Essay: The Importance of Moral Conscience
A recent interview with Christopher Wylie of Cambridge Analytica revealed that it was Cambridge Analytics – working on behalf of the Trump campaign – that provided WikiLeaks with Hillary Clinton’s emails. It wasn’t Russia.
To quote from journalist Carole Walladr of the Observer “…it was revealed that the company had “reached out” to WikiLeaks to help distribute Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails in 2016. And then we watched as it became a subject of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible Russian collusion in the US election.”
As a consequence of Cambridge Analytica’s business model of using personal information (weakness) to influence decisions, the British electorate voted for Brexit and the United States voted for Donald Trump.
What is Moral Conscience?
Although many people define moral conscience as either some sort of feeling or a religious rule, it is neither. Perhaps Thomas Aquinas – made a saint by the Catholic Church on the 18th July 1323 - defined it best as an outcome of reason after considering all facts and consequences, then selecting that which is for the greater good of the community.
In other words, moral conscience is defined is much the same way that secular ethics is.
Moral conscience and secular ethics have early beginnings. Already in 300 BCE, Valluvar, an Indian poet, wrote the Hindu text, Kural. It promotes morality and ethics. Interestingly, he predates Christ in saying that one returns evil with good. “Even if someone does something that brings bad to you, do something good for them and make them feel shy for what they have done to you.”
In short, moral conscience is the examination of facts and outcomes in making a decision which will be for the good of all. Moral conscience is not concerned with the good of the individual, particularly so if it is at the expense of others.
The Individual vs the Community
In a world where the sovereignty of the individual has superseded the welfare of the community, it becomes vital to understand how the absence of moral conscience can not only destroy nations but, in the 21st century, bring about the complete destruction of both mankind and the planet, earth.
It has become an entrenched belief that each individual must seek their own best, follow their passions, pursue their dreams, and do all that is possible to bring about their own personal happiness.
Any rational reflection of the individual seeking his own good above that of the community good would lead to the conclusion that one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and that conflict would be the inevitable outcome of putting individual freedom above the well-being of the community as a whole.
"You can influence how they are going to behave and react."
Influence in Sales
There is a common belief system that ‘everything is sales,’ and there is some truth in that. When we introduce ourselves to others, we do so in a manner that makes us acceptable to them.
I think it was Cicero, the Roman statesman, from which the legal principle ‘Caveat Emptor’ originated. It means that the buyer must be aware of the seller’s self-interest motive. “He sees no problem with charging more for food when it is dear but the deception of market conditions by commission or omission that leads to taking advantage of momentary ignorance (perhaps failing to hear of the news of the bumper crop) is seen as fraud in Cicero’s book.”
If you’ve ever been on a sales course (or read a sales book), you will be aware that the purpose of sales is to sell at all costs.
Perhaps I could give a personal example of this. I’m sure you have many.
Some years ago, at a shul in San Diego, California, I was at a Seder (Passover dinner) and in discussing morality and ethics with a fellow diner, he objected to my definition of morality – the common good of all.
He told the following story. He was the owner of a textile store.
“A customer came to see me, requesting particularly expensive fabric in order to reupholster her settee. I mentioned to her that she didn’t need a fabric that was so expensive and gave her some other options. She was delighted.”
“The next day the owner of the supplier called me and asked if I had made the sale. I said yes, but not of the particular fabric she had originally asked for. Mr. Goldberg was furious. ‘If you ever do that again,’ he said, ‘I will not supply you any longer.’
“What should I have done?” asked my fellow diner. “If he had stopped supplying me, I would have gone out of business, and then my family would have suffered because I would have had no income.”
The fault lay with the supplier. He put his own good above that of others. In the medium to long term, this destroys and impairs others. Let’s look at the different possible outcomes for the lady who wanted to reupholster her couch.
She has a set amount for her budget. The sofa desperately needs to be recovered as it is hanging on by a thread or two, and it has become uncomfortable for family members to use it. It is of a variety which needs a particular type of fabric, something she knows very little about, so she is dependent on others for that information.
