Three Assumptions about Everyday Morality

Three Assumptions about Everyday Morality

I begin this book with three assumptions, each of which is solidly grounded in philosophy and the social sciences. Yet they are not well understood by many of the “experts” who speak and write about business ethics, resulting in lots of unnecessary confusion about how morality works in everyday business dealings.

  1. Most people (with the exception of the pure saints or sinners found in fairytales and other fables) approach their life choices with mixed motives. That is to say, in the normal course of events, human motives tend to be in part altruistic and in part self-serving. Most accomplishments are spurred by mixed motives. To do good work, we do not need to forgo our own self-oriented needs; but we do need to keep our moral voices alive and active, especially when encountering hard-to-resist pressures and temptations.

  2. Morality is a broad and inclusive concept with a positive spirit at its center. Unlike some popular conceptions of morality, a true moral sense goes way beyond the kinds of ethical constraints that appear as “do not” rules (e.g., do not steal, do not lie, do not cheat, do not sexually harass your employees, and so on). Although ethical proscriptions may be what many think of first when they use the term moral, morality also includes a positive dedication to doing good, a sense of service to humanity, a commitment to a larger purpose.

  3. Moral integrity, as the term implies, means an integration of our moral concerns with all the other components of our character, including our deepest personal inclinations. It does not require us to sacrifice ourselves entirely for the sake of our altruistic ideals. That approach leads in the end to martyrdom, which fortunately is not necessary for moral integrity (except, sadly, in extreme circumstances). But the search for moral integrity does call on us to keep our natural egotistical inclinations in perspective, through virtues such as honesty and humility. Moral integrity requires keeping in mind the moral implications of our behavior at all times, rather than cutting corners now with the thought of making up for it later.

These assumptions matter greatly, because without them it is easy to dismiss morality as an inconsequential part of life. Without awareness of the first assumption, morality can be caricatured as the province of naive idealists and losers who are not serious about getting ahead in the rough-and-tumble world. Without awareness of the second assumption, morality is reduced to a bunch of sermons and prohibitions. Without awareness of the third assumption, morality becomes little more than an after-the-fact gesture, a mathematical game to redress the damage one has done. In contrast to such sterile but all-too-common notions of morality, this book presents a view of morality that places it at the center of the good life, connected to every source of personal satisfaction and creative fulfillment. The remaining part of this Introduction addresses how these three assumptions can help people understand the role of the moral voice in business success.

The Moral Voice Does Not Sing Alone: Good Work Always Arises from Mixed Motives

At the most elevated levels of moral commitment, the personal and the moral become almost fused. True moral exemplars can barely distinguish between the two. In Some Do Care, Colby and I examined the lives and work of men and women who had been widely recognized as living moral exemplars—that is, persons whose actions had represented the finest principles and ideals in society.[3] Some of these people had devoted their lives to causes of charity, others to education, civil rights, peace, liberty, health care, justice, and so on. We found that these men and women felt that the work they were doing fulfilled both personal and moral goals. In fact, because of this dual fulfillment, they were able to tackle tough problems and accomplish big results year after year.

Almost all major achievements in life are fueled by motives that are in part self-serving and in part aimed at purposes larger than the self. This is true not only of achievements that appear extraordinarily altruistic but also of just plain good work. Some people, like the moral exemplars covered in Some Do Care, integrate their personal and moral motives so completely that they experience them as inseparable. But most people, inevitably, do distinguish between the two as they go about their lives. Most people recognize a difference between feathering their own nests and contributing something toward the welfare of others. Sometimes people are more driven by self-serving goals and other times by goals that serve the larger society. Eventually, most people try to recognize the importance of both types of goals, tackling endeavors that reflect some combination of the two.

Because most people are driven by mixed motives, does this mean that there can be no distinctions between any endeavors with regard to their moral worth? That is, if most endeavors are “tainted” with self-interest, should we treat just about anything that anyone does with equal cynicism? Not at all. There are two tried-and-true ways to determine the moral worth of any course of action:

  1. Does the course of action follow moral means in pursuit of its ends?

  2. If the moral course of action places at risk the self-interest of the actor, will it be pursued anyway?

The first of these moral litmus tests, the means-ends requirement, winnows out an enormous list of pretenders from those who operate with genuine integrity. Almost all people justify, to themselves and others, the moral validity of their goals. Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Pol Pot—they all professed to be acting out of selfless humanitarian concerns. Partly because many people found such claims persuasive, these monstrous leaders managed to attract huge numbers of supporters. The real monstrosities were the absolutely unscrupulous means that these leaders used to pursue their goals. Deception, murder, torture—all were fair game in the name of the “noble” cause. The evil was not only in the causes (although these too were deeply flawed) but also in the abominations carried out in their names.

In more banal cases, such as politicians who deceive their constituents in order to get support for beneficial pieces of legislation, the harm done—the corrosion of trust, the weakening of the democratic system—can be slow and harder to detect, but the principle and the ultimate effects are the same. Immoral means inevitably undermine the social value of any endeavor. For this reason, it is wise and proper to admire not only those who claim to aspire to noble-sounding results but also those who restrict themselves to ethical codes of conduct in their quest.

