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Doing well by doing good

It pays to be altruistic.

“It ought to be the employers ambition, as leader, to pay better wages than any similar line of business, and it ought to be the workman’s ambition to make this possible … What good is industry if it be so unskillfully managed as not to return a living to all concerned?” – Henry Ford


I have been reading a book called “A Bigger Prize” by Margaret Heffernan and I cannot be more passionate in my recommendation of it. The central argument of the book revolves around the claim that our lives are damagingly organized according to a survival of the fittest metaphor, whereas a more cooperative mindset has much to offer humanity – A Bigger Prize. This short essay is not meant to review Heffernan’s book, but I do owe her a huge debt of gratitude for challenging some of my strongly held beliefs concerning business, profit, and good values. Her writing inspired many of the ideas in this short essay.

In the modern secular world, a widely held assumption is that human worth is achievement based. “Winning is not everything, it is the only thing” explicitly captures what many of us believe implicitly. From gold stars in primary school to the fawning deference that Nobel prizes confer on the recipient, we are a generation venerating the idea of competition and ranking. I have often found myself unreflectively describing a person as successful, which I justify by noting his wealth, or his brilliance, or his fame, or that he does not deal lightly with fools, or any combination of such traits. By implication those not having these qualities would be the unsuccessful, the losers in the game of life. Our language betrays our real values. We describe someone as worth a hundred million rand as if financial worth and human worth are identities.

People are competitive by nature. It’s a fact. But we are not only competitive; we can and should be highly collaborative. Our culture is so infused with winning, with corporate ladders and rat races, with gold medals and black stars, with the myths of the self-made man or woman, that we risk a systemic tearing of the very social tapestry that is holding it all together. We justify our own actions by claiming that everybody is ultimately self-seeking, even those who do good really do it for themselves.

But this overlooks the possibility, and reality, of many people selfishly deciding to be unselfish, to be bridge builders, mediators, peace makers, and lovers of mankind. If you want to continue describing these actions as selfishness then the word “selfish” has lost most of its relevant meaning. The rich, the powerful, the victorious, and the famous, will not be the ones challenging the system that have crowned them with glory. Rare is the man who will admit that the system upon which his worth is predicated is flawed. The question is: “Is it flawed? Can we do better?”

Does evolution not teach that all biological existence is permeated by conflict and the struggle for survival? Is the world not a place where there must be winners and losers as a matter of course? Did not even Jesus claim that the poor would always be with us? The ethic of our time is built on one of the few things more dangerous than a lie. It is built on half-truths. Evolution does describe and explain biological development as a struggle for survival. BUT, evolution has shown that one of the best strategies for survival in a complex world, and especially among social creatures, is cooperation!

The fact of the biological matter is that it pays to be altruistic. Jesus did say that the poor would always be with us, but He also said that true religion means caring for widows and orphans (the marginalised). Modern technology has blunted our appreciation for the interdependence of human existence. Very few of us can produce even the simplest of modern technologies. When last have you made your own pencils? Or made your own eating utensils?

You may have gotten the idea that I am advocating some sort of utopia, pie in the sky vision, where people sell all that they have and where we embrace each other and live happily ever after while singing kumba yah. No, earth is not heaven, and 31 years have taught me that conflict is an essential element of human interaction. What I am saying is that we are been very narrow-minded in our dealings with each other and with our planet. The fact is, never have we (the human race) been so wealthy and healthy as what we are now. The fact is, never have we had such disparities of wealth either. The brutal fact is, if we do not come together, off of our egotistical, narrow self-interestedly high horses, we will not survive the next couple of hundred years. The problems that we face – global warming, large scale disease, the sustainability of the world economic system – will require collaboration on a scale not possible given current ways of doing [things].

And if there is one ethical fact that you should know it is this: The human being has a deep sense of equity, of what is fair, and will even act against his or her own interest to create conditions of fairness. I am afraid that the day of reckoning, where the “unsuccessful” destroy the system upon which our privilege is based is close at hand. A significant proportion of the young people in our country do not have employment. How long before they judge the prospect for a better future forlorn and decide to take matters violently into their own hands? The current crises on our university campuses are not primarily about race, they are about a loss of hope for a better future.

SA’s economic pie is not getting bigger and the distribution of its rewards is increasingly perceived by many to be iniquitous. Sadly, our blemished history has left us a meta-ethic hardly conducive to working together for a better future. We urgently need leaders (in all spheres) who aim not for power, wealth, or fame, but have a heart for the people.

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