The tar­nished golden rule

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

“Do unto oth­ers as you would have them do unto you.” What a sim­ple and log­i­cal concept – a straight­for­ward way to re­solve knotty moral dilem­mas. Yet, at a time when dis­tin­guish­ing right from wrong seems to be more dif­fi­cult than ever, this clas­sic pos­tu­late – the “Golden Rule” – seems to be go­ing out of fash­ion.

The eth­i­cal norm of rec­i­proc­ity per­vades hu­man his­tory, be­gin­ning with the an­cient civil­i­sa­tions in Egypt, Greece, In­dia and China. It is among the only in­tel­lec­tual threads that con­nect the teach­ings of vir­tu­ally ev­ery ma­jor re­li­gion and those of philoso­phers through the ages, from clas­si­cal Rome’s Seneca the Younger to Jean-Jac­ques Rousseau and John Locke, and on to JeanPaul Sartre and John Rawls.

The Golden Rule is the back­bone of our mod­ern un­der­stand­ing of uni­ver­sal hu­man rights and forms the core of the mod­ern so­cial con­tract. It is the start­ing point of our in­ter­ac­tions with one another within our com­mu­ni­ties and on a global ba­sis. It un­der­pins the rise of to­day’s shar­ing econ­omy, ex­em­pli­fied by Uber and Airbnb. It even guides our per­sonal re­la­tion­ships.

But the Golden Rule is un­der as­sault, and those with the most in­flu­ence are lead­ing the charge. Politi­cians, even in the world’s sup­pos­edly en­light­ened democ­ra­cies, are re­fus­ing to pro­vide refuge to des­per­ate peo­ple flee­ing bru­tal war; mak­ing lit­tle, if any, ef­fort to ad­dress high and rising eco­nomic in­equal­ity; and are all but ig­nor­ing the fac­tors driv­ing civil-rights move­ments like Amer­ica’s Black Lives Mat­ter.

This lack of em­pa­thy is fright­en­ing, and it is not lim­ited to pol­i­tics. At a time when business has mas­sive – per­haps even ex­ces­sive – in­flu­ence world­wide, com­pa­nies, in their drive for profit or power, often dis­re­gard their own so­ci­etal obli­ga­tions.

Con­sider the case of Ther­a­nos, a biotech com­pany founded by El­iz­a­beth Holmes in 2003 that promised to rev­o­lu­tionise blood tests. For sev­eral years, the com­pany’s “Edi­son” blood-test­ing de­vices were lauded as ground­break­ing. Ther­a­nos boasted rep­utable fi­nan­cial back­ers, part­ner­ships with a large num­ber of phar­ma­cies, and a board that seemed very im­pres­sive on pa­per. Its val­u­a­tion sky­rock­eted to $9 bil­lion.

Last year, the truth came out: Ther­a­nos was all smoke and mir­rors. Not only were the vast ma­jor­ity of the lab tests the com­pany of­fered con­ducted on tra­di­tional ma­chines; many of the re­sults it was pro­duc­ing were in­ac­cu­rate. In fact, it later emerged that Ther­a­nos had stopped us­ing the Edi­son ma­chines al­to­gether in the sum­mer of 2015, and had voided re­sults from them that had been is­sued since 2014, send­ing tens of thou­sands of cor­rected re­ports to physi­cians and pa­tients.

But Ther­a­nos could not void the dam­age. It was, af­ter all, in the health-care in­dus­try; it wasn’t sell­ing socks or soap. Its mis­takes had real-world con­se­quences for the many pa­tients who had based their health de­ci­sions on er­ro­neous data.

It is hard to fathom the hubris and cal­lous dis­re­gard for hu­man be­ings that en­ables a CEO and man­age­ment team to play with peo­ple’s health and hopes in such a man­ner. Holmes, who was tout­ing her com­pany’s trans­parency and rev­el­ling in its mas­sive val­u­a­tion long af­ter she knew that the Edi­son ma­chines were not cut­ting it, did not just break the Golden Rule; she melted it down.

And she has plenty of com­pany. The Panama Pa­pers – the leaked files of the world’s fourth-largest off­shore law firm, Mos­sack Fon­seca – pro­vided a glimpse of the lengths to which peo­ple go to hide their as­sets and avoid pay­ing taxes. Ma­jor multi­na­tion­als like Ap­ple, Ama­zon, and Star­bucks have struc­tured their busi­nesses to min­imise taxes to such an ex­tent that they are now fac­ing sanc­tions from the likes of the Euro­pean Union. The New York Times re­cently dis­closed that US pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump is a tax-avoid­ance en­thu­si­ast, as well.

Trump calls tax avoid­ance “smart.” Most peo­ple, in­clud­ing me, call it self­ish, in­sid­i­ous, ir­re­spon­si­ble, and a breach of the so­cial con­tract that en­abled him and his fam­ily to ac­crue their wealth in the first place. Any so­ci­ety that made a virtue out of his reck­less and self-serv­ing be­hav­iour could not func­tion, much less pros­per.

Yet such be­hav­iour is in­creas­ingly com­mon, with se­ri­ous con­se­quences. In the United King­dom, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers stoked fears and made im­pos­si­ble prom­ises – ul­ti­mately bring­ing about a vote to “Brexit” the EU. The new pres­i­dent of the Philip­pines, Ro­drigo Duterte, has launched what is es­sen­tially a war on hu­man rights, while pur­su­ing an iso­lat­ing path of ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour to­ward other coun­tries.

The Trump cam­paign may be col­laps­ing un­der the weight of its stan­dard-bearer’s per­sonal his­tory; but an im­por­tant rea­son it got this far is that it ad­vanced the lie that Amer­i­can work­ers would ben­e­fit from the con­struc­tion of a wall – both lit­eral and metaphor­i­cal – around the coun­try. The truth, how­ever, is that Trump’s iso­la­tion­ist ap­proach – which will not die with his de­feat next month – would have the op­po­site im­pact. The rec­i­proc­ity norm has been vir­tu­ally om­nipresent since the dawn of hu­man civil­i­sa­tion. Yet we can­not take it for granted. We must not lose sight of its value, in our per­sonal or pro­fes­sional lives, and we must not al­low our lead­ers to do so, ei­ther.

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