A reflection on roots and responsibilities

September 3, 2012
Filed under Ethics

John Dalla Costa writes that most of us, as we mature in our moral sensibilities, recognize that our rights entail responsibilities. Philosopher Simone Weil, Dalla Costa argues,  saw this sequence reversed. Obligations, she argued, are the preconditions for rights — the necessary precursor to create the surplus of loyalty and goodwill of mutuality  . . .

John Dalla Costa

by John Dalla Costa

In the late stages of the Second World War, when it was obvious that Germany would be defeated and France liberated, the young philosopher Simone Weil began to prepare a framework for healing the great rifts that had opened up in France.

Her book on post-war rehabilitation and reconciliation was entitled The Need for Roots. The war, in her view, did not so much unsettle French society as accelerate threats and vulnerabilities that had been erupting long before. Because of inept government, the clash between industrialists and trade unions, and many other social and economic pressures unleashed by the Great Depression, Weil believed that her compatriots were suffering from a breakdown in mutual loyalty. She called this denial of obligation to one another “spiritual suicide.”

“Roots” was Weil’s metaphor for culture, politics, social capital and ethics — recognizing that our being from a place, and of a place, is prerequisite for our being in relation, and therefore exercising integrity. Paradoxical needs for both order and liberty, for both responsibility and equality, for both private and collective property, and for risk and truth, pivot on these capacities for mutual loyalty.

The fissures perplexing French society in the aftermath of war are not dissimilar from those challenging us today as managers, consumers and citizens in this crisis-plagued stage in globalization. We too have seen loyalty disintegrate, especially in the relationship between companies and workers, but also between companies and their founding or host communities. As consumers, our preference for the lowest possible price has, in that same way, made us disloyal to neighbors who were displaced by outsourcing production to regions with the lowest wages.

At a time when many of her compatriots were clamoring for revenge or vilifying those who held different political or social views, Weil believed the way forward required parties on all sides to recover a sense of obligation towards one another, retrieving the community’s proudest and most meaningful principles in order to create a basis for shared future endeavors.

In his book, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands, Rakesh Khurana describes the emergence of what scholars and philosophers have called “loose individuals.” Trained in business schools that largely subscribe to the view that management is amoral or values-neutral, managers operate without any “shared agreement about basic societal values” — and without any “meaningful language for civic discourse about the ultimate purpose of our secular institutions.”

Like mercenaries, these “loose managers” have no roots, no commitment to place from which to draw moral memory — or to connect with others who share mutual duties and obligations for sustenance, security, and success. Confident in their technical mastery, they don’t feel “constrained by norms arising from social values such as fairness or equity, or by allegiance to social institutions such as nations, firms, or even jobs. Such individuals lack any sense of moral responsibility, often playing fast and loose with the other individuals in relationships of trust and responsibility.”

Even if one happens to be rooted in a job and at home in a community, one cannot but help absorb the norms at work which determine one’s place, status and potential rewards. Those of us who go along with questionable conduct are mercenaries as well, sequestering what we do for a living from its actual impacts on where we live.

The mercenary tendencies of loose managers trickle down, legitimating mercenary consumerism, and self-justifying an increasingly mercenary society. We buy products from anywhere without any connection to the hands and hearts of those who made them. As Weil recognized, loyalty to only one’s self-interest, or loyalty to only one’s own rights, keeps us in the perpetual competitive conflict that inevitably undermines those very self-interests and rights. Mercenaries are highly proficient at winning by destroying, but they have a very poor historical track record for succeeding by sharing and creating.

Most of us, as we mature in our moral sensibilities, recognize that our rights entail responsibilities. Weil’s exacting and troublesome genius was to see this sequence has reversed. Obligations, she argued, are the preconditions for rights — the necessary precursor to create the surplus of loyalty and goodwill of mutuality in which rights take hold and flourish. T.S. Eliot described Weil as “the first post-modern saint” because she was one of the first to recognize that the Enlightenment story of shared purpose from progress has been shattered — and that in the absence of an ordering narrative, we needed to at least begin seeding a new basis of commonality and community from our shared obligations.

John Dalla Costa is funding director of the Centre for Ethical Orientation, a Toronto-based consultancy providing ethics, governance and integrity services.

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