She has school fees to pay, a family to feed, the rent to pay, and her car is having trouble with the gear box. It is vital that she pays as little as possible for the reupholstering of the settee.
If she had been conned into buying a more expensive fabric when she could have bought a less expensive one, it would have had a negative effect on the other expenses she would have needed to meet. Perhaps it would mean that an extracurricular class for her son could no longer be afforded. Perhaps it meant that the gear box wasn’t looked at timeously, and as a result, a serious accident took place.
When a nation of sales people put their commission, targets, jobs, status, etc. ahead of the situation of customers, then the outcome is eventually distress and increased poverty in the medium to long term.
What the Market Will Bear
Milton Friedman, a Nobel prize winner, said “The business of business is business.” By this he meant that business and had no business being concerned about the social good of the community. They had only one goal – to make money.
In days gone by (until the late 60s), the price of a product was related to the cost of its production. A mark-up would be added by the retailer (and/or wholesaler), and this mark-up would cover the cost of salaries, insurance, rentals, etc. Included in this mark-up was a small profit for year-end.
By the beginning of the 70s, many retailers were switching to this methodology, and by the end of the 20th century, nobody was using the old ‘cost-plus’ model.
This business dictum has made some people very, very rich, but has, for the most part, made people increasingly poor. It is responsible for – internationally – the numbers of the middle classes decreasing.
I’m going to use two examples to show how this methodology impoverishes and endangers society.
The Medical Profession
The medical profession has been holding humanity to ransom with regard to the cost of getting better and remaining alive. Studies have repeatedly shown that the excessive costs of medication have little to do with research and far more to do with profit.
Let me give you an example of just how large that profit margin is. In the 90s, HIV medication that would keep you alive was being sold by the major pharmaceutical companies for $10,000 while India could produce the same thing for $350.
Neera Tanden, the president of Center for American Progress, explained that pharmaceutical companies spent more on marketing than on research. They were also able to charge extremely high prices as a result of monopolies (which are supposedly outlawed).
When medical expenses are the biggest reason for American bankruptcies, then it becomes obvious that charging what the market will bear is an unethical approach for business and sales. Who would not give away their house in order to live longer or sacrifice every luxury in order to buy water when none was available? This is extortion – no better than the Mafia boss-man who tells the store owner that he must pay for protection. When the only alternative is no alternative, and the outcome is death, misery, poverty, or some other negative result, then charging what the market will bear becomes immoral and unethical by any standard.
Bill Gates, Software, and the IT Industry
We live in a technological world. Without a basic understanding of technology, it is virtually impossible to survive and earn a living in the 21st century. The greater one’s ability to use software, the greater one’s income and freedom from poverty. Naturally, in order to be able to learn those skills, we require access to that technology. It is impossible to learn Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop, or HTML 5 without the software and/or hardware to do so.
When those products are priced using the what-the-market-will-bear methodology, four things happen. The first is that the very poor remain ignorant of the skills that will take them out of the poverty trap. The second is that the people who ‘own’ the technology become very, very rich. The third is that the as the prices rise, so the middle classes begin to be afford fewer and fewer of these products, and they, too, eventually, begin to sink into poverty. They also begin to learn fewer and fewer skills. The forth is that knowledge increasingly only belongs to the rich who can afford to buy the hardware and send their children to schools which teach the software.
What would have happened if Bill Gates had set the price of Microsoft Word using the cost-plus model? What would happen if, instead of charging thousands of dollars for the use of various software packages and making learning them just as expensive, the entire world could afford them? Wouldn’t we live in a world where creativity flourished and the increasing inequality of the world gradually vanished?
When the goals and dreams of the individual supersede the good of the community, eventually we live in a terrible, terrible world.
Being Nice Is Not a Sign of Goodness
“It is not enough to be nice; you have to be good. We are attracted by nice people; but only on the assumption that their niceness is a sign of goodness.” Roger Scruton. English philosopher
Politics: Winning at All Costs
It appears that neither Steve Bannon, nor Donald Trump, nor Christopher Wylie had much of a moral conscience when they set out to influence weak-minded people to vote for Trump. They played on the lowest and basest of human instinct and fear. And they succeeded. Hillary Clinton didn’t do so well either when she told Wall Street that she had both a public view and a private view. In other words, she told the public what they wanted to hear in order for her to win public office, but privately she held a very different point of view, and that view supported Wall Street.
