Last year, I wrote a post titled, The Art of Being Wrong, which I initially published as a newsletter article in 2006 and which has become very popular. The reason, I’m speculating, that it’s been so widely read is that the propensity to defend our own beliefs – as opposed to willingly entertaining new ones – is so easy to identify with. We all do it. Even when we know better, it’s still instinctive to most people to defend first and consider the consequences later. Someone who commented on the post stated, “Of course it applies to others, not to me. I’m right almost all the time. See, I said ‘almost'”.

That’s why I’d like to explore another angle to this phenomenon – the power of vested self-interest. Upton Sinclair, the American author who wrote The Jungle (an expose on the meat packing industry) back in 1906, once commented that, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it”.

Over a century later, a cursory inspection of some of the mutually beneficial relationships between government officials and various businesses (only a few of which make the news) shows just how true this is. Fortunately, Congress and state legislatures have taken at least some steps to dissuade either side from too egregiously abusing these relationships.

But there’s another kind of self-interest that is protected perhaps even more than financial. Unfortunately, it’s also one that is far more difficult to moderate. It’s our moral code; the very foundation upon which most of us make our decisions and run our lives.

For most people, myself included, there is a very strong propensity to look at the filters and lenses through which we view the world as being the most informed, the fairest, and, for the most part, the best for society at large. To support this opinion, I look at cumulative results of a survey we are conducting on employee perceptions of respect in the workplace. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the vast majority of respondents rate their own behaviors as being more respectful towards others than they do those of either their leaders or their peers.

Unlike financial self-interest (typically the basis of “conflict of interest”), which most people would agree needs to be moderated, there is relatively little in place to protect various groups from the pursuit of moral self-interest. In fact, many people organize and band together to not only promote their version of what’s “right”, but, in many cases, to codify it and attempt to make it the standard of behavior for everyone else. We engage in these activities through our religious institutions, a plethora of non-profit organizations, special “interest” groups, and even our political affiliations. These associations, in fact, add legitimacy to our efforts and allow us to further wrap ourselves in the “correctness” of our beliefs. When that doesn’t work, some even rationalize their own amoral behaviors by linking them back to moral ends that are more broadly accepted.

The end result is always the same. Hostility.

Sometimes it’s overt, but more often than not, it’s subversive, cloaked and “dressed up” to make it more presentable. It takes the form of character attacks, gossip and innuendo, demonization, “jokes”, or other disparaging comments aimed at specific individuals or groups, selective denial of freedoms, and/or selective access to resources and privileges. Even if legal, all of these activities are uncivil, socially damaging, and cause real harm, physical and/or emotional, to real people.

The question we should ask ourselves each morning is this: “Can I live my life in a manner that is consistent with my own truths and still leave room for everyone else to do the same?”

This concept seems to be simple on the surface, but is so challenging to embrace in practice. Why? Because it turns out that many of our truths, mine included, contain “baggage” that allows (or even requires) us to impose our moral code on others. Over the entire span of recorded human history, the assumption of moral superiority has never led to anything except pain and suffering. Today, in a global community made up of cultures that are getting squished closer together every day, this is baggage we can no longer afford to carry.

At the end of the day, the pursuit of those things which we deem to be best for ourselves (and those for whom we’re responsible) is as old as our species itself. But what separates human beings from other animals is our ability to reason, reflect and, albeit with some difficulty, to change behaviors based upon what’s good for society at large. Our challenge today is to cast that social net as broadly and inclusively as possible. If not, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”