It’s so great to see all this color.
Work has been really fun lately. It seems like spring has really amped up my creative process. I spoke at a conference in Austin a few weeks ago called RISE, it was really fun. It was especially great to be around a bunch of entrepreneurs. It reminded me of the first time I went to music/arts summer camp in high school. Instead of being a weirdo, I was with my own kind, people who shared my values and ideals. In this case, it was fun to be with other irrationally optimistic, creative, driven people who persistently see our country’s financial difficulties as an opportunity for growth and change. It was cool.
My session was on defining and identifying core vision, values, and mission. It went really well, and has got me thinking about some very exciting possibilities to expand on the parts people responded to especially well. Next week, I’m guest speaking at Wisdom at Work, which you can read about here, if you’re interested.
Speaking of entrepreneurs, I got to meet one of my idols yesterday, Perez Hilton. What? That snarky gossip blogger who draws on pictures of movie stars in MS Paint? Yep. I have to admit his blog is a guilty pleasure of mine. But what I find more interesting is how he’s managed to go from just some dude who writes a goofy blog to a media mogul. Seriously – the guy had one of the hottest shows at SXSW, has a clothing line at Hot Topic, a book, tv shows, and more. I expect him to be in the company of Oprah as far as media influence is concerned in the next ten years. He is wicked smart. Anyway, I’ll quit gushing and just show you the picture:
I am such a dork.
I’ve been better about keeping my business blog updated, but less so here. I’ve got some new website stuff in the work, so stay tuned for updates. Oh – and I also have a new article in a journal called The Systems Thinker. Sweet! It’s on organizational politics and ethics, if you’re interested email me and I’ll send you a copy.
That’s all for now. I have to go wash some terriers.
I watched the movie Waitress last night. It’s really good, great script, good cast. The story is about a young woman living in rural somewhere America with an abusive husband. She’s a waitress and has a major talent for cooking, she directs all her pent up emotions into creating amazing pie recipes. It’s quirky and funny, but also pretty intense as in spite of the fluffy trappings, the characters are more realistic that one would expect.
The reason I’m writing about it is because it brought up a lot of memories for me. I was in an abusive relationship in my late teens-early twenties. We were together for 4 1/2 years, living together for most of that time. My close friends and family remember that period with horror, they were terrified I would marry my boyfriend and end up more trapped than I already was. A user review I read of Waitress an iTunes panned it for having “stereotypical” characters. But the thing about stereotypes is they have some grounding in reality. And the abusive husband in this film was not portrayed just as a hulking, threatening, knuckle-dragger. He was also incredibly insecure, incapable of hearing any version of reality that made him uncomfortable – he would literally tell his wife exactly what words to say in order to make him feel better. He would beg for reassurance and induce guilt and fear to get it. When he couldn’t control the world around him, he became verbally and physically abusive. This is actually much closer to the reality of abusive relationships that the way they are often portrayed in cinema and on TV.
The relationship I was in probably looked creepy from the outside, but many of my friends and family didn’t recognize the warning signs, or even believe me when I first started talking about it – several years in. Abusive people can be charming, kind, generous, and friendly. They do not have “poor anger management” tattooed to their foreheads. My boyfriend was very smart and witty, kind of childlike in demeanor, and often generous to a fault with his friends. The side that very few people saw was the toddler-like screaming tantrums, the dangerous road rage, the stuff he broke in anger, the way he used fear, guilt, and shame to control and manipulate me, the fights he picked that would go on all night (often right before I had an important test or performance), the extreme jealousy, and the hitting.
People who have been in abusive relationships live with the stigma of having “allowed” these things to happen to them. As a result we often feel that others see us as weak-minded or innately damaged in some way. I still struggle with shame over having let this man, and other people treat me in a way I would never want anyone I love to be treated.
What people don’t understand is that abusers are master manipulators, and they don’t just use fear and anger to control others. They may also use flattery, gifts, affection, and charisma to get what they want. But underneath the adult body and vocabulary is usually a spoiled, terrified toddler who will do anything to feel safe and secure. Adult reasoning and ethics don’t apply, in fact my ex was a genius when it came to using big words to rationalize very irrational and often destructive feelings and desires.
The important thing to remember if you feel trapped in a destructive relationship of any kind (it could be with a spouse or lover, friend, teacher, employer, or relative) is the abuser needs you more than you need them. Most of their energy is spent trying to convince you that it’s the other way around, but it’s not. They may think that they can’t live without you, but you can live without them. It’s important also to remember that that intense need is also somewhat addictive, especially if you have your own insecurities about being lovable or desirable. Abusers are very good at magnifying and manipulating your fears.
