Category: Morals/Ethics

On staying humble amidst success

Humility is one of those characteristics that seems to divide people. In some ways, traditional business seems to train us to be boisterous and proud. At the risk of conforming to stereotypes, the image of a successful business person tends to be a city-dwelling male with a flash car, the latest gadgets, and – lets face it – a bit of an abrasive personality.

We’re all grown up enough to realise that this, as with all stereotypes, is misleading. And yet the image prevails. Even the heroes of literature can on occasion scorn humility as a trait. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, to take one example, famously held a distaste for modesty, saying: “to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers”.

Humility is seen as a character flaw, not a trait, and so being humble doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. Even the word ‘humility’ sounds like a bad thing. It sounds weak, and who wants to be seen as weak in business?

So before I offer suggestions as to how to stay humble, I suppose it might first be prudent to explain why humility is even a good thing.

Firstly, it is important to define humility, or being humble, in the right way. Much of the negative connotation of the word comes from is near-homophone ‘humiliation’. But despite the similarity of the words, humility and humiliation are not the same thing. True, they do both share the same root – the Latin ‘humilis’ which roughly translates as ‘from the earth’ or, as we might say now, ‘grounded’. But while the root word is the same, ‘humiliation’ as we use it is a verb – to put someone down – compared with the noun ‘humble’, which is to be down to earth. The latter is a character trait, whilst the former is a derogative action.

So with that mini lesson out of the way, what is so good about being humble?

Well while Sherlock Holmes is one example of a fiction character scorning humility, literature also has its fair share of humble heroes and accounts of humility as an aspiration. Even the ancient Greeks, who are seen by many experts as pretty clever, recognised its importance. The Iliad – Homer’s epic poem, widely regarded as one of the oldest surviving works of Western literature, recounts the final weeks of the Trojan War. The entire account is a warning against Pride – the antithesis of Humility. And that was a message strong enough to warrant a film starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom.

So humility is a good thing. But how do you stay humble? It’s the easiest, most natural thing in the world to want to share your success with others – and you should be proud! But there are a few things to bear in mind. Here are just a few:

Don’t take criticism personally.

As far as being humble goes, this is pretty early on in the rulebook – and it doesn’t just apply when you’re working your way up to success. Once you’re at the top, you’ll still receive your fair share of criticism. Whether its people who are genuinely trying to help, or if its people who are bitter and just trying to knock you down, you need to be mindful of how you react.

Don’t constantly name drop, or otherwise show off.

Of course, if the reference is relevant, or you are bringing the name up for a legitimate reason, then that’s fine. But doing it for the sake of it is definitely not in the spirit of humility.

You’ll have noticed that in this article, I’ve referenced a famous author, a classic Greek poem, and given a micro-lesson in Latin. Now on the surface this could just be to give as full an account of the idea of humility as possible. But the cynical amongst you will question whether all of that was necessary – why not just give a simple dictionary definition and move on? Was I perhaps just trying to show off how clever I am? It’s a fine line – and if you tread the wrong side of it you’ll go from being that helpful guy with good connections and knowledge, to that smarmy guy who is just trying to show up everyone who hasn’t read The Iliad.

Know that your success is rarely down to you alone.

However successful you are, in whatever field you’re in, nobody can make it to the top alone. And when you get there, you’d do well to thank the people whose shoulders you’re stood on. From the massive cash injection your business received from a sponsor, right down to those little words of encouragement from a friend at 3am from when it looked like it was all going to fall apart, so many people have an impact on what you do. Make sure you thank as many of them as possible – they will appreciate that you’ve remembered them in your time of glory.

Talk about your route to success, not the success itself.

Its easy to be caught up in the hype of being awesome – and at first people will be happy for you and may even allow to you brag a little. But if you keep talking just about the present – how rich you are, how well respected you are in your circle, whatever it might be – your listeners will quickly get bored and may even start to resent you.

Instead, talk about how you got there. People love a success story – so make sure its the whole story, not just the last chapter, that you talk about. You may even act as an inspiration to others, as you prove success is achievable. (Really, that’s a win-win – you still get to talk about yourself, and you get to inspire others!)

Don’t forget why you went into business in the first place.

