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Individual vs. Society: Is There a Better Paradigm?

The rise and fall of societies has fascinated thinkers since Thucydides described the collapse of Athens in the Pelopponesian wars. Ever since Gibbon’s slanderous account of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” published late in the 1700’s, the meme has moved to the forefront of at least European consciousness.

And, of course, ever since World War II – or at least Vietnam – it has jumped the Atlantic and worried American thinkers.

The Christian mind takes for granted that everything on earth changes and comes to an end, especially the glorious kingdoms of every Ozymandias that litter the deserts of history. So maybe some Christians have a disposition to perceive a slope under every slip.

But is America in decline? More specifically, is there a direct link between morality and civilizational strength? If so, is immorality eating out heart out?

Our country has, since the Civil War, built its identity and its well-being on business, so that would be a good place to consider this question. We could even reduce it to a more precise question of whether we are suffering a business/economic decline that is structural and that is rooted in immorality.

I’m not an economist, though I have been involved in business in one way or another since I started selling lemonade on 27th street in Milwaukee somewhere around 1969. So I can’t speak with any general expertise on the macroeconomic side of the picture. Nor have I the time to study this as deeply as I feel it needs to be studied. So let me offer some anecdotes and suggestions, and then to offer questions that need to be asked and principles that need to be considered.

For many years, it seems, the great argument for a so-called liberal education for business people was that they needed to communicate well. Now, businesses have changed their story. It appears that the great need among business people is to find people who can think ethically.

One of my alma maters, a Bible College, has opted to add a business degree to their curriculum, and they have made a point of noting that businesses suffer from ethical challenges today.

I find this fascinating. My observation is that business is much like politics. Ethics are valuable as long as they are useful, but they are not the guiding rule for most people. I read continually in articles, forums, responses, etc. that the ultimate purpose of business is to make a profit.

Ethics provides the generally agreed upon rules within which the game of business can be played, but what happens when they interfere with profit?

Well, that depends on the individual, doesn’t it? Only, when the wicked prosper, it becomes very difficult for others to resist imitating the means of prosperity, especially when a businesses self-identity is to make a profit.

I believe that it is immoral and unethical for the ultimate end of anything to be “to make a profit.” It has never been my purpose in any business I have owned, managed, or participated in. When I was in restaurants, my purpose was to provide the best product with the best service I could provide. I didn’t do that to make a profit. I ensured that we made a profit so we could keep doing that.

Same with CiRCE. If CiRCE exists to make a profit, then I am completely hopeless. Granted it is what the IRS calls a not for profit, so on the surface at least this conversation is meaningless in this regard. But only on the surface.

As the director of a not-for-profit, I am no more committed to serving my clients and customers than I was when I had a for-profit consulting and teaching service.

Therefore, to the extent that businesses are run to make a profit, which the larger corporations do seem to be, they are fundamentally unethical from the get go.

So here are some basic questions:

  • Does the construct of the corporation incline business toward unethical behavior?
  • Does the tax code encourage unethical behavior?
  • Does our political structure encourage unethical activity?
  • Is the modern school able to teach any sustainable ethic, since Machiavelli dominates its thinking and ethics has come to mean being green?
  • What is the social cost of unethical business activity?
  • Is there a scale beyond which business inevitably becomes unethical?

As I said above, this post is looking at the question from the perspective of business, so it isn’t meant as an attack on something I feel 50% or more of us ought to own. We could turn to politics, education, family life, sports, media, news, etc. and ask the same sorts of questions. It is even possible to function ethically in our society without being persecuted and dismissed?

I don’t know.

If not, can we survive?

I don’t know. What does it mean to survive? What is a decline? How great were we in the 50’s? These are questions that matter.

And they lead me to what I think is the core underlying issue in a discussion like this. I suppose it can be boiled down to something rather trite:

What is man?

For some hundreds of years the West has celebrated something it calls “the individual.” It believes itself to have invented this individual in ancient Greece, augmented him with Christianity, and given him fulfillment in the Industrial Revolution and the Great American Western.

On the other hand, many people have come to disdain the individual and to put society over him. This is true of the tribal movements of the day, such as Feminism, Multi-culturalism, gangs, etc. – all groups filled with members who derive their identity from their identification with the given tribe or gang.

However, this tension between the individual and the society seems to me to be rooted in a fundamental error.

There is not, never was, and never will be an individual. The glory of man is not that he is an individual, but that he is a person.

Furthermore, there is not, never was, and never will be a society that is greater than a person. The glory of human associations is not in forming an abstraction called society but in community.

The dichotomy of individual and society, the two also negotiating their social contract, is already a failure for having been conceived.

We are persons in community. The person lasts forever. The only community to last forever is the Church. The person does not find himself by wrestling with the community, but by serving it. The community does not achieve order by suppressing the individual but by nourishing the person.

The right relationship is entirely synergistic, symbiotic, a flow of life and energy from the person to the community and from the community back to the person. This is why tradition is so important and why the tradition must be living.

But the turn to individualism puts creates a dialectic of death, as does the turn to tribalism, socialism, communism, or whatever term fits the triumph of the gang over its members.

Only the family provides a form for this sort of community, rooted in the Trinity.

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