If you have had an abusive relationship, another important thing to be aware of is your own need to control based on insecurity and fear. It’s well documented that abused children can become abusive parents. When I stopped having relationships where I was being controlled, I had to examine my own tendencies towards jealous and controlling behavior. I had to choose to deal with my fears direcly, rather than projecting them on my partner and blaming him. Having been abused does not make us incapable of being an abuser, but it does give us a greater responsibility to stop the cycle.
How do you know if a relationship is abusive? If the other person is very critical, makes you feel worthless or repulsive, if you have arguments that seem to stretch out forever, or if your partner gets angry if you spend time with other people or talk about your relationship with others, these are some major indicators. If you think you are in an abusive relationship, ask for help. Ask people you truly trust to listen to you without judgement, and talk to a counselor or therapist. You are not alone. You are not trapped. You are entitled to be treated with respect. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not someone you want in your life.
Several months ago, my research team did an ethics audit comparison of Microsoft and Apple. Surprisingly, Microsoft came out overwhelmingly in the lead on most ethics and governance issues. Apple has a dismal track record on environmental concerns, seems to have little sense of global social responsibility beyond the education realm, and has been targeted for poor labor practices in China. This is distressing, as I vastly prefer their products to Microsoft’s. I love the industrial design, the user interface, and just the bloody cleverness of the products and how they market them. What I do not like are first release products with giant bugs, software with giant bugs, snotty customer service, and difficulty finding documentation on known issues.
So let’s add to this list: Deceptive Business Practices
This week Apple announced that you can now rent videos on iTunes. You pay for the movie, download it (this takes about two hours with DSL) and then you can watch it on the Apple device of your choice, including Apple TV, which we have. You have to watch the movie within 24 hours of starting it. So I figured it would be fun to try it out on Saturday night after dinner. After waiting two hours for the download, I spent the remaining two hours of the evening trying to get my Apple TV to recognize the file. I tried every suggestion I could find on the support site, and finally came across a document explaining how to transfer a rental to my Apple TV. Unfortunately, the interface described in the document didn’t exist. So I emailed iTunes support asking where it was. I got this response:
“All the new features of Apple TV—including movie rentals—are coming soon as a free software upgrade.”
Gosh, there’s a really big difference between “now available” and “coming soon”. So I emailed back:
“Why are there instructions on how to transfer rentals to my apple tv on your support site when it is actually not possible yet? This is misleading and unethical.”
And received this response:
“Thank you for responding. I entirely agree that it is misleading, although I will dispute the “unethical” with you.
So my question is, how is a statement that is knowingly untrue not unethical? The customer service rep went on to explain that it was okay because they were releasing the software upgrade soon that would fix the problem, and other parts of the documentation were actually already accurate.
Not so much.
This is a BIG problem. Selling something under false pretenses is not cool. Ever. And saying that since some of it was accurate, it’s okay that other parts were misleading does not make it better, it makes it worse.
I believe that Apple suffers from the same disease that I used to observe in the opera industry. When you worked with a talented person, say a really great conductor, if they acted abusively or sexually inappropriately, people would excuse it, saying he/she was a genius, or brilliant, as if one canceled out the other. But in the grownup world, someone can actually be brilliant and abusive, or talented and immature. Both qualities can exist in the same person, and the negative traits may in fact prohibit the person from being able to exercise the positive ones. But in the entertainment industry, people seem unable to resolve this dichotomy.
Similarly, Apple, and I think probably specifically Steve Jobs, seem to think that because they are design and interface geniuses, that they are not subject to the same basic ethical scrutiny as other companies. They are wrong, as the increasing number of lawsuits against Apple show.
Rather than expound even more on the possible effects of poor ethical practices, I will distill my advice to Steve Jobs and Apple into two words:
Learn to be a responsible, adult member of the world business community and adhere to commonly recognized ethical principals (and the ethical minimums dictated by those pesky law things). Stop behaving as if being smart/talented/pretty places you outside the social norms or the law. It doesn’t.
