Authored by Andre van Heerden
What is there to please us in this world? Everywhere we see sorrow and lamentation. The cities and towns are destroyed, the fields are laid waste and the land returns to solitude. No peasant is left to till the fields, there are few inhabitants left in the cities, and yet even these scanty remnants of humanity are still subject to ceaseless sufferings…Some are led away captive, others are mutilated, and still more slain before our eyes. What is there then to please us in this world?
~ Gregory of Tours (538-594AD) in The History of the Franks
The Dark Ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe were the consequence of the triumph of barbarism on the part of the Romans as much as on the side of the invaders. As the famous Spanish thinker, Jose Ortega y Gasset, told us:
“Barbarism is the absence of standards to which an appeal can be made”
It seems disturbingly obvious that the erosion of standards in our world today explains why we are descending into a dark age more ominous than that witnessed by Gregory of Tours.
The absence of standards, or any solid grounding for standards, is at the heart of the global leadership crisis. It is the failure of people in positions of authority to set and maintain civilised standards that is the cause of the confusion, conflict, and chaos that characterise our deeply troubled world, as is seen in the home, workplace, community, and society at large.
That there is a global leadership crisis is obvious. In politics, think only Brexit, the Disunited States of America, the Gilets Jaunes, Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and the irresponsible calls for an ill-defined borderless world. In business, think only massive disengagement rates, persistent ethical failures, the automation conundrum, and the inhumane advocacy of UBI. In communities, think only broken families, homelessness, the decline of the middle class, loneliness and the mental health mushroom, the opioid crisis, and chronic social dysfunction. These and many other human tragedies persist because of a lack of leadership at all levels of society.
The purpose of leadership is human flourishing. Promoting war, slavery, economic exploitation, racism, sexism, environmental degradation, and the like, is not leadership, but misleadership, using and abusing people for personal gain or ideological advantage. And that is what we see everywhere.
So what has to be done to promote human flourishing? In short, it entails encouraging and enabling people to fulfill their human potential, to be the best that they can be. The starting point in terms of leadership has to be an inspirational vision that lets people see the future state of fulfillment they are being asked to pursue.
They then need to know the strategy, that is, how they are going to get there. And finally, they need to understand the attitudes, personal conduct, and actions that will help achieve the goal, as well as those that will impede progress. Those that will help achieve the goal must be the standards to which people have to commit themselves if they sincerely wish to be part of the effort to achieve the human flourishing envisioned.
The important thing to note here is that standards are a moral category, that is if they are understood to be about doing good and not doing harm to oneself or other people. Their purpose should be to secure the good of people; their violation must be known to do damage to people, both victims, and offenders, because one cannot harm another human being without degrading one’s own humanity.
But what are the right standards? This is where western civilisation has been derailed, and where leadership has been struggling for answers for more than two centuries. The widespread disagreement about standards in communities of all types, and the moral confusion that undermines relationships of every kind, have a very well-documented history. This htory makes plain why the West today is hopelessly tangled up in ethical inconsistencies and contradictions that make the identification of standards seemingly impossible.
Take any western city today, and consider the cultural diversity on the streets, in the workplace, in neighbourhoods, and schools. Multicultural society, by definition, is an assortment of different sets of standards: secular humanist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Confucian, all with their own divisions, plus the many racial and ethnic cultures that have been brought together under the allegedly culturally-neutral regime of liberal democracy. And the increasingly fractious ideological divisions within liberal democracy itself exacerbate the confusion.
The volatile mix of contending worldviews is supposed to be kept in a state of benign equilibrium by two philosophically bankrupt unwritten rules. First, religion is deemed to be a purely private affair that must be excluded from the public square. Secondly, the state is deemed to be the supreme authority in all areas of communal life.
Taking the second rule first, this is to say that the political class and the socio-economic elite from which it is drawn, are in a position to assert, amend, and abolish standards at will, according to whatever their agenda might be at any given time. Arbitrary oligarchic tyranny makes nonsense of the very idea of standards, for as G K Chesterton told us, if we change our standards, there can be no improvement because progress entails standards.
But more serious is the smokescreen the elites put up to conceal their power grab. The secular humanist worldview, we are told, is entirely neutral and therefore able to maintain the peace between the contending worldviews of the modern plural society.
However, the inescapable reality is that a neutral worldview is an oxymoron; there is no such thing. Even if the worldview of the socio-economic elite is malleable according to whatever their agenda demands, that very cynicism is anything but neutral in relation to those who hold different worldviews. In fact, the elite class very plainly imposes its “values” on society at large day in and day out.
As has been obvious since the beginning of civilisation, if there is no higher law, no ultimate standard of justice, to which rulers can be held accountable, then might is right and tyranny is inevitable. This explains why the secular humanist elites insist that religion must be excluded from the public square because every faith holds up its own conception of the same reality – the transcendent rule of justice to which all people, the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, must be held accountable. For all their differences, the great religions all affirm the reality of a higher law.
The widespread moral confusion and uneasy multicultural tensions, far from being problems for western ruling elites, are actively cultivated by them in implementing their divide-and-conquer strategy. State schooling and the complicity of the media and academia ensure that whenever blatantly contradictory ‘standards’ are dredged up to justify some questionable policy or other, there is little by way of reasoned public debate to address the ever-proliferating anomalies.
And this is not an argument about Left and Right in politics; the danger is on all sides. Whenever you encounter a politician or business executive who disavows permanent standards, you can be sure that you are in the presence of a charlatan.
