A company hosts a press conference to show how caring and compassionate it is. The CEO of the company, dressed in a top-of-the-line suit, stands in front of the television cameras with his arms around a homeless man who has not bathed for several days. This, we are supposed to believe, makes the company’s CEO a good person.
A political leader is exposed for deceitful behavior. The day after the exposure, he and his wife volunteer in a soup kitchen. We’re supposed to believe that he is still a good person, despite the wrongdoing he more or less acknowledged.
It is easy to become cynical and hopeless when faced with these kinds of examples, as we are almost every day. It just seems so easy to fake being ethical—and to get away with it. Pretending that you are altruistic and kind and giving seems to be all that is required anymore.
But there is another question. Why is the prevailing code of ethics so easy to exploit? Might there be something wrong with the code itself?
The prevailing code of ethics is sacrifice, selfless giving, and charity. In a word: selflessness. Because selflessness supposedly represents the supreme good, the CEO is supposed to be a good person when he selflessly sacrifices some pride and personal hygiene to stand with the homeless man. Because charity is supposedly the supreme good, we are to assume the political leader is a good man because he’s still willing to do charity work despite his awesome power and well-publicized misdeeds.
What if the standard of supreme good were something different? What if the standard of supreme good were excellence, or competence? It’s not easy to fake excellence or competence. In fact, it’s not even possible. Visualize a great work of art: a sculpture of a beautiful, godlike body such as Michelangelo’s David. Or imagine a feat of engineering and design, such as a towering, state-of-the-art skyscraper or a Frank Lloyd Wright building. Now try to conceive of pretending to be Michelangelo for a day; or throwing a press conference or photo-op for an architectural masterpiece you played no role in designing. It just wouldn’t happen. True greatness cannot be faked. If something is capable of being faked even for a moment, it isn’t greatness in the first place. Genuine greatness is objective, and real. It does not depend upon some ‘good’ intention to cover up its failure to produce. It produces both good intentions and good results.
We all probably have some measure of greatness within us, at least potentially. But greatness is not what we are trained to think it is. Our greatness lies not in our capacity to write a check to a charity organization or to build houses for poor people. Our greatness lies in our individual willingness to create, to produce, and to use our minds. To selfishly—yes, selfishly—develop our interests and talents to their fullest potential represents the true measure of our worth.
An act of greatness consists of a businessman working long hours to make his company number one. An act of greatness consists of an engineer struggling to determine how to construct the Golden Gate Bridge or its equivalent. An act of greatness consists of a dancer or a musician or an artist working doggedly to bring absolute excellence, even perfection, to her craft. In selfishly developing our talents and pursuing our dreams and values, plenty of other people benefit—especially if we succeed.
In contemporary society we have lost sight of—or, more accurately, never truly grasped—the authentic meaning of greatness. Increasingly, we pay cynical lip service to the politically correct/religiously correct view that the essence of greatness lies in helping an old lady across the street. We don’t even give a moment’s thought to the science, ingenuity, and relentless effort which made the street possible in the first place. We simply take for granted that the traffic lights work, that cars are better and cheaper than ever before, and that the planes flying overhead somehow came out of nowhere. We likewise ignore the advances in medical technology and the continuing work of doctors to enable older and older ladies to walk, increasingly, without any help at all. In fact, we hear it relentlessly lectured by people—who never would or could produce anything of objective value—that technology and progress represent an antienvironmental catastrophe rather than phenomena which make all of our lives infinitely easier and safer.
Like it or not: there’s nothing so compassionate as the cold hand of science, reason, and objective knowledge. As Woody Allen said in the movie Deconstructing Harry: ‘If I had a choice between the Pope and air-conditioning’I’d choose air-conditioning.’ The same applies to business and capitalism, which makes the widespread, cheap distribution of the air-conditioning possible; and the much maligned profit motive, which delivers the goods with masterful efficiency and the voluntary consent of everyone involved. Science and business do more to help that old lady across the street than any self-anointed (or popularly elected) do-gooder ever could. Yet science and business continue to be despised by many of our cultural elites—and ignored or simply taken for granted by the masses.
The degree to which human beings have misplaced their priorities is shameful. In the midst of so much to admire, we instead focus on non-essentials (or anti-essentials). We stubbornly persist in the belief that greatness lies in giving up one’s self rather than developing one’s self with heroic and precise dedication. The core and essence of a self, after all, is the mind. And it is through the benefits of the human mind that all progress, great and small, occurs. It is through ideas that human beings master their environments and conquer the universe. The dominant view today, tragically, is precisely the opposite. Ted Turner, a truly courageous and accomplished entrepreneur, gave money to the United Nations—and he’s instantly canonized as a saint by the cultural elites. Yet his true heroism is never acknowledged. Braving the new world of cable television, he dared to believe that a cable news network would survive. He was scorned by his peers and ignored by the masses. Yet he went ahead with what his judgment told him, and in the process revolutionized the media forever. That is heroism.
A more recent example of heroism in business is Steve Jobs. Jobs is considered a good guy because he supported Barack Obama for President, and Obama openly preaches the ideology that we are all our brothers’ keepers. Imagine if Steve Jobs gave his money and support to a conservative or pro-capitalism candidate for President (if we had one). He’d be raked over the coals, because in our warped society you don’t (1) succeed and (2) challenge the ethics of sacrifice at one and the same time. It’s unthinkable.
Bill Gates, and later Steve Jobs, almost single-handedly triggered the entire Information Revolution. Instead of being given a hero’s parade for all the jobs he created, Gates was put on trial for allegedly harming competition. Simply because millions of people choose to buy his superior product over second-rate competitors, he’s somehow to blame. He’s evil, in effect, because he’s so competent that people voluntarily prefer to purchase his product over other products. So what did he do to defend himself? He held a press conference to demonstrate how he’s giving away a chunk of his money to charity. He should have said, “What’s wrong with you people? I did more to expand the economy than anyone up to now. Why do you punish me for doing well?”
The most tragic feature of today’s ethical mess is that nobody, anywhere, seems to know what greatness really is. Not even the great individuals themselves. In a sense, of course, the great innovators of the world do inhibit competition. Not by doing anything immoral or coercive or deceitful; simply by being who they are and, by their very natures and actions, towering above the crowd. For this, however, we should not be envious or resentful. For this we should all be eternally grateful—and inspired. The next time you log onto the Internet, or fly in a jet across the world in a matter of hours, or instantaneously obtain breaking news about an overseas war or cruise ship sinking, take a moment to thank the best of the human spirit which made it all possible. And stop encouraging our idiotic political “leaders” to punish it!