So I’m studying madly for the test-that-shall-not-be-named, and I’m spending an inordinate amount of time trying to understand the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. In the King’s English, this is an “if then” statement. The thing that flummoxes me is that they are not reciprocal. If A, then B is not the same as if B, then A. If it is 95 degrees outside, Michelann is grumpy. But if Michelann is grumpy, it might be 95 degrees outside, but Michelann may be grumpy because Loki ate her shoe (for reals), or some other reason unrelated to the temperature.
If Michelann is not grumpy, then it is not 95 degrees outside, but if it is not 95 degrees outside, Michelann might still be grumpy. This is called the contrapositive. It makes a kind of sense in the real world, but it’s really hard to tease out of statements with quadruple negatives and slithery double-speak. Trust me.
Then something occurred to me today. Remember how I mentioned the Platinum rule? Do unto others as they would have done unto them. This is just a recommendation, it’s not reciprocal and it doesn’t predict an outcome. I like it from an ethical standpoint because you don’t assume everyone is just like you. But the Golden Rule is a little different. Observe.
“Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
From this comes the assumption that others would like to be done unto as you would. So:
If I want a pony, then everyone wants a pony. According to the laws governing necessary and sufficient conditions, the contrapositive says that if someone else doesn’t want a pony, then I must not want a pony.
MWP(me want pony)—> OWP(others want pony)
OWP —> MWP
And this is obviously not the case. Just because someone else doesn’t want a pony doesn’t mean that I can’t want a pony. Hence my preference for the Platinum rule.
And Loki really ate my shoe. But I’m not grumpy.
I’ve been thinking a lot about where the line is between a religion and a cult, or a philosophy and an ideology. I think it is obvious that the main differentiator is the individual – do you need your beliefs to be simple and dogmatic, or can you engage in critical discourse? Does your relationship to the world change, or is it fixed?
But what about the nature of the belief system itself? How does it deal with challenges? Both political parties in the US have changed tremendously over the past 100 years. Sometimes one or the other seemed more dogmatic and purist, but sooner or later that purism was fractured by reality and the changing demands of society. So the two party system has continued, in spite of massive changes in the values and demographics of American society. At the same time, more extreme and ideological political systems, such as Communism, have largely failed. Pure, unadulterated capitalism has also failed. I guess I should say how I define failure – I believe a system has failed when basic ethical norms are regularly violated and are not adequately punished or prohibited by the system.
Democracy (theoretically) allows for self-correction, adaptation, change, and most importantly, ongoing challenges by members of the system. Any system that prohibits these things and threatens to harm or dissociate itself with those who challenge it is what I would consider a simplistic, dogmatic system. That’s when it enters the realm of cult or ideology for me. I think that the fact that the Bush administration is so far out of favor now is a testament to our system’s resistance to reverting to an ideology. The tension between the parties MUST continue to exist in order for our country to continue to mature.
I think an interesting analogy (and I ripped this off from Neal Stephenson) is the idea of viruses. An organism that is going to survive for the long term is one that can sustain multiple attacks from external sources – environmental and viral. It adapts, builds antibodies, evolves. If you apply this to a social system, cults don’t have much in the way of antibodies. They isolate themselves from critics, define themselves as “special” or “chosen” in some way, and those individuals involved must either turn all their energies towards accepting and supporting the beliefs of the group, or risk expulsion. I think one of the main features most conspicuously lacking in cult-like organizations is humility. From the Nazis to the Branch Davidians to Scientologists, you’re not likely to see members of these groups involved in any kind of public or academic discourse on the nature of their beliefs, and I suspect this is because these systems have no immune system. Belief in a superior race or creed does not lend itself well to humble self-examination, which doesn’t leave much room for testing and debate.
Compare this to Christianity or Buddhism, and you see organizations that have evolved, broken apart, re-formed, adapted, changed, and are very much a part of the intellectual and spiritual development of the human race. I am not claiming that there are no Christian or Buddhist factions or individuals that are dogmatic and ideological, but the systems themselves have proven over 2000+ years that they can withstand change and growth.
So my litmus test for an organization of any kind is, can you throw rocks at it? Can you test and question the beliefs, and do the members of the group regularly examine their own ethics and behavior based on those beliefs? If rock-throwing is taboo, then it’s probably not a system I really want any part of. But if rock-throwing is encouraged, if the system does not fear viruses but welcomes adaptation and change, then it just might be worth checking out.