The second litmus test—a willingness to sacrifice one’s self- interest for the sake of a moral principle—is more difficult to apply directly, because in the normal course of human events, morality and self-interest often go hand in hand.[4] That, in fact, is one of the basic claims of this book. Whenever a mother nurtures her baby, whenever a child shares a toy with a friend in a game, whenever a worker chooses not to reach into a coworker’s purse and lift her wallet, morality and self-interest are combined. In fact, the reason that such actions seem unremarkable—indeed, almost natural and automatic—is that they provoke no conflict between morality and self-interest. What is right is also what one wants to do, so there is no problem that requires conscious mediation. For those who are not habitual sociopaths, the bulk of normal everyday social activity—most of daily life—combines morality and self-interest in precisely this way.

Only in occasional circumstances—important ones, to be sure, but nevertheless circumstances out of the ordinary—do morality and self-interest come into opposition with one another and require making choices. By looking at a person’s actions over time, it is possible to gain a sense of the person’s priorities. Does the mother act warmly when the baby is pleasing her but turn a cold shoulder when the baby is unresponsive, difficult, or needy? Does a child share read- ily when he feels like playing and then turn stingy when he gets bored with the game or the other players? Does the worker resist blatantly ripping off colleagues but find other ways to take advantage of them when she can get away with it? In each of these cases, the person’s moral feelings are submerged when the interests of the self are not wholly aligned with those of the other. This reveals that the moral part of the person’s mixed motives do not assume a very high priority in the mix.

The Rarely Recognized Moral Part of Mixed Motives in Business

Mixed motives are as much the rule in business as in any other domain in life. Prominent in business are self-promotional goals such as moneymaking, status-seeking, power-grabbing, and personal ego-boosting. At the same time, many people in business—not all, but many—also pursue goals that promote the interests of others, such as serving customers well, producing goods that the world needs or wants, treating employees fairly, building companies that they can pass on to the next generation, and improving communities. Almost every business career that is successful over the long run reflects some such mix of aspirations to serve self and others.

Typically, when thinking about what drives businesspeople, the nobler part of the mix gets shorter shrift than the self-serving part. When noble motives in business are acknowledged at all, they are generally considered to be little more than grudging concessions to social reality, perhaps for the sake of public relations, perhaps simply to stay out of trouble. The effort to act responsibly in business is often viewed as an imposed burden that businesspeople must put up with, certainly not of their own free will.

Indeed, skeptical attitudes toward the motives of people in business date back to ancient times; and by the twentieth century, the skepticism had become dominant in much of Western culture. To be sure, there have been influential religious leaders who have taken a different tack, portraying business as a “calling” meant to serve God. But most of those voices are silent now, and the notion of business as a faith-inspired calling has long since faded in the public mind.[5] Within the academy, the press, the nonprofit sector, and the entertainment industry, the consensus is that people in business are driven mainly by greed. And because greed is seen as the primary motive, it is generally assumed that people in business will take the low road to success whenever they can get away with it.

Now there is no question that money, and lots of it, can be made on the low road, through fraud, brazen chicanery, shameless hype, reckless gambling, and irresponsible plundering. The annals of business are full of take-the-money-and-run schemes that have rewarded fast deals, lucrative tricks, lucky bets, wild hits, and get- rich-quick ploys that have left companies and the employees, investors, customers, and communities that supported them in shambles. Such stories are well-known; they make for good reading, and the press glories in reporting them. The most notorious cases end up in criminal or civil court, with blaring media exposure. Many people who operate this way—the lion’s share, perhaps— manage to keep low profiles while hoarding their ill-gotten gains.

Yet even the bitterest critics of capitalism would admit that there are higher roads to business success than this. Plenty of money can be made by dealing honestly, by producing genuinely needed goods and services, by fair dealing, and by responsible conduct. No one can deny that there are successful business leaders who treat their customers well, who act respectfully toward their employees, and who care about their communities. How prevalent such cases are might be argued, but there is little question that many exist.

In this book, I make the case that the high roads to business success are more traveled than today’s conventional wisdom would tell us. This is not to say that those who take the high road do so with purely altruistic motives, or that they behave in saintly manners throughout their careers. Indeed, these actors are as personally ambitious as any other aspiring businessperson, and they may pursue egoistic and materialistic goals. But higher motives drive these people too, motives that derive from their senses of right and wrong, from their desires to contribute to the world, from their feelings of obligation, from the call of service. Such moral concerns are an inextricable part of the motivational mix that fuels their energies.

