Sunday, January 21, 2007

Codes of Ethics - What History Has To Offer

I have the good fortune of working in a company that has a code of ethics (or conduct). It is also a multicultural, multiethnic company. It is a company which prides itself on its environmental awareness and its commitment to business and personal integrity - in other words, a company of which I can be proud.

Corporate codes of ethics, as well as many statements of principles in government organizations, bills of rights and freedoms - they all generally state their belief in equality and their opposition to discrimination. But we all know that nation states, companies, and individuals in even the most inclusive and tolerant societies harbor racist and bigoted attitudes. It's not just that a few people disagree with the bills of rights, but keep that opinion to themselves. The far more insidious problem is that the vast majority consciously agree with the statement of principles and yet unconsciously display racial behavior and stereotypical opinions.

Jared Diamond believes that education is the solution, especially a large historical overview of human civilization. Education, in this case, means being very clear about the nature of the problem and offering a logical and satisfying answer.

Here's part of the problem. We all know that Eurasians conquered the known world in the last 500 years. Does that mean that Africans, aboriginals, and native North Americans were somehow inferior? I mean, why didn't they beat back the invading European colonialists or cause epidemics to decimate the conquerors rather than the other way around?

Technology is one answer. Those who won had better tools. But if we go back, say to 11,000 B.C., every human society had roughly the same technology and sophistication. Why, over the course of 13,000 years did the Europeans advance so quickly? Historians generally don't have anything to say about this because they are afraid of being labeled racist. But the problem with the silence is that most people assume the answer must have something to do with biology or average IQ level.

This is tough stuff! Diamond believes that the reason racism continues is simply because nobody is proposing a better answer to the often unspoken question. But in his view, advances in our knowledge of molecular biology, plant and animal genetics and biogeography, archeology, and linguistics supply a far more satisfying answer, one that offers the prospect of providing the context for our honorable national and company codes of ethics.

Diamond won a Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction for his book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies in 1998 which outlines what I find to be a very satisfying answer. It is not a definitive answer, mind you (I am finding recently that a theme of good enough or asymptotic reasoning has emerged in my research and writing), but an indicative answer and one that may prove to be more compelling that the lower IQ, less-gifted assumptions many people hold.

Here's the short answer: it's an accident; it's all about luck. There is no inherent superiority among the world's races. Instead, the reason why Eurasians were so successful so quickly is because they had an abundance of domesticated crops and animals and because the east-west orientation of the land mass made the transfer of animals, crops, and technology easy. Bill Gates offers a summary review of Diamond's book which is easily consumed in a few minutes of reading.

My point here is simply to suggest that codes of ethics are important, but more important still is a broad understanding of the history of technology which illustrates how luck and accident account for those distressing inequalities which our codes of ethics seek to mitigate. And, as Bill Gates says, in our age of information technology, luck and accident are not nearly as important as intelligence, skill, and leadership.


Anonymous said...

Don said, " luck and accident account for those distressing inequalities which our codes of ethics seek to mitigate"

I disagree. Based upon my study of history, "luck" had no part in inequalities between, say the USA and most of Africa, in the last 250 years. What has made all of the difference has been the Judeo-Christian Beliefs that were held by a minority of people. This strong minority had such a profound influence on a country that they transferred that Judeo-Christian ethic into the Rule of Law that now exists. It has noting to do with ethics, and everything to do with following God's laws.

Don Spencer said...

My academic background is ABD in intellectual and social history with my masters thesis dealing specifically with Christian reform in the middle ages. I also dealt with Renaissance and Reformation period reform movements extensively. So, I have some sympathy with what you're proposing.

But, as you know, I was specifically targeting racial interpretations for European "success" (some would simply call it imperialism). The biggest problem I have with your suggestion is that there was 2000 years of both minority and majority Christian influence in Europe. The short period of 250-400 years of European expansion (including the entire history of the USA) had to be about far more than Christian influence. Raw materials, technology, crops, farm animals, mineral wealth - all those economic factors were important, probably far more important than Christian ideology.