We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

Sunday, August 29, 2010

What Are Your Sins of Omission?

Alexander Green is a brilliant investment director and I have followed his recommendations for years, but as he gains success in the markets, he is beginning to seek a higher level of success. Here is his latest thought:

What Are Your Sins of Omission?

I recently viewed the History Channel’s series on the Seven Deadly Sins http://www.amazon.com/Seven-Deadly-Sins-History-Channel/dp/B001NNTGF8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1282901277&sr=8-1
– that 1,600-year-old inventory of our universal shortcomings: pride, anger, envy, greed, gluttony, sloth, and lust.

I was surprised to learn that most philosophers and theologians consider sloth the single most insidious vice.

I’ve always thought sloth was one of the more amiable weaknesses. Does sitting in front of ESPN with a bag of Doritos really constitute a great moral failure?

But the spiritual meaning of sloth is not laziness. It’s apathy, hardness of heart, moral indifference, blindness, complacency, and “smallness of soul.” Poverty, injustice and suffering exist, in part, because we don’t act. Sloth is the category that encompasses everything we should do but don’t.

That’s a big one.

Few of us spend time reflecting on the ethics of inaction. We are interested in all sorts of things – friends, family, work, Angelina Jolie. But our personal moral failings? Not so much.

We already know it’s wrong to lie, cheat, kill, or conk a woman on the head and run off with her purse. Sins of commission are easy to identify. But sins of omission? That’s trickier.

For example, it’s clearly wrong to drown someone. But our legal system will not prosecute you for letting someone drown. Killing a child elicits universal condemnation. But permitting thousands of children to die each day from starvation is different.

Or is it?

As Dennis Ford writes in Sins of Omission, “Every three days, more people die from malnutrition and disease than from the bombing of Hiroshima. Every year, more people die from preventable hunger than died in the Holocaust. Somewhere along the line, moral reflection and outrage have lost their audience.”

I’m one of those missing in action. Most days I go about my business, do my work, chip away at my problems and hardly give a thought about the rest of the world’s.

But does our failure to act make us morally culpable? Is the misery of others ever the product of our own indifference? Is doing “too little” morally reprehensible? And why is it uncomfortable to even consider these questions?

No doubt it’s partly because the world is so full of problems that we’re wary of letting them drag us down. Ayn Rand once received a letter from a reader who was inspired by her writings but found the world such a mess he said he didn’t know where to begin to change it. Rand responded that if a doctor showed up at a battlefield and hundreds of soldiers lay wounded and dying, he wouldn’t despair that he couldn’t save them all and drive off. He’d identify the most urgent situation and get to work.

Yet whether the issue is feeding the poor, protecting the environment or caring for the elderly, few of us are committed enough to inconvenience ourselves for change.

Why are we unmoved? How do we sustain and legitimize our apathy?

I recently put these questions to Dr. Craig Shealy, a Professor of Graduate Psychology at James Madison University and the Executive Director of the International Beliefs and Values Institute, a non-profit organization that studies ethics and how they are linked to actions and practices around the globe.

His research reveals that our decisions about whether to act are based on a combination of upbringing, personal values and culture.

Western culture, in particular, provides a significant headwind. With Madison Avenue bombarding us daily with countless messages about what to wear, where to eat and what to drive, even the most eloquent pleas for helping others can sound shrill or preachy.

In our do-your-own-thing society, we don’t want anyone laying a guilt trip on us. Moralizing or sanctimonious appeals from “do-gooders” invariably backfire, motivating us to feel irritation and resentment, not compassion.

Ours is a culture of individualism. We come into this world with a self-centered perspective and quickly learn that we can best pursue our advantage by figuring out what is best for us, not what is best for everyone. And it works. Individual initiative and hard work generally lead to economic, material and social rewards.

As a nation of individualists, freedom is our highest ideal. But it can also mean the freedom to bully the weak, shun the disadvantaged, despoil the environment, ignore the suffering of animals, or turn our backs on the oppressed, the sick and the dying.

Our indifference is reinforced by the popular perception that “people get what they deserve.” We like Horacio Alger stories, tales of individuals rising from humble circumstances to overcome adversity and make a great success of their lives.

But that isn’t always possible. In some parts of the world, the odds are stacked against you. (And if you believe everyone in the U.S. starts out with an equal opportunity, I strongly suggest you rent the movie “Precious.” Boot-strappers will find it particularly eye-opening.)

Even if you’ve achieved your success through a lifetime of education, persistence and hard work, you may owe a bigger debt of gratitude than you realize. Nobel Prize-winning economist and social scientist Herbert Simon estimates that “social capital” is responsible for at least 90% of what people earn in wealthy societies.

Sounds far-fetched? Consider living in a society without modern infrastructure, communications or a reliable power supply. Imagine there is no free-market system to incentivize you, no police force to protect you, no court system to enforce contracts or protect your rights. As Warren Buffett remarked, “If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru, you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil.”

Fortunately, we don’t have to sacrifice every day to survive. The beauty of capitalism is that it promotes the general welfare when we pursue our self-interest. (We get what we want when we deliver the goods and services others want.) But excellence at moneymaking doesn’t necessarily translate into excellence of character.

Like you, perhaps, I’m vaguely haunted by the feeling that I don’t give enough, do enough, engage enough. I suspect that I have a deplorable lack of empathy. Yet my behavior is largely unchanged. Now that’s sloth.

What’s the solution? I’m not sure there is one. However, Dr. Shealy offers this bit of advice to activists and fundraisers who would encourage the rest of us to lend a hand:

1.Understand that everyone, depending on his or her personal beliefs and background, interprets a plea for help differently.

1.Recognize that getting someone involved generally requires you to touch an emotional center, not just an intellectual one.
1.When you offer donors the possibility of making a contribution, give them the space to reflect on what you’re asking them to do. Allow them the opportunity to respond from a deep place, not just a sense of obligation.

There’s probably no cure for dyed-in-the-wool moral indifference. (At least, not one that doesn’t involve trampling people’s freedoms or making yourself obnoxious.)

It would be nice to believe that we only need someone to tickle our conscience and our behavior will change. But I’m not so sure.

Immanuel Kant said two things filled him with awe: the stars above and the moral universe within.

Yet the stars are always there.

Carpe Diem,


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