Codes and Behaviours


To read more see David Peat’s Pathways of Chance and Gentle Action

Thinking about the rules, relationships and codes of behavior required in the modern marketplace appears to lead to seemingly paradoxical conclusions. On the one hand there is deep concern about the lack of ethical standards in the marketplace today, as indicated by the scandals surrounding Enron and Arthur Anderson et al and the ensuing economic uncertainty. There are also concerns about the social and economic implication of globalization that is permitted to expand without any form of regulation. On the other hand, wherever one looks in the natural and social worlds one finds rules and patterns of sustainable behavior. To take a single example, the linguist Gryce has outlined what he believes to be a set of universal rules in order for two or more people to sustain a conversation. Without such rules, often unconsciously adhered to, no human commerce would be possible.

If we look to the animal kingdom we discover complex patterns of behavior designed to avoid, or at least contain, aggression as well as mutual grooming, protection of the weak against predators and even food sharing. Indigenous societies adopt taboos and ritualized behavior to limit aggression and warfare—such as the Potlatch and the Cassowary cult. Likewise, many natural systems self-organize and develop their own internal dynamics. Ecosystems originate through processes of co-evolution and sustain themselves through complex systems of mutual interactions. Plants and animals not only compete but also cooperate, both taking from the environment and feeding back into it. Lessons from the natural world point to the importance of diversity, redundancy, reciprocity and cooperation in maintaining a sustainable environment.

Traditional views of the marketplace and its ‘invisible hand’ would accord with more modern views on self-organizing dynamics. Yet such systems always exist within a wider context or environment. In the case of traditional markets, this meant the nation state and its government. But today’s markets, with their instantaneous electronic communications and uncontrolled flows of vast sums of money, appear to have positioned themselves as being external to any traditional system of checks and balances. How stable are such systems dynamically, what rules, customs and codes of behavior must be adopted and how can such measures be enforced?

Dr Illy (of Illy Coffee) has pointed out that Respect, Honesty and Trust were the invisible pillars that supported the traditional market place. But what is the role of ethics and morals in today’s world? And are the traditional philosophical discourses on ethics sufficient guide to check the greed, dishonesty and irrational behavior that appear to me more prevalent today?

The Vedic writings, as well as Platonic philosophy held that ethics are somehow universally encoded into the fabric of the universe. Such ideas are echoed in Carl Jung’s notion of the archetypes as universal structuring principles of human behavior. But while we may find ourselves in the grip of archetypal forces when it comes to morality these are codeswhich we must obey through a sense of duty, as was the suggestion of Kant. Contrast that with a more Taoist version of right action flowing naturally from those who are in harmony with the universe. Or that the role of the ‘worthy man’ was to ‘know thyself’ and so act for the good of others.

But there is the contrary view, such as that of Hobbes, that ethics are not a priori or inherent in the structure of the universe, as are the laws of physics, but evolved as human societies formed for the purposes of mutual support and protection. In this sense, ethics are closer to the codes of self-organized systems that evolve their own internal and sustainable dynamics, rules and laws.

Finally there were the attempts of the Utilatarians to rationalize ideal human behavior as that which would bring the greatest pleasure or benefit to the greatest number. But again how can one measure pleasure for the many against discomfort for the few and, if all actions are judged on ends, what role does individual conscience play?

Possibly a more pragmatic approach would be to find the ‘middle way’ by drawing upon what is best in all these systems. But again this begs the question of why people should behave ethically. Does right action flow naturally from right living or is it to be learned? And how are those who do not choose to behave ethically to be monitored, regulated or punished at the local and international levels?

Machiavelli distinguished between private and public morals. Must we now distinguish between private, public and corporate ethics? Should corporate ethics be explicitly stated? Are such ethics to be imposed by a CEO, a board, or determined democratically? And what happens when loyalties are torn between shareholders, employees and consumers?

Certainly peer pressure and the desire to belong can play a strong role in generating a moral, or for that matter, an amoral stance. It appears that peer pressure in Enron and Arthur Anderson were geared towards subterfuge to the extent that what was once perceived as dishonesty became mere expediency.

International markets and corporations have become increasingly complex. On the one hand; they may exhibit some degree of self-organization. They may take lessons from natural systems in their use of differentiation, versatility, redundancy, positive feedback for amplification and negative feedback for stability. They may learn to tolerate a degree of uncertainty and unpredictability. On the other hand they cannot ignore the wider context in which they are embedded—international tensions, gaps between rich and poor nations, limitations to natural resources, human rights and benefits and obligations towards the natural environment.

In short we are left with a series of questions

  1. What ethical values should be espoused, that can be shared by all?
    2. What rules and agreements need to be set in place for a globalized economy?
    3. How are such rules, procedures and agreements to be monitored and enforced?
    4. How can we foster, promote and maintain an ethical culture?