Every business has the aim of making money – and there is no shame in that. But simply making money isn’t the be all and end all of what you’re company should be about (unless you work for the Royal Mint…).

Even Apple – a company famously richer than the United States of America – admit that money isn’t everything. Jonathan Ive, has said that: “[Apple’s] goal isn’t to make money… Our goal and what makes us excited is to make great products.” He goes on to say that if they make great products, they will be a success. Because business success is so often measured by its bottom line, its easy to become obsessed by the money. Remembering why your business exists in the first place can help keep you grounded.

And as we learned from our little Latin lesson earlier, being grounded is what being humble is all about.

See – I wasn’t just showing off.

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On rationality and morality, and valuing an individual’s life.

Holy crap – two posts in two days? What’s going on? Don’t worry though, this is just as unstructured and pointless as the last. What I give you in quantity, I take back in quality. Anyway, I was in a politics the other day on the subject of Rationality. Basically, the point of the lecture was for us to realise that being ‘rational’ is something that can mean different things. One of the points made in the lecture was that of morality – specifically, can rationality be bounded by morals. The following has only a very little to do with that, but an interesting example was used in the lecture and that was the inspiration for this post. Enjoy.

 

In the 1970s Ford produced a car called the Pinto. The Pinto is perhaps best remembered for one thing – namely, the positioning of the fuel tank. Because Ford were under pressure to produce the car quickly, they decided that the best place to put the thing that stores flammable liquid would be behind the rear axle. Essentially, this meant that if ever the car was involved in a rear-end accident the fuel tank could rupture. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that this could cause big problems.

The reason this was brought up in the lecture was because of the way Ford dealt with the situation. Installing a ‘shield’ for the tank could solve the whole car-blowing-up-in-an-accident thing, but that this would obviously cost money. So they conducted a ‘Cost-Benefit Analysis’ of the situation. For those unfamiliar with the concept, its pretty much exactly what it sounds like – the point is to weigh up the cost of an action against its benefits.

In the case of the Pinto, the cost of adding the shields, which came to $137 million (not adjusted for inflation – I’m not precisely sure of the year they made the decision, but assuming it wasn’t made long after the Pinto was launched in 1971, it would be about $600 million today), was weighed against the benefits it would bring – i.e. the value of the lives it could save, which totalled $50 million ($200 million today – with the same stipulation as before). In other words, Ford had assigned a dollar value to someone’s life. When the public found out there was a huge uproar.

If you are having trouble working out why this is such a big deal, firstly congratulations – you live in the 21st century and are un-phased by such corporate action. However, I would urge you to take a look at the figures for the CBA again. The cost was $137 million, and the benefit was only $50 million. That means that, from a strictly business point of view, the estimated number of lives that could have been lost was not worth the cost involved in preventing their deaths. Of course there would be other consequences, such as probably the biggest consumer backlash and subsequent boycott in history then leading to the eventual bankruptcy of one of the biggest car manufacturers on the planet. But while, to my knowledge, the cost-benefit analysis didn’t include this eventuality, still the idea that saving lives could be too expensive seems a little unsettling (and of course if the CBA did include this, then it makes it even more so).

And yet, as uncomfortable a sentiment as this is, do we not do it all the time? Setting aside wars, where decisions on equipping soldiers with protective gear is a decision almost entirely rooted in money, insurance companies and even healthcare providers (to name two instances) actively make decisions based on the value of life. Indeed, many studies have actively tried to put a value on the life of an individual. Different groups understandably vary but many seem to converge on around $1.5 million mark, which is based on such things as: income earned over the average life, any costs involved in any state welfare – health, education, etc., and other similar measures. (Incidentally, Ford valued a human life at $200,000 – a figure which, around the time, would be worth about $1 million today)

There are of course types of valuation that don’t necessarily centre on money. One example that springs to mind is that of people who need transplants. If two people are in need of a heart, a decision needs to be made as to who has priority. Obviously the immediateness of the individuals’ need is an important factor. But if one is an alcoholic, or a smoker, or has any number of other ‘negatives’, then they are less likely to get priority. The fact that money doesn’t come into it has little bearing on the nature of the decision. Resources – be they transplant organs or the wealth of a business – are inherently scarce. We must therefore make judgements, rational judgements, on situations that sometimes can be unsettling.

