badaracco blurs the entire concept of ethics.  The difference between ethics and values is precisely the thing that has to be addressed.

From The Cheater Principle in The Wall Street Journal (August 25, 2000):

“…(B)usinesses across the country are reporting an upturn in…petty cheating…: barreling through toll booths without paying, sneaking onto…golf courses, even stiffing restaurants for the bill” (and stealing silverware, vases and Limoges ashtrays).  “Not only are…the perpetrators…well-off, but the objects of their transgressions carry…little value.”  And the capper, illustrating that apathy I mentioned, “After all,…cheaters aren’t afraid of getting caught because so few…owners are choosing to crack down on (them).”  We all pay for this in higher prices.

But perhaps the most telling part of this example is what the Journal doesn’t say: nowhere in the article are these people called thieves or liars.  We have become too “politically correct” to even use the words anymore.

And one of the primary reasons for this is…


The engine driving western civilization in the 800-years since the Magna Carta is founded in the rule of law.  But along the long way we’ve come in those nearly 8 centuries, we have increasingly taken the rule of law for granted, not to mention bending, folding spindling and otherwise mutilating it along the way.  What once was relatively simple has been molded by centuries of subjective experience, and speculation on that experience has, probably inevitably, increasingly shaped our behavior to the point where its beginnings are lost in clouds of doubt.  Further, this vast mass of experience has allowed us to selectively pick only those pieces that seem to justify where it is we wish to be, and what rules we wish to follow.  Our own three branches of government were established to achieve a balance of power whereby the individual is assured a meaningful voice and no one branch could dominate.  However, we have come to a point where all three branches are occupied primarily by practitioners of the rule of law.  The balance of power has in fact been overpowered by rules of law written by lawyers.  The tail has come to wag the dog.  Practitioners of the law (both civil and criminal) are now one and the same with politicians and government.

And we have a situation wherein the law has overpowered morality.  The problem I alluded to at the outset is well represented by Robert Bartley in The Wall Street Journal (9/19/00): “The rule of law is the most significant issue facing our civilization…(T)he problem is an insidious deterioration of the principles on which the republic is built.”

An example of the law’s abuse of the truth can be found in junk science, practiced in the courtroom by academic prostitutes and pillars of the community alike.  “Expert witnesses” slant the truth or outright lie in the interests of their employers.  It happens often in environmental cases, less so in medicine and other areas of public concern.  No, the courtroom is not always the place to find the truth.

Nor are lawyers the ones to determine it.  We need look no further than our country’s highest office to find a lack of “controlling legal authority.” But the worst of it is that a majority of voters tolerate the lies, even re-elect, permitting the lies to continue.  The sadness is that our apathetic society, avoiding the word liar, accepts it as the way it is.

Another example is class-action lawsuits.  Look at almost any class-action lawsuit and you’ll find in its basis the abuse of truth.  Consider for instance the court rulings regarding Audi, and more recent rulings against large tobacco companies–billions of dollars, all the result of hiding, bending and abusing the truth.  The costs to our society are and will be tremendous, yet the tobacco companies continue to profit and pay taxes, and we continue to accept this as the way things are.

These are but a very few manifestations of the problem that we have to address.

*   *   *   *   *

This massive problem cannot be solved via usual methods.  We certainly can’t do it in the courts. Neither the law nor the popular “scientific method” are enough.  Science deals with how and, like the law, demands proof.  How is not the problem to be solved.  If we first understand why, an area where proofs are not always forthcoming and dealt with by philosophy, only then can we address how.

Nor can solving this problem be done by any group.  The group is, in fact, part of the problem.  The problem can only be approached in the same manner used in counting a flock of geese: one goose at a time.  We have to know, not be told or led to believe.  We have to return to science’s forebear, philosophy.  That simple step involves only individual thought.

Frightening, isn’t it?  It comes down to you and me, and individual thought.  We have only to use our individual minds on an individual basis, really the only way they can be used.  There is no collective mind that can do this for us.  And if this seems like too much of a burden, try thinking small–one goose at a time. Start with yourself.

Approached in this way, the problem becomes solvable.  Not overnight, to be sure, but we can at least confidently move toward a solution, one goose at a time..  Acknowledgment of a problem is the first step in solving it.  Recognize it, and we’re on our way.  But the burden is on you.  Accept your responsibility.

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