Today’s rant is on a phenomenon I like to refer to as Kids These Days, or KTDTM . KTDTM refers to the fact that most modern philosophers, thinkers, gurus, shaman, rabbis, priests, lamas, high school principals, and prophets have a tendency to state that things are worse than they’ve ever been, that people are more unethical, have worse values, talk to each other less, eat worse food, fornicate more, kick more puppies, and generally suck more than ever before in history. And the fun thing is at every point in history the KTDTM phenomenon has been along for the ride.
I don’t buy it. The world has changed technologically, yes. But I don’t think people evolve or devolve that quickly. It takes tens of thousands of years for species to develop, and I think human history is pretty damn cyclical. So you think civilization is collapsing because there’s a huge gap between the rich and poor (and this has never happened before)? French Revolution. Reign. Of. Terror. Look it up. My favorite sign of the impending apocolypse is the spawning of tons of mean-spirited reality shows about lame, stupid people. But the ancient Romans really came up with the whole bread and circuses, opiate of the masses thing.
Is technology and the infernal interweb ruining our ability to relate to each other and destroying the fabric of society? Consider what Mark Twain had to say about telecommunications in the year 1890:
“It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us, the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage (every man and brother of us all throughout the whole earth), may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss, except the inventor of the telephone.”
If gluttony (which we call the obesity epidemic), lust (promiscuity and the ensuing STDs), avarice (corporate greed), wrath (violent crime), pride (Paris Hilton), envy (coveting your neighbor’s BMW), and sloth (damned video games) are particular problems of the twenty-first (or twentieth, or nineteenth) century, why Dante know so much about them? The Buddhist-based book I talked about recently, Healing through the Dark Emotions started to piss me off for the same reason. If people are really especially escapist and immoral and without compassion in the modern era, why did the Buddha need to spend all that time under the bodhi tree figuring out how to let go of attachment and be compassionate and teach others what he discovered?
Could it be that the human condition has always been pretty much the same? That we suffer and feel joy, we cause pain and we feel compassion, and that perhaps we could learn from our history instead of negating it by claiming that everything is new and unique?
I tell you, Kids These Days TM just don’t know their history.
One of the terms that’s been thrown around quite a bit in the MSOLE program is “systems theory.” It took a while to get my brain around this concept, but now that I have, I can see why my professors bring it up all the time.
Systems theory basically states that most things exist as part of a system, and are often a system themselves. So a human body is a system, made up of organs and other stuff. Organs are systems made up of cells, which are systems made of molecules, and so on. A thing is a system if it’s components are varied and work together in some way to create the thing. This is a crappy explanation, but think of it this way; a plant is a system – lots of different types of things make it up – cellulose, chloroplasts, water. If you hack off the roots, it may die, and no longer be a living plant. A rock is not a system. It may have several components at the molecular level, but they’re not interrelated. If you hack a piece off of it, it’s still a rock.
Systems that are self-correcting – those that need to maintain some kind of equilibrium to survive are called negative-loop systems. Systems that grow or shrink are called positive-loop systems. So our bodies are negative-loop systems; when we get to hot, we sweat to cool down, and when we get too cold we shiver to warm up. The survival of the system depends on equilibrium. But a cancer is a positive-loop system; if allowed to grow unhindered, it can disrupt the body’s negative-loop system.
Take this to a sociological level, and you have systems like families, cultures, countries, and so forth. Systems theory, as it applies to business and leadership, is really useful for taking a wider view of things like corporate change efforts, government regulation, and culture.
My current class is on business ethics. There’s lots of interesting debate on the dichotomy of capitalism, the publicly-held business model, and ethics. If publicly held corporations exist in order to provide value to shareholders, and everything else serves that goal, there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to what is acceptable and what is not. I’m doing some research right now on the difference between personal and professional ethics, and it seems like personal ethics are often more Kantian (absolute) in nature, where traditionally business ethics are more utilitarian. So the big question becomes, who gets the utility? If it’s the stockholders only, then other people (employees, community members, etc) pretty much get the shaft. This seems like a very linear way of looking at ethics and responsibility. Put your stakeholders in order of importance, and make decisions accordingly.
Proponents of newer models of global business ethics obviously think otherwise. There are lots of models out there for how to convince a corporation to give equal weight to other people who are affected by these decisions, like consumers (who may not want to pay for shoddy products), community members (who might not be happy about excess toxic waste), or employees (who may not feel so good about layoffs or restructuring). But most of the stuff I’ve read for this particular class so far goes at it from a linear standpoint, and I don’t think it’s a linear problem. I think it’s a systems problem. Screw with your customers to drive up profits at the end of the quarter, and you may be facing lawsuits the next quarter. This is because you’re messing with the system, which consists of everyone affected by your business. Cut employees to reduce costs, and you end up with low morale, high attrition, and reduced efficiency. It might not bite you this quarter, but it will within a year or so. Again, look at the system as a whole. These decisions may not negatively impact profit to shareholders first, but it will effect them within one or two business cycles.