To move back to the Pinto, or rather business in general, would it be rational to make all decisions based on a moral grounds? If every situation produced a cost-benefit analysis like the Pinto, then the business would go bankrupt fairly quickly. You could of course argue that if such a business existed, where every decision it made produced such an outcome, it would be better for it to fail as quickly as possible. But I think my point still has merit. While it is of course important to have some morality in business, and I’m not using this post to condone fixing fuel tanks to the back of cars in a less than safe manner, can we really expect a company to succeed if all its actions must benefit everyone. To make an entirely different but not wholly unrelated point, if you had to make the decision between two people getting a heart transplant – one a 30-something teacher with two kids, and the other a 70-something smoker with an alcohol addiction – on what grounds would you make the decision? What if instead of a 70 year old smoker, the other was also a 30-something teacher, but without kids?

How rational would either? How moral? The two don’t always complement each other. But then, you knew that already.

 

I think somewhere towards the end I forgot whether I was discussing morality in business or valuing human life… But then if it was a perfectly structured piece of writing with a good conclusion, it wouldn’t be me would it?

Until next time.

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On equality in Politics

Should there be equality in Politics? Specifically, should everyone’s point of view count for the same when making political decisions?

This was the question posed to us during a discussion we had in Politics the other week, and the inspiration for this entry. I have been sitting on it for a while, and have only just finished writing it. I strongly dislike the way it reads (this far more so than previous entries), in particular I dislike the way that this piece of writing does not flow. Also, re-reading it, there doesn’t seem to be any real point to the entry. I really need the practice though so I’m going to try to force myself to write more and more.

Enjoy

–Will

 

The current system in Britain allows every citizen over the age of 18 to vote. They have a choice of political parties, and they can exercise their political power by choosing the party that they believe will best represent their views.

This, however, seems to be as far as their political power goes. Yes, they can exercise the right to choose their leader, but then after that they have to trust that this leader will be able to psychically divine what it is that his electorate wants him to do for every political decision.

To be sure, there are other ways that the public’s voice is heard. A referendum is where a piece of legislation is put to the public vote. In other words, the electorate get to decide on a matter that then gets put into motion. But even this ability to vote on a topic doesn’t demonstrate complete equality in politics. Everyone of the electorate gets to vote, yes, but who chooses the topic/legislation that you get to vote on? Further more, referendums themselves have been the subject of much controversy. Many people have argued that the government will want a certain outcome, and so will keep holding referendums (perhaps rewording proposals slightly each time) until the public choose the ‘right’ answer.

In fact, it is obvious that many people are not satisfied with their lack of involvement in political decisions; the existence of various pressure groups proves that the public (or at least parts of the public) are not happy.

But how much power do these groups have? The clue is in the name: ‘pressure’ groups. Yes they can lean on government bodies, and they can represent the public to show the government that certain decisions are not what some people want, but at the end of the day the government can do what it wants to do more or less regardless of the public’s wishes.

If you don’t believe me, I have two words for you: ‘Iraq War’. Hundreds of thousands of people (estimates range from 150,000 to 400,000 and beyond on the first march alone) marched and protested outside the Houses of Parliament to show the government that a considerable proportion of the British public did not want to go to war. Despite this blatant display, we still went to war.

One of the arguments against everyone voting on everything is one of simple logistics. The ancient Athenians did have a system (for a period of time, at any rate) whereby any political decision was made by consulting every single citizen of Athens. In effect they had a big political arena where proposals where put forth, and anyone who wanted to could speak either for or against the proposal until a democratic decision was reached. To put it into modern terms – imagine the House of Commons, only really, really big, and open to the public rather than just MPs.

The problem with this idea, some say, is that there is no arena big enough to allow the entire electorate of Britain inside to vote; ancient Athens was considerably smaller than modern Britain. However, clever though the ancient Athenians were, they didn’t have the internet. While it is true that there is no physical building big enough to hold some 40 million voters, a website does not have this problem. There are obviously still some technicalities to work out with, but the fact remains we have the ability to ask everyone’s opinion on matters.

