Business, as a Moral Document

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development suggests the intentions determine their ‘moral standing’ and chunks these motives into basically three stages: the pre-conventional, the conventional, and the post-conventional. In the pre-conventional, our behaviors are motivated by reward and punishment, and self-interest: I’m not going to speed in order to avoid getting a ticket, I’m going to give my co-worker a compliment so she returns one to me. In the conventional, our behaviors are motivated by social norms; I’m going to tip the people at Coldstone so the person behind me sees me as a “good person”. In the post-conventional, people just do things because they are the right things to do; I park at the back of the parking lot so someone less able-bodied can have the closer spot, I pick up this piece of litter to clean the Earth. Of course, as humans, since we are fallible, we have the ability to slide in and out of each stage.

(I’m defining ‘morality’ as situations when power and control is either inserted or subtracted in order to benefit the common good of people)

I believe that, whether we are conscious of it or not, immoral actions weigh on our egos. While we are set up to be selfish, jealous, competitive, self-seeking, the value comes when we can strip those human qualities away, and we become graceful, selfless, happy and content; we must work to hard wire ourselves differently, but the work is so worth it in the end. When I make a power-seeking decision, and suppress someone else in turn, I may not necessarily be aware that my drives are ego-inflating, power-seeking, but my subconscious certainly is. When I gossip about a coworker in order to elevate my own standing in the company, I may not necessarily know the insecurities the gossip stems from, but my subconscious does (and likely, I pick up a sense of jealousy, competitiveness, and more insecurities in the process). When I criticize my sister for buying the car I really wanted, while I may think I’m “just looking out for her best interests”, my subconscious knows my immoral, self-serving roots.

There’s many theories as to why people are unhappy in the workforce: we aren’t interacting with people, technology causes us to stay stationary and we aren’t expending energy, the florescent lights are not conductive to satisfaction, we are working longer hours, our work isn’t meaningful. Higher divorce rates are causing us to trail our family issues into work. People are stressed about the economy, the rising price of home values. Our human value is being replaced by robots and computers.

But, here’s a theory I would like to propose: perhaps we are unhappy, because subconsciously, we know that the work we are doing is immoral, and our subconscious kicks those unwanted feelings back at us to signal this unhealthy state, causing us unhappiness. Perhaps when we walk away from our jobs, we know that we screwed people over, made their lives more difficult, oppressed others in order to uplift ourselves.

For example, take any sales job: the whole goal is to rob Peter to pay Paul. When I went to buy my first car, I remember the salesman asking me, “What is most important to you?”, and I sarcastically said, “Oh I just don’t want a white one”, and the rest of the appointment was spent, coming up with elaborate stories about the paint colors (never mind the safety ratings, the amount of pollution the car creates, the profit margin for the company). I worked at a restaurant one time that encouraged us to fill up the glasses with as much ice as possible (because ice was cheaper than beverage), never mind the costumer paid $3/glass. When the magazine salesman comes to my door, he doesn’t really care about “enriching my life with reading material”; he just wants me to buy a magazine so he can meet his quota. When I worked in retail, our schedules were dependent upon how many credit cards we sold (credit cards are a wonderful invention, but can also be the cause for financial problems).

Even teaching (what you might deem as an incredibly ‘moral’ job) can have it’s pitfalls. Sometimes, as a teacher, you get into power plays with your students or other co-workers in order to stroke your own ego. Sometimes, as a teacher, you potentially do some backdoor bargaining and brown nosing to make sure you get the classes you want to teach, the materials you want to use. Sometimes, as a teacher, you say things out of spite, you allow your ‘favorite’ students to get away with things, you play unfairly in order to elevate your own position. But, at the end of the day, in all of these cases, whether we are salespeople, working in corporate America, teaching the future of our country, producing work that is immoral is certainly weighing on our conscience, which in turn, weighs on our happiness.

Of course, we need all of these jobs in order to run a fully functioning society (that’s how capitalism works). But, perhaps in order to appease our subconscious’s and alleviate those unhappy feelings, we focus our energies towards making our jobs as moral as possible (which means finding ways that we aren’t screwing people over, we aren’t asserting our own power and control, we aren’t inserting our authority over others). Perhaps I have to sacrifice a little money on that margin, a little bit of my time, but the moral outcome, and weight off my subconscious, and therefore an increased state of happiness, may ultmiately be worth it.

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