The rapidly increasing public frustration and anger across the western world are entirely predictable responses to this socially destructive anti-culture that has blanketed an entire civilisation and now threatens to transform it in ways wholly inimical to human flourishing. The effects of the absence of standards to which an appeal can be made are readily apparent in every walk of life today.
Is there a way out of this moral morass? The short answer is “Yes!”
The word morality signifies principles that distinguish right from wrong, or good from bad conduct.
Trouble is that the morality of most people in the West today is emotivist, that is, giving primacy to one’s personal feelings, so that morality simply refers to an individual’s grab-bag of “personal values”, whatever they choose regarding social conduct. People today unthinkingly classify impromptu judgments, unexamined ideas, and selfish behaviour in terms of morality, unaware that the concept is a modern error, gaining currency only in the Enlightenment, little more than two hundred years ago.
Neither Latin nor ancient Greek had a word that carried the same meaning as our word ‘moral’. The Latin word ‘moralis’ and the Greek word ‘ethikos’ referred to a person’s character, understood as the predisposition to conduct oneself in a way that was good for both the individual and the community. In other words, to practice the virtues of prudence or practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance or rational self-direction.
Over time, the meaning of the English word ‘moral’ made a semantic shift from ‘practical’ to ‘honourable’, and then the Enlightenment thinkers set about trying to distinguish rational moral imperatives to replace traditional and religious criteria for rightly ordered social conduct.
The abject failure of the Enlightenment thinkers and their intellectual heirs to provide a rational justification for the moral standards they hold to be the right ones explains the moral confusion and disagreements about standards endemic in our world today. In political debates, business meetings, and classroom discussions, you hear only the cacophony of emotivist, utilitarian, contractualist, and Kantian viewpoints, irate and irreconcilable.
If the Enlightenment thinkers proved anything, they proved the impossibility of inventing a new morality based solely on reason. What is good for human beings and what is bad for them has never changed because human nature never changes.
Dishonesty undermined relationships in the China of Confucius just as it does in China today. Violence and intimidation were as inimical to human flourishing in the Egypt of the pharoahs as they are in Egypt today. Greed and corruption were as fatal to ancient Greece as they are in contemporary Greece. Sexual profligacy was as destructive of families and communities in imperial Rome as they are in modern Rome.
Different cultures in different times and places were developed in response to the realities of the human condition, and whatever deficiencies they may have, they cannot be easily swept away. Religion, culture, and tradition are empirical facts about humanity that need to be treated with understanding, empathy, and respect. Only then is one able to gauge whether they are destructive of human fulfilment.
The principle on which we must erect our standards is plain; it is the timeless imperative to promote human flourishing. Where one finds human degradation instead of flourishing, the age-old standards are being violated, and we all know it when we see it.
Abuse of women and children is degradation; drug addiction is degradation; overworking and underpaying workers is degradation; brainwashing young people is degradation; rootlessness is degradation; oligarchic corruption is degradation; sophisticated technologies deployed in the interests of a single social class is degradation. The seemingly endless violations are evidence of a cataclysmic failure.
Business leaders, in particular, have been remiss in allowing this untenable state of affairs to develop, whether through complicity or apathy. The free market economy and parliamentary democracy are both under serious threat, and the nature of doing business of any sort is likely to be dangerously different in the decades ahead.
I have on more than one occasion heard respected but misguided western business executives express admiration for the Chinese model of totalitarian capitalism. If there are no universal standards, on what grounds can their attitude be challenged?
The most obvious rule of life for rational beings is to treat others as you wish to be treated. This basic injunction, the Golden Rule, found in every culture known to man, is not a law passed by any parliament, or decree issued by any dictator. But it is a law accepted in every time and place, and it applies to all human beings, the rich and the poor, the weak and the strong.
It is part of the natural law, a law that transcends the laws passed by human beings, a law that says even rulers and governments can and must be held to account for what they do. The natural law makes it clear that slavery and tyranny are wrong, that the co-existence of excessive wealth and excessive poverty is wrong, that murder, theft, and dishonesty are wrong. Human flourishing demands justice; and justice is only achieved when it is available to all.
There have been enough studies to demonstrate the human flourishing achieved in workplaces and communities where standards ensure that workers have meaningful work instead of drudgery, and personal responsibility instead of intrusive management.
Consider only the work of W. Edwards Deming in the Japanese automotive industry, the stunning educational achievements of Michaela, the state school founded by Katharine Birbalsingh in the UK, the remarkable story of the Sao Paulo favela, Monte Azul, the inspirational business model of Ricardo Semler, and the agricultural vision of Wendell Berry.
Moreover, Emotional Intelligence programs and international corporate codes of conduct actually promote, perhaps unconsciously and sometimes insincerely, the natural law supposedly rejected by Modernity. The ideal of virtue, the very basis of standards and the sine qua non of human flourishing, refuses to go away.
The failure on the part of parents, teachers, business and community leaders, and politicians to set and maintain standards is fuelling the global leadership crisis.
The civilisational conflagration this is fanning will not be turned back by a globalist elite intoxicated by inordinate wealth and power; it will only be defused by courageous leaders in all walks of life who are prepared to defy the cynical nihilist manipulators and re-establish the social and ethical norms that common sense, science, and classical Natural Law identify as the basis of human flourishing.
They will be surprised by the enthusiasm with which their mission is received.