So we’ve established that there isn’t equality in politics (and this was just looking at the current electorate – I didn’t even touch on the matter of under 18s being completely excluded (a point of discussion for another time)), but that there is probably the means of changing this. One area I haven’t explored yet is whether or not we should change the system? When all is said and done, should everyone actually have an equal say in Politics?

In my last post, I made the point that I don’t believe people are sufficiently educated in politics to be able to make certain decisions. I have thought about this while writing this entry though and have come to the conclusion that perhaps this isn’t as essential as my elitist side would have me believe. To take the Iraq War point again, I’d bet good money that not a high proportion of the protestors had degrees in Politics, had read Aristotle’s works, or watched ‘Question Time’ even semi-regularly. But they had an opinion, one based perhaps on morals more than politics (though, as I am rapidly learning, the two are perhaps not as far from each other as you may first think). What ever thought process they followed, they all arrived at the same conclusion: Britain should not go to war in Iraq.

Plato (among others) explored the idea of the ‘wisdom of the collective’, the phenomenon that if you take a large enough group of people the majority will arrive at a general consensus on a given topic. This theory has been backed up in modern studies, and shows that even though not everyone may be well versed in a given topic a large group of ‘average intelligence’ can arrive upon a conclusion that may not be reached by one ‘genius’.

Perhaps then, the idea that politics should be left to the upper echelons of society is a misguided one. A part of me says that everyone should be allowed to take part in the running of their state – after all, is that not what we mean when we say ‘democracy’?

And yet I still can’t help but wonder if that idea would really work as well at it seems. With all my talk about the ‘wisdom of the collective’ and how governments still do what they like regardless of what I, as a member of the electorate, want, I can’t help but shake the sense that maybe a government of elected elites is a necessary evil. Perhaps it is just the culture I was brought up in, but I feel there needs to be a hierarchy of some description.

I do believe that everyone’s voice should be heard. What I am less clear about, is whether or not they should be listened to.

Until next time.

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My political views (abridged, obviously)

One of the very first things that my Politics lecturer asked us to do was to describe our political views in one sentence. I found this quite hard. Originally I was going to go for the slightly tongue-in-cheek response: ‘I believe that it would be nice to give power to the people, but as a general rule of thumb most people are, sadly, idiots.’ I have since changed my mind about this though, as it might seem that I was not taking the question seriously (perhaps worryingly, it actually does sum up how I feel…). Also, I have read other’s responses to the question (we are to post our answers on a discussion board) and everyone else seems to be taking a slightly different tack to answering it. I’m a sucker for conformity, it would seem.

A similar question on the same discussion board was ‘Do you think that politics should be left to experts?’ and, having thought about it, I think perhaps my answers to both these questions are similar (and neither of them are one sentence).

Politics is something that affects everyone, whether they choose to be actively involved in it or not. This immediately presents us with a problem; if we say that people have a right to influence decisions that affect them, and political decisions affect everyone, then surely everyone has a right to influence political decisions? While one could argue that this is the point of a democracy, others would maintain that the idea of democracy (and I talk, for the meantime at least, simply about Britain) is a fallacy. Yes, we elect our local and national political representatives, but in the grand scheme of things are our voices really heard?

I don’t think that they are, but perhaps with good reason. If your car broke down on the side of the road, would you rather have a random person off the street look under the bonnet, or would you call a trained car mechanic?

Don’t get me wrong; I do think that having the majority of power with the minority of people should be cause for concern, but in order for every person’s view to be seriously considered (ignoring for the moment the obvious logistical and administrative problems with this), they must be aware of what such decisions will mean as a whole. The so-called ‘law of unintended consequences’ says that every action taken will, as well as having a measurable and predictable effect, have unintended or undesired effects. The more that is known about the action taken, the smaller the risk of a dramatic ‘unintended consequence’. In short, we call ‘experts’ to do particular jobs for a reason.

This holds for politics. We have elected officials precisely because we do not know all of the ins and outs of the political system. We trust that the people we choose to be in power will represent our wishes when the time comes.