Ultimately, I think systems thinking forces us to take a longer term look at the consequences of our actions. If Krispy Kreme had thought about the potential longer-term problems that might ensue from cooking their books by over shipping to vendors right before the end of the quarter (and then picking up the excess donuts after), it seems like they might have changed their practices a bit. A 75% drop in stock price since 2003 might not seem like an acceptable loss, in hindsight.
I think infusing more systems theory into the field of corporate ethics could be really useful. It’s still pretty utilitarian – the greatest good to the greatest number – but because you have to see the issue from a more birds-eye standpoint to understand the systemic effect of decisions, those decisions are less likely to be harmful in the long run.
When someone calls an action “Machiavellian” it tends to imply that person acting is doing so entirely out of a desire to acquire and retain power, without any regard to ethics. The thing I’ve always found so interesting about most unethical behavior – political, financial, social – is that in the best of situations, it’s generally a wash. That peon you’re screwing over to win favor with your boss – she might be your boss in five years. Not too bright, Machiavelli. That social program you’re shutting down? It might be saving your budget this year, but the problems it causes are going to cost taxpayers much more than what you’re saving. That river you’re polluting to save yourself the cost of upgrading your plant? You’re going to have to pay the piper eventually, whether it’s when legislation catches up and you have to pay to clean it up, or you get your ass sued off for giving a bunch of people leukemia. Somehow, I don’t think that Machiavelli was such a short-term thinker. A fast power grab today is not a good idea if it permanently tarnishes your reputation in the future. I think you can be a heartless bastard and still understand this fact.
I think the orientation towards long-term thinking is the rational side of ethics. We’ve so divorced ourselves from the “softer” side of our humanity in regards to work, that it’s sometimes difficult to argue for ethical, respectful behavior. There seems to be a gulf between what is “professional” and what is “ethical”, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two years contemplating why this may be. I have some theories, but they’re not ready for prime time.
What I do know is that I can make a damn fine argument for behaving ethically to the most self-interested person on the planet. The thing is, I’m a fairly big fan of the free-market economy, in theory. But that economy is currently so short-term focused, that ethical atrocities seem to be taking place unchecked. If we could all pull our heads out of our collective asses and look down the line a few years, we might come to understand that instant karma may not get you instantly, but it is going to get you eventually. So the next time you humiliate an employee just because you can, or you vote against a needed social program because you don’t want to pay $200 more in taxes per year, think about the potential long-term cost of those actions. Machiavelli would be proud.
I’ve been reading a book called Healing Through the Dark Emotions, by Miriam Greenspan. It’s pretty cool, because it validates a lot of my own synthesis of the things I’ve learned from experience and study. Humans, especially modern American humans, have a tendency to run away from emotional pain. Back in the day, when our culture was less secular, we rationalized pain by saying that God was punishing us for our sins. Nowadays, we pathologize it and claim that not only are we suffering because we’ve done something wrong (not eaten right, not exercised enough, not prayed to the right God), but that suffering itself is dangerous to our health and should be eradicated. Newsflash, people, suffering is unavoidable. Also, life is terminal. Not happy facts, but facts nonetheless.
Greenspan (and the Buddah) believe that accepting suffering is the path to greater awareness, and a more fulfilling, awake, meaningful life. Greenspan thinks we’re medicating ourselves into numbness and through avoiding our own pain, we blind ourselves to that of others resulting in things like emotional and physical violence.
I tend to concur. When I’m feeling scared or upset, I want to fix or eradicate it somehow. I often blame myself for suffering and try to find some way I caused it. This means that I’ve absorbed the idea that I can somehow prevent myself from suffering (that there was something I should have done differently), and I hurt because I’ve made a mistake. This seems pretty pointless, as a good portion of the time we don’t cause our own suffering. Lots and lots of things that cause us to suffer that are unavoidable. I think that the idea of personal responsibility and personal power is great for helping you focus on your goals, but it’s fairly shit for dealing with suffering. Suffering is a fact, and it doesn’t matter if you brought it on yourself, your neighbor brought it on you, or it was an earthquake. All suffering deserves compassion, and I think that at least some of the people who espouse personal responsibility in this way (Stephen Covey, I’m talking to you) do so to not only avoid their own pain, but to inure themselves from the pain of others.