Morality Is a Positive Force in Human Life, Not Just a Set of Stifling Constraints

When I began studying moral development more than twenty-five years ago, the prevalent view in the social sciences was that morality arose from fear of punishment, power, and negative feelings such as shame and guilt—which are simply one’s own way of punishing the self psychologically. My early studies on the origins of morality found a different set of motives. I discovered that young children share toys with friends because they think it is fair, and also because they like their friends and want to see them happy. I came up with evidence showing that these positive moral inclinations—denoted “fairness” and “empathy” in their full-blown guises—could be found in essentially all children.[6] What’s more, children stick by these moral inclinations even in the face of adult injunctions to the contrary (that is, kids will share with friends even if Mom or Dad says not to). So much for power and punishment as morality’s primary source. As I moved up the life span, I found many other examples of positive morality: choices shaped by idealism and noble purpose in adolescence;[7] a sense of work as a moral calling among leading professionals;[8] and the joys of moral commitment among persons who had dedicated their lives to transcendent causes.[9]

Within the scientific field of human development, I believe that it is fair to say that the positive role of morality in human affairs is now firmly established. Almost all modern textbooks now reflect this view. At the same time, a fortuitous shift in the fields of social and personality psychology, led by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has opened the doors of the broader discipline’s perception to proactive as well as reactive sources of human motivation.[10] These “positive psychologists” reject the idea that people’s goals and values arise from basic drives such as hunger and sex (as the behaviorists once believed), or from defense mechanisms such as sublimation and reaction formation (as the Freudians once believed). Rather, they believe that people can and do freely choose goals and values that promote such higher purposes as morality, creativity, and spirituality. Leaders of the positive psychology movement use notions such as “authentic happiness” (Seligman), “optimal experience” (Csikszentmihalyi), and “ultimate concerns” (Robert Emmons) to capture the essence of our most lofty and enlightened desires.[11 ]Moral purpose and moral inspiration are now officially on the radar screen of today’s social sciences.

The idea that morality plays an essential role in business—or at least that it ought to—is by no means unique to this book (although, as recent headlines have made clear, it is an idea more voiced than followed). What may be unique is this book’s determinedly positive account of the moral approach that underlies a successful career, beginning with the creative and generative insights that I describe in Chapter 3 and continuing with the interpersonal, ethical, and philanthropic uses of moral insight that I discuss in Chapters 4, 5, and 6. As I show, a positive sense of moral purpose is a fertile source of innovative ideas and productive relations in business.

The Search for Moral Integrity Requires a Dedication to Honesty and Humility at All Times, and Not Merely as a Matter of Future Intent

In all phases of a career—the years of preparation, the years of productivity, the final years of consolidation—there can be no substitute for integrity. Moral integrity means, quite literally, an integration of virtue throughout one’s conduct at all times. A person with integrity can be counted on to remain true to all the goals, purposes, and standards that he or she believes in, rather than selling out one in favor of another.

Moral integrity in business has many faces. It can assert itself with a simple and truthful “I don’t know” when an investor demands a number prematurely, or when a boss asks for an answer that you don’t have. Integrity comes into play whenever you feel pressured to abandon the goals that you believe in, or tempted to stop trying to do the work that you entered the field to accomplish: for example, when a news manager programs sensationalistic schlock rather than important news out of fear of losing ratings, or when a tire manufacturer allows dangerous defects to slip through in order to undercut a competitor’s prices.

The public side of integrity is honesty. The truth will come out eventually, and reputations are built on the basis of credibility or deceit. The private side of integrity is humility, the willingness to admit your own imperfections, to self-correct, change course, and keep growing. These two h’s—honesty and humility—are central to good work in business. It is hard for a person who is dishonest and arrogant to learn from failure; and it is hard for a person who is both honest and humble to do much harm in the long run.


[4]There has been an enormous amount written about the relation between morality and self-interest, some of which reduces one to the other (Ayn Rand) and some of which sets the two apart in stark contrast (Adam Smith). Often the terms are used idiosyncratically, so it is hard to compare the different opinions on the matter. For the present purposes, I am using the terms as one encounters them in the common vernacular, to indicate either an orientation toward the good of others, the codes of society and God (morality), or an orientation toward promoting one’s own narrow, moment-to-moment personal desires (self-interest). This is a distinction that most people immediately recognize, despite its philosophic/semantic shortcomings; and it is a distinction that makes a marked difference in the capacity of any person’s behavior to do good or harm in the world.

[5]For a historical account, see M. Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life, New York: Free Press, 1996.

[6]W. Damon, The Moral Child: Nurturing Children’s Natural Moral Growth, New York: Free Press, 1990.

[7]W. Damon, J. Menon, and K. Bronk, “The Development of Purpose during Adolescence,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 3 (2002): 115–27.

[8]H. Gardner, M. Csikszentmihalyi, and W. Damon, Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, New York: Basic Books, 2001.

[9]Colby and Damon, Some Do Care.

[10]M. Seligman, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, New York: Free Press, 2002; M. Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, New York: Basic Books, 2000.

[11 ]Seligman, Authentic Happiness; Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow; and R. Emmons, The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns: Motivation and Spirituality in Personality, New York: Guilford Press, 1999.