The problem isn’t necessarily with this system, providing that the elected official actually does what their constituency asks of them (if he/she doesn’t, then obviously a whole set of other problems arise – we’ll conveniently pretend that this never happens). The problem lies with the constituency, specifically with the existence of the ‘law of unintended consequences’. While the public may want certain goods and services, they may be unaware of the costs (and by ‘costs’ I will include monetary, economic, environmental etc.) of such a decision. This isn’t necessarily a problem because the elected official, being an expert in these matters, will notice the problems and not carry out the motion. Sadly, this will not go down well with the public, who do not fully appreciate these costs. As a result, when the next election comes around, they will oust the first guy in favour of someone who claims they will do all that is asked of them.

This, I believe, is a major part of the problem. In order to be elected as a political official, you have to promise to do things that the public want done. In order to be re-elected, you have to have done those things (and promise new ones). As a basic generalisation, people like to be powerful. As another rule of thumb, people are idiots. To stay powerful, therefore, you have to do what the idiots want. Being idiots however, they don’t know what they want – or rather, they don’t know what’s best for them. (‘What’s best for people’ is, of course, a whole other topic in itself. But for now let’s assume that ‘best’ is some form of achievable Utopia.)

One solution to this problem (and the point that has taken me an extraordinary amount of time and effort to get to) is to provide more political education. If the problem is with the people, then surely the solution lies with them as well? I’m obviously not suggesting that everyone studies Politics at university and becomes a politician. What I do think is that there should be some kind of core politics taught at a (fairly) early age. I think mid to late secondary school, and I think it should be compulsory.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be a subject in its own right, but somehow people need to acquire a greater understanding of how their politics are dealt with. (If I had my way ‘General Studies’ would be erased from school timetables in favour of a more comprehensive lesson, dealing with things such as politics and other society-based lessons – things that would actually be useful and important.)

There are obviously other issues, and other factors at play. Perhaps sometime in the near future I will explore these ideas, but for the mean time I will leave this how it is.

Until next time.

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On Euthanasia

This post was originally written in December 2008, the product of a BBC Panorama documentary that I watched at the time. It has since been revisited to tidy up the writing, though no substantive changes have been made.

The subject of euthanasia is one of the most charged topics that one could choose to discuss.

The argument goes beyond the simple notions of right and wrong. Ask a person on the street whether it is morally right to kill, and you would expect a reply of ‘no’ (or, perhaps, ‘what did he do?’). But ask that same person whether euthanasia should be legal or not, and suddenly the issue becomes much less black and white.

Why is that? If you take the two questions at face value, aren’t they the same? In essence you are asking whether it is right to end a life, aren’t you?

I think much of the difference lies in the way our culture works; we seem to be able to pick and choose our morality based on a given situation. Or maybe that is unfair. Perhaps we are brought up to obey different morals in different scenarios? In either case, the conflict with regards to euthanasia is a simple one to identify. It is the battle between the sanctity of life (a concept that I will go on to discuss in a moment), and a person’s right to end their suffering.

The majority of UK laws are the product of a time when religion – that is to say Judeo-Christianity – was much more prominent in society than it is today. As a result, these laws reflect those times – and the Christian principles on which they were based. With regards to euthanasia, the Christian religion is very clear. To take your own life (which is essentially what we are talking about when we discuss euthanasia) is just about the worst thing that you can do. God has given you life, and (in the eyes of Christianity) you have no right to take that from Him. No matter what how you are suffering, you must trust that God will call you (i.e. take your life) when He sees fit.

Not being a religious person, as arguments against euthanasia go, I find this train of thought troubling. I personally believe that the ending of tremendous personal suffering trumps the idea of a divine being holding you to an exacting standard. Furthermore, if there is a God, I would like to believe she isn’t so egotistical as to force a person to live in suffering simply because the alternative suggests they are ungrateful for their lot in life.

But I don’t want to make this discussion a theological one. For a stronger argument against euthanasia, I would turn to the idea of protecting the vulnerable. The issue of involuntary assisted suicide is, to my mind, the most convincing argument against. If a person is not in their right mind (I realise this one of those ‘catch-all terms’ for a range of things, and I use the term reluctantly) then how are we to be sure that death is really what they want?

