Two-Legged Stools

December 1st, 2006

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The greatest evil is not done in those sordid dens of crime that Dickens loved to paint. It is conceived and moved (seconded and carried and minuted), in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails, and smooth-shaven chins, who do not need to raise their voices.1

Not enough.
Many businesses today are renewing an emphasis on integrity, especially in light of the cascade of ethical collapses in corporate America. But surveys indicate that ethical boundaries still remain blurred.2 If Aristotle was hired as a consultant, he would say the problem is trying to prop up moral behavior on a two-legged stool.

Most of us can’t imagine hiring a logician to navigate the “real” world of business. What is it they say about philosophers? They go down deep, stay down long, and come up all wet. But Aristotle was no wimp. He introduced a discipline called rhetoric, which has to do with properly persuading people. Corporate America spends billions hoping to persuade colleagues to do the right thing. But Aristotle said rhetoric requires a stool with three legs named ethos, pathos, and logos.

Our word “integrity” comes from the Greek ethos, meaning “one.” A person of integrity is someone who is consistent inside and out. But we have to remember that Joseph Stalin was a man of integrity. He was consistent inside and out – even though his actions led to the slaughter of over 33 million Russians between two World Wars. The second leg, pathos, is where we get our word “empathy.” It’s close to what we think of today as emotional bonding. The second aim of rhetoric is to connect with others. But let’s not forget that Adolf Hitler radiated pathos and connected well with the German people.

Aristotle’s third leg is logos and denotes an appeal based on logic and reasoning. Logos, in other words, assumes fixed points or truth, which means a moral compass. It does no good to have ethos and pathos if there is no True North. And therein lies the problem.

To establish True North, there are only four options – self, society, statutes, or something transcendent. For thousands of years, people were quite clear on the inadequacy of the first three. Consider self: if everyone is free to determine what’s right for them we have anarchy. Yet most of the time this is exactly how Americans orient their lives, as a “law unto themselves” as well as “over laws and police.”3 The second option is society determining True North – whatever a company or country says is true, is true. The trouble with this view is that between 1900 and 1987, almost 170 million people were murdered by governments – far more than the 34 million killed in conventional wars during the same period. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao account for over 100 million of those murdered.4 The third option is statutes, or law, determining True North. While laws ought to be good, as recently as 1854 the United States Supreme Court ruled that black people were not fully human. Does that sound right?

We’re left with the fourth option – something transcendent. It was historically the business of religion to deal with the transcendent. But in the 19th century, business, education, and the arts were scoured clean of religion. Bye-bye transcendent compass. Hello blurry truth. It’s no coincidence that this fuzzy thinking led directly to the horrible genocides of the 20th century. It’s also no coincidence that genocide continues in the 21st century and corporate America loses over $2 trillion dollars annually due to theft, poor quality, inefficiency, counterfeiting, espionage, addictions, depression, injuries, violence, sleep deprivation, and lying. These losses amount to more than 20 percent of our GDP. For 200 years, we’ve tried to prop up ethical behavior on two-legged stools because we find it intolerant that one compass might point everyone toward True North. Aristotle might remark tsk-tsk.

Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, once warned, “We cannot see clearly ahead if we are blind to history.” George Santayana, the philosopher, echoed the same sentiment: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A handful of companies are rediscovering the importance of a moral compass as the third leg.5 Nikos Mourkogiannis, in his new book Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies, argues that companies directed by a moral compass and powered by moral ideas ultimately produce colleagues who do the right thing.6 These are the kinds of three-legged stools Aristotle would have urged us to build a long time ago.

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1 C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters, preface
2 For a recent report on teen cheating in schools, see Lori Aratani, “Ethics Boundaries Still Appear Fuzzy,” Washington Post, November 19, 2006.
3 James Patterson & Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth: What People Really Believe About Everything That Really Matters (New York: Prentiss Hall Trade, 1991), p. 27
4 See Bruce Falconer, “Murder by the State,” Atlantic Monthly, November 2003, which uses data compiled by University of Hawaii professor R.J. Rummel, today’s leading student of war and civil strife who has counted the number of people killed in the twentieth century by “democide,” a term he coined to describe government’s intentional killing of its own people because of ideas.
5 Lisa Alcalay Klug, “Following a Moral Compass,” The Costco Connection, October 2006.
6 C.f., NEXTBOOKS, Fast Company, October 2006, p.50

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