It’s not that we shouldn’t reflect and learn from our mistakes. I just think that in the moment that we experience emotional pain who or what is to blame is not so relevant, and the search for the source is a way we avoid the experience. After the storm has passed, reflection is a good idea and helps give meaning to our suffering and allows us to feel compassion for others. But in that moment, I think the best thing to do is actually check out that storm – is it rainy with sorrow, or full of jarring, bright, scary lightening? Not all pain feels the same, I feel fear in my stomach sometimes, and grief more in my back. Greenspan talks about the value of checking in with the body when we feel emotional pain and letting ourselves experience it rather than fight it. It’s tricky, but when I have managed to do so, I’ve generally come out the other end a little wiser and much calmer.
While this may seem a bit of a jump, I think the topic actually relates closely to leadership and ethics. Leaders have responsibility to those who follow them, whether it’s a transactional relationship (like a job), or a transformational relationship (like a priest or teacher). If a leader has no relationship to their own suffering, then the organization they lead can become a reflection of that inner disconnect.
In modern companies, fear is often viewed as an undiscussable and taboo emotion. To show fear is to admit weakness, and in our patriarchal organizations weakness is not tolerated. So the leader who not only hides their fear from others, but also from themselves, has no little incentive to experience compassion for the followers who feel fear, trepidation, or insecurity when facing a challenge. A culture then emerges where fear is banished from what is espoused, creating a powerful undertow that erodes at the morale, relatedness, and development of employees, and damages the organization as a whole. I believe that in this way unsurfaced and undiscussable emotions create entropy that organizations have tremendous difficulty diagnosing, let alone overcoming.
“As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his side.” – Gandhi
This encapsulates for me the issues I’ve struggled with in Buddhism. Gandhi, a Hindu, points out that the teachings of one religious leader or another never, ever, trump morality. If you behave in a way that is immoral (or unethical) you are acting against the will of your spiritual practice – REGARDLESS of what your pastor, priest, rabbi, or guru says.
I had a personal falling out with Shambala after I read some of the details of the founder’s behavior. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche did some seriously unethical things in his life. He was promiscuous with his followers, he was known for being verbally abusive, was a raging drunk, and he even encouraged and condoned the promiscuity of his HIV-positive successor, resulting in several people becoming infected. Rinpoche did some amazing things in his life, too, and a lot of his teachings are really wonderful. Now, if you follow Buddhist teaching, everyone is allowed to be a fuck-up. Fucking up is part of what it means to be human. But in my estimation, he took this a step further, and found a way to conveniently sanctify his screw ups. He claimed that a guru could behave in an irrational, abusive, and destructive manner towards his student, if he felt that the student needed that experience to progress in his or her personal growth. He called this “crazy wisdom.” Uh-huh.
Let’s review Gandhi’s quote again, shall we?
“As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his side.”
So do non-theistic Buddhists have a loophole because they have no God to answer to? As a non-theist, I’m going to answer with a resounding “no.” If anything, we non-theists should understand with perfect clarity how important it is to strive to be ethical and compassionate in our lives, since we don’t have a strong belief in a post-mortality cosmic spanking or reward. What you do on earth matters, because as far as we know, it’s all we have. If you’re unkind, cruel, or abusive towards another person, no matter how “enlightened” you are, I don’t believe that it’s justifiable. I’m not saying that you can be a teacher and never hurt someone’s feelings. We’re not talking about being truthful, we’re talking about being deliberately hurtful.
Since the Buddah said that the first noble truth of life is suffering, I believe that life presents us enough opportunities to suffer and then grow, without some crazy-ass guru screwing with us. Call me crazy. Just don’t call me crazy-wise.
There are countless examples throughout human history of a movement, religion, or organization deciding at some point that it supersedes the boundaries of morality. We all know, in retrospect anyway, that the Spanish Inquisition, the concentration camps, and 80’s hairstyles were all fundamentally wrong (okay maybe not the last one, but you know what I mean).
I had a point here. What was it? Oh, right. No matter what you believe, you don’t get a golden ticket that says you can turn your ethical decision making process over to someone else. And even if you think you do, you don’t. Whether you have to answer to a God at the end of your life, or just your own conscience, your actions are your own.