It is well documented by both care-workers and the mental health profession that when people say things like ‘I don’t want to be a burden anymore’, they are actually seeking affirmation. When individuals reach the point of contemplating euthanasia, they are often-times in a position of great vulnerability – whether this manifests physically, mentally, emotionally, or a combination thereof. While not everyone with such thoughts fits into such a category, the law against euthanasia exists to protect those who do.

The question, then – ugly though it is, becomes about whether the collective suffering outweighs the collective need for protection. (This is, of course, something that could be the inspiration for an entire separate thesis; whether laws should exist for the protection of the few at the inconvenience of the many.)

To my mind, arguing for euthanasia is simpler. In the Panorama programme that originally inspired this post, there was an interview with a lady named Valerie. She was suffering for a particularly vicious form of MS, and had decided that euthanasia was the only option for her. Of course, such action is illegal in the UK and so she was making arrangements to visit the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, Switzerland. However she had a dilemna. At Dignitas, they require that the cup containing the euthanasing liquid be lifted by the individual themselves, with no assistance. This was not a concern for Valerie at the time of filming, but her condition was advancing rapidly and soon she would be unable to lift the cup at the clinic. She needed to go as soon as possible, but it would mean leaving before she was ready to say goodbye to her young grandson.

Now, obviously, laws exist precisely to remove the personal attachment to legal decisions. But it is also undeniable that cases such as Valerie’s do make anti-euthanasia laws in the UK seem heartless.

Switzerland is not the only country to have legalised euthanasia. Holland has, for the last 12 years, allowed ordinary GPs to administer lethal doses of medication to patients who wish to take the euthanasia option. It is a move that has a large number of critics, and the movement against it argues that this is making a difficult and unnecessary choice more accessible to people who may otherwise find other ways to deal with their situation.

The statistics, however, don’t actually support this argument. The figures for people wishing to be euthanised have remained pretty consistent. It’s also worth pointing out that not just anyone can stroll into a GP’s office off the street and ask for a lethal dose of diamorphine – and absolutely nobody is suggesting that it should work that way.

Instead the doctors in Holland have to know the patients incredibly well, and for a long time beforehand. Both the patient and the doctor have to want to do the procedure. If either is unhappy with any aspect of the idea, then other arrangements must be made. This holds right up until the plunger is depressed on the needle. The doctor will look the patient dead in the eye and ask ‘Are you absolutely sure this is what you want’. If there is even the slightest of hesitations or uncertainty then the process is stopped and reviewed.

To me, Holland’s approach to the delicate issue is one that makes sense. Humans are a pretty resourceful creature; if someone is determined to take their own life, they will find a way. Surely it is better that they have the guidance and support of a qualified individual – or indeed group of individuals.

Obviously there is another stumbling block here, this one in the form of the Hippocratic Oath. Somewhat ironically (in fact, not ironically at all, but by explicit design), those individuals who are qualified to administer such drugs at such doses are bound not to do so. 

Laws work best when there is a clear line separating what is legal from what is illegal. With euthanasia there is nowhere this line can be drawn, other than to make the action totally illegal. That is to say that in countries where euthanasia is legal, such as in our Holland example, there is an element of subjectivity. The law doesn’t do subjective very well.

And herein lies perhaps the biggest problem with the euthanasia debate. This is an argument that cannot be won with facts and statistics. It requires – demands, even – emotions and personal stories, like Valerie’s, to be considered. This why it is such a difficult subject to agree on. You have either arrived at your conclusion on principle, or because you have personally been affected by it.

If it is the former, it could be argued your viewpoint doesn’t matter. If you haven’t had some experience of it then perhaps you can’t fully understand the implications and complexities of the issue. If it is the latter on the other hand, if you have been personally affected by the issue, then I imagine your position is not likely to be swayed by any argument.

In the interests of concluding this post though, if a referendum on the issue was to be held tomorrow, I would vote in favour of legalising euthanasia. However, I would do so only on the understanding that proper protocols and regulations be put in place. My knowledge on such things is limited, but it seems to me that both anecdotal and statistical evidence supports the way that Holland approaches the issue.

One thing I am certain of: to say that the current system in the UK leaves a lot to be desired is, to people such as Valerie, a gross understatement.

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