Exploring our Social Values

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Our society is divided into many divergent, uncompromising factions. And we are regularly reminded that success in today’s world depends on our own drive and ambition. We cannot trust the “others”. If we are asked how to develop this independence and isolation, our political and business leaders will point to certain literature that encapsules these values. We are encouraged to develop the philosophy and attitudes given in such classics as The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli and The Art of War by Sun Tzu.

The Prince presents the case for immoral, unethical, and deceptive acts by leaders who claim that their means justify their ends. Leaders (princes) are not bound by normal considerations of respect, justice, and truth. The suggestion is that our political and business leaders should emulate the Prince in their dealings with the public, including their followers.

The Art of War is an ancient Chinese military text. It focuses on skills such as deception, espionage, delay, and deceit. The book has become popular among politicians and business managers as a manual for success.

In both of these works, contemporary business and political leaders find techniques and methods to defeat their competition or opponent. Their methods are based on “winning is all that matters”, losers deserve their lot.

Noticeable, but perhaps understandable, is the absence of certain other classics such as The Complaint of Peace by Desiderus Erasmus and Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution by Peter Kropotkin. Each book presents, in a unique way, alternatives to “victory at any cost” presumptions of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu.

In The Complaint of Peace, Erasmus has Peace condemn the nature of war. She points out that “if you detest robbery and pillage, remember these are among the duties of war; and that, to learn how to commit them, is a part of military discipline.” She recommends that “after so long and sad experience of the evils of war, repent and be wise.” In essence Erasmus points out the wretched consequences of a war-like mentality.

Kropotkin begins Mutual Aid by exploring mutual aid and reciprocity in nature. In nature, different species of animal cooperate as they deal with harsh environments and scarce resources.

He then proceeds to document cooperation in different human societies. His conclusion is that cooperation and mutual aid create a better society than one that seeks advantage for the most powerful.

What Erasmus and Kropotkin demonstrate is that our culture of conflict and disagreement should not be the dominant one. Today’s conflicts are not just international. Countries and societies are divided by political, racial, religious, and economic divisions. Any attempt to make meaningful change must include an examination of the sources of our values and guides to action. And here is where the choice of authors and their perceptions is significant. Peace and cooperation can be more meaningful than power and greed.