None of this is for the public good, and all of it is unethical, immoral, and for the greater destruction of the community, nations, and our world.
The leaders of both the UK and the US are now morally defunct. Whether it's Donald Trump or Theresa May, neither has any concern for the good of those they govern. They care only about a) being in power and b) catering to those who are rich and powerful like they are. Any words to the contrary can amptly be demonstrated to be false by observing their actions. Actions speak louder than words.
Consequently, not only are millions of people facing increasing hardship, but as a result of Trump's denial of climate change, human kind may no longer have a suitable home on planet earth.
Ultimately, survival is linked to ethics, and that's why it is imperative to have a moral conscience.
Putting Ethics Into Practice
It’s not always easy to know when our actions are ethical or not. So, for example, if one were to walk into a store to buy a pair of blue denim jeans, would it be a moral or immoral decision.
In the current climate, it would be immoral to buy a pair of blue jeans. Why? There are some 1,250,000,000 pairs of blue denim jeans manufactured annually – mostly in China. For each pair of jeans, 1800 gallons of water is used in just the growing of sufficient cotton for one pair of jeans. In order to manufacture and dye the denim, another 9,982 gallons is used. In addition, entire rivers have been poisoned to such an extent in China that the people living in those cities had to move elsewhere. There was no more clean water.
As there are increasing shortages of clean fresh water in the world due to both climate change and over-population, wasting that amount of water is not only unethical, it is criminal.
Of course, if you didn’t know about the denim situation, you would not consider the purchase of a pair of blue jeans to be unethical. That is why it is necessary to be as informed as possible in one’s day to day life.
Every decision we make and every word we speak is either ethical or unethical.
Take telling someone who is obese that she looks just fine. It may be kind, but it is unethical. It is not a good thing to be dishonest about someone’s state of health in order to comfort them. Feeling comforted at the expense of one’s health is not a good thing.
In order to live an ethical life, it is essential to be able to assess every action we take in the light of the greater good. Are we buying denim jeans? Are we considering buying a ten-roomed mansion? Are we paying our workers minimum wage when we are earning a million a year?
Each answer would depend on the unique situation. So what appears to be the same action can either be moral or immoral. For instance, giving someone an antibiotic when they have a serious bacterial infection is an ethical action but giving someone an antibiotic when they a viral infection is unethical.
Ethics are situational. That is why it is important to be well informed in life. We need to be in order to make ethical decisions.
Do You Routinely Ask Yourself How Your Actions Affect the Community Around You?
How to Develop a Moral Conscience
A moral conscience is not developed by focusing on one’s feelings or by taking something the bible, Torah, the Vida, or some other holy book has said. A moral conscience is developed by becoming intellectually vigorous.
Thomas Aquinas advised people to beware of those who had only read one book. There’s a reason for that. If one only reads the bible (or the Vida, Torah, Koran, etc.), one is not exposed to books that give different explanations. It is vital to read widely in order to be able to use ALL data to arrive at an accurate conclusion.
Becoming increasingly informed in many areas – science, geography, history, art, agriculture, etc. – is the key to being able to evaluate what will and what will not work for the community as a whole.
I recall, in a shiur (a class or lecture on a Jewish topic), a discussion between a rabbi and a chazzan. The chazzan said “That would mean that, without being highly intelligent, it is not possible to determine what is ethical and what is not.” While there is some truth to that, highly intelligent people who have the capacity to work out complex outcomes (climate change would be an example) still need compassion in order to take the decision which leads to the greater good.
The reason that reading is so important is that it develops compassion for others. That, and if you read widely, you begin to develop a basis of knowledge that leads to both wise and ethical decision making.
So that is how you develop a moral conscience.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Tessa Schlesinger