Shame and Accountability

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shame and accountability

As I write the new book, I’ve been thinking about shame in the context first suggested to me by my college roommate, Donald Munro, who is a retired professor at Michigan. My college roommates periodically meet and at one recent occasion Don was talking about Chinese history, in which he is a great expert. He said that a dominant energy in Chinese society was shame and that it discouraged people from doing things that weren’t acceptable is society.

And I hadn’t really understood that and I’ve since read a lot more of Don’s writing and talked with him and it became clear to me that this was a very powerful element with which I hadn’t really given too much thought. I then turned back to the last thirty or forty years of work on corporate governance and the ongoing effort to try to use carrot and stick to persuade (or force) people to do things that are best for corporate value and societal value. At the end of the day, though, I’ve had to confront the relative lack of success of either of these two routes. It simply hasn’t worked.

That being the case, I began to think that what’s happening here is like what Edith Hamilton talks about in her account of the Athenians — that when people stop being responsible, being willing to be responsible, that was the end of freedom in Athens. And I think that is what we have in the current situation in the United States; that everybody’s generally making a lot of money and they’re very comfortable. Whether it’s 99:1 or not, apparently it’s sufficiently comfortable that we’re not having street riots as they are in other parts of the world.

So the current situation appears to be not so bad – or not bad enough that people are driven to action. And yet what I see from my perspective is that it’s very bad indeed, that we’ve moved from a whole value system based on human and divine values as it were to one that is based on cost benefit ratios and personal gain.

I know that there are many people in our society who understand exactly what’s happening and understand that something’s very wrong. I mean who can look at General Electric paying no taxes and say that’s acceptable? Even the largest enterprise in the world has got to understand that they can’t externalize everything.  Somebody somewhere has to be responsible for something, and yet we sit by and pretend it doesn’t exist.