Saturday, April 12, 2008

Micro and Macro

Dennis Prager, one of my heroes, speaks of the distinction between micro and macro in issues of ethics and morality. What this means is that there must be a difference in our behavior with regard to individuals versus larger groups. To quote the greatest movie of all time: "You use different moves against groups than you do against just one person." Similarly, the correct, or moral behavior of an organization is necessarily different in many cases than the expected, appropriate behavior of an individual.

The example Prager gives is pacifism. It is popular for people to quote Jesus' call for his followers to turn the other cheek in support of the notion that war is anti-Christian - that Jesus would have been against whatever war the speaker is also against. But this confuses two very different types of ethics - what Dennis refers to as the micro and the macro. In the micro level, that is, in interpersonal relationships, Jesus' demand provides a model for a more civil society. It is inaccurate, however, to try and apply this statement to nation-states. While we may differ on whether any particular violent action by a nation is moral, very few believe that all violence is inappropriate at all times.

As I have thought more about the 3-part morality that I developed in my last article, I am beginning to see that some of this very confusion crept into my own thinking. In the macro level, when dealing with organizations, Stansberry's original 2-part morality is probably adequate. It is only in interpersonal relationships that we should require positive action, or kind behavior. There are, I believe, several reasons for this.
  1. Organizations exist for a specific purpose. If they are businesses, they exist to provide a product or service and make a profit. If they are governments, they exist for the purposes outlined in their founding documents.
  2. Organizations which do not focus on fulfilling their purpose are inefficient. Inefficient organizations eventually fail. Admittedly, this is a very capitalist interpretation, but I'm a capitalist. In the last several years, there have been countless books devoted to the notion of focusing an organization on fulfilling their "Primary Purpose." Likely, this is because of the constant pull within our culture for organizations to be more "socially aware." The only reason for an organization to be socially-aware is if not doing so would affect their bottom line.
  3. There is a class of exceptions, if you will, to this rule: charitable and public-service organizations. Except that they aren't really an exception, as their purpose is to provide positive service to society. So they are doing the right thing when they are "kind," that is why they exist.
Two conclusions fall naturally from these observations. First, the great distinction between the morality of a person and that of an organization is that individuals should be pro actively kind. More on that on later (as in another post). Second, organizations that attempt to be "kind" run the risk of failing at both their organizational purpose and at being kind, leaving nothing behind.

One great place to see that this is true is in the pages of Reader's Digest. They have a frequent section on "Everyday Heroes" in which they laud the kindness of some individual or another. They also run stories on organizations which have a positive reputation. If you look closely at the stories of the organizations, you will find that there is always a single person, or at most a very small group of people, who's individual actions are the source of the positive organizational action. And you never find that the everyday heroism of the individuals is ever motivated, and rarely even facilitated, by an organization. For it is people who are kind, not companies.

I stand corrected.

Final note: The quote in the first paragraph is, of course, from The Princess Bride.

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

I found your interesting post in a search. I also think that it is important to note what Dennis Prager places high on the list of essential values with regard to "macro" issues, for example, "Truth". Although it is not the purpose of the typical commercial enterprise to be kind, it is important that such organizations be trustworthy.

For example. the American financial industry was forced (if they wanted to stay in business, anyway) to be "kind" by giving loans to people who were likely to default. Financial institutions and their agents then succumbed to pressures to bend or hide the truth concerning the risks of such loans (by "bundling" them with better loans, etc.). The unintentional damage of this attempt to evade reality reached far and wide when the housing bubble burst. Of course, there were other contributing factors, such as the false sense of security resulting from certain government guarantees to Fannie and Freddie

The hard truth that lending institutions had been (initially at least) forced to act against the interests of their shareholders could have saved many, many people a lot of hardship and grief.

As far as government is concerned, I like Mr. Prager's idea of the ideal civilization: one with a just government and compassionate citizens.