Over the break, I read David Brooks 2015 book, The Road to Character. I had been meaning to get to this for a while, not least because I use an NPR interview with Brooks about the book in the strategic management class I teach on values:
The book emphasizes the importance of building a character-based moral life, mostly via profiles of people who have lived such lives (e.g., Ida Stover Eisenhower, mother of Dwight Eisenhower, or George C. Marshall). Brooks refers to this moral life as one that is "internally-oriented," rather than "externally-oriented." The difference is in how you conduct yourself on a day-to-day basis. To live an externally-oriented life, for example, it is necessary to "cultivate your strengths" and seek recognition for those strengths in objectively-acknowledged achievements (i.e., cv-building). In order to live an internally-oriented life (a life of character), however, it is instead essential that we "confront our weaknesses" and use the lessons learned to build loving, trust-based relationships.
As well as profiling various upstanding people, Brooks spends a lot of the book building an argument about the extent to which we have moved away from raising children to idealize values and, instead, to focus on meritocratic achievement – what he terms the culture of "the big me." Here are just a few of the statistics Brooks uses to demonstrate how our priorities, as a society, have changed during this shift:
- "… in 1950, the Gallup Organization asked high school seniors if they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12 percent said yes. The same question was asked in 2005, and this time it wasn't 12 percent who considered themselves important, it was 80 percent." (p6)
- "The median narcissism score has risen 30 percent in the last two decades. Ninety-three percent of young people score higher than the middle score just twenty years ago. … Fame used to rank low as a life's ambition for most people. In a 1976 survey that asked people to list their life goals, fame ranked fifteenth out of sixteen. By 2007, 51 percent of young people reported that being famous was one of their top personal goals." (p7)
- "In 1966, only about 19 percent of high school students graduated with an A or A- average. By 2013, 53 percent of students graduated with that average, according to UCLA surveys of incoming college freshmen. Young people are surrounded by so much praise that they develop sky-high aspirations for themselves. According to an Ernst & Young survey, 65 percent of college students expect to become millionaires." (pp.254-255)
The consequence for the CSR debate is that we are building weaker communities. In their place, we are instead fostering a stronger sense of individual self-worth – the idea that I do not need others because I am capable of generating 'the best answer' on my own:
"But if you proudly believe the truest answers can be found in the real you, the voice inside, then you are less likely to become engaged with others. Sure enough, there has been a steady decline in intimacy. Decades ago, people typically told pollsters that they had four or five close friends, people to whom they could tell everything. Now the common answer is two or three, and the number of people with no confidants has doubled. Thirty-five percent of older adults report being chronically lonely, up from 20 percent a decade ago. At the same time, social trust has declined. Surveys ask, 'Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?' In the early 1960s, significant majorities said that people can generally be trusted. But in the 1990s the distrusters had a 20-percentage-point margin over the trusters, and those margins have increased in the years since."
There needs to be a strong "S" in "CSR." It is essential to define the boundaries of acceptable behavior within which corporations can be held to account, but those boundaries need to be defined by the group, together, not a bunch of atomistic individuals, separately. Without the strong S (i.e., social/society), there is nothing for corporations to be responsible to.
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