Leadership, Moral Truth and Organizational Sustainability

A few years ago, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said, “Today, it seems that those among us who are skilled at rejecting our culture or criticizing the status quo are exalted over those who just do the best they can.” His comments seem to capture the spirit of today. In fact, a simple view of criticisms in daily news reports provides plenty of evidence that Justice Thomas is correct.

What’s worse is that many believe America is so divided, that we’re moving towards a civil war. We read and hear daily about words and acts of opposition parties. The rhetoric rises beyond the point of hostility with chants like, “Impeach 45” or “Lock her up.” Fights break out…people are shot…violence occurs on campus… murders continue…and the rhetoric intensifies. Increasingly Americans appear to be drifting from their moral compasses and the result is a loss of civility.

What Young Adults Think

In 2008, famed Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his team interviewed 230 young adults across America. Their questions centered on moral life, and the results were surprising. When asked about a moral dilemma they faced, 2/3 of them either couldn’t answer or they described issues that were neither moral nor a dilemma. Of course, rape and murder were considered wrong. However, beyond that moral reasoning was lacking. Questions regarding drunk driving, cheating on tests, partner infidelity, were not considerations. Essentially, they seemed to have no basis for judging right from wrong.

One might wonder how this happened, but a good look at college curricula may provide some answers. The late Richard Rorty was one of the more prominent post-modern philosophers. He taught at Yale, Princeton and other schools. He once said, “Responsibilities to others constitute only our public side of life, a side which competes with our private affections.” According to Rorty, “moral obligation” is just one of many considerations for individuals, and it doesn’t trump all others in motivating behavior. In Rorty’s world then, my power allows me to do just about anything I desire. But that raises an important question. If moral obligation (i.e. my obligation to be civil) doesn’t trump private affections, then what happens to justice or civility when “private affections” result in racial or gender bias? Further, what happens when “private affections” result in dominating others, without the slightest regard for their wellbeing?

Where This Leads

If Rorty is correct, then human obligation always clashes with “private affections,” because at times fulfilling human obligation as a leader requires self-denial. Rorty also argues that objective moral truth “cannot be out there…independently of the human mind,” which means good, evil and moral are all relative terms. That leaves only law and power to mitigate differences. At its extreme, we get Hitler and Nazi Germany. The scandals and abuses (sexual and otherwise) we see regularly in the press are clearly motivated by private affections with no consideration for human obligation. Unfortunately, declines in human obligation (honesty, kindness, work ethic, church attendance, etc.) always bring declines in civility, particularly if morality is relative.

Under Rorty’s assumptions, because “good” and “moral” are primarily individual constructs, there’s no transcendent moral truth to mitigate differences or reconcile competing ideas. So if my opinion of “good” differs from yours, then we settle in a Darwinian form of organizational gamesmanship or we file suit. People lacking power who don’t comply with the prevailing culture (no matter how corrupt) are punished, ostracized and often eliminated. Consequently, the primary result is less organizational productivity and more power accumulation. While power-driven organizations and societies do exist, research and common sense tell us that they’re not sustainable. The choice seems simple, but leaders still must make it.