When I noted Thomas Edison’s birthday recently, and pointed readers to the two classic old movies about Tom as a man and boy, reader Chris Marschner wrote,
It doesn’t stop with the great scientists and inventors. A lot of the great leaders, political, military, business, arts, and otherwise, were TERRIBLE at human relations and dreadful even as colleagues. A random sampling might include:
1. FDR – a sociopath and an adulterer.
2. Churchill – a heavy-handed functional alcoholic.
3. Clemenceau – anti-clerical bully who married one of his students.
4. Ataturk – Brute, racist, alcoholic, looked the other way on genocide.
5. Bismarck – “blood and iron.”
1. Rockefeller – intentionally drove competitors out of business, monopolist.
2. Henry Ford – anti-Semite, conspiracy theorist, Nazi sympathizer.
3. Andrew Carnegie – anti-religious bully, deliberate indifference to poor conditions on his watch.
4. George Pullman – tried to set himself up as king as well as boss of his workers.
5. James “Diamond Jim” Brady – glutton, playboy.
6. Howard Hughes – one word: Yikes!
1. Douglas MacArthur – the only difference between him and God was that God didn’t think he was MacArthur.
2. George Patton – a warrior who couldn’t live in peacetime, his own staff despised him.
3. Joseph Joffre – indifferent, borderline incompetent, very little regard for the lives of his men.
4. Horatio Nelson – extremely poor treatment of his wife, who never did him wrong.
5. Joe Stilwell – “Vinegar Joe.”
1. Richard Wagner – tenth-rate human being all around.
2. W.A. Mozart- tortured genius who sometimes tortured others.
3. Johannes Brahms – dark genius who was more at home with music than relationships.
4. Anton Bruckner – macabre, possible pedophile.
5. Rimsky-Korsakov – nasty drunk.
I nearly answered, “Don’t get me started on actors, singers, artists and directors!”
Or, for that matter, Presidents of the United States.
However, this is a serious and confounding problem in ethics. History teaches us that our greatest achievers often not only give very little priority to ethics, but that a strong argument could be mounted that a concern for ethics would have seriously curtailed their positive effect on human progress and society. Is this, in some ways, a direct challenge to the position, my position, that it is every human being’s duty to strive to live by ethical values and decision-making. It is indeed.
In Philip Zimbardo’s list of advice for avoiding corruption and keeping one’s ethical compass strong, he writes, “Engage in life as fully as possible, yet be aware, attentive, and prepared to change direction” and “Avoid situations where you lose contact with your social support and informational networks, for the most powerful forces of social influence thrive then. Never allow yourself to be cut off emotionally from your familiar and trusted reference groups of family, friends, neighbors, co-workers.”
This is solid advice for keeping one’s ethical values in working order, but not necessarily practical advice for someone who wants to conquer the world, or any segment of it. Personal motivation experts always advise us to set a goal, a mission, and focus all of our attention, energies, talents and efforts toward accomplishing it, with as few distractions and diversions as possible. The more focus, the more success. Tony Robbins and the rest aren’t wrong. That is, and has always been, the formula for accomplishing great things. Unfortunately, it is also a formula for becoming a rotten human being.
Life is chaos; indeed human existence is the perfect embodiment of a non-linear system that defies prediction and control. Anything and everything can change the course of any single life; the trick is to be able to adapt to what the chaotic universe throws at you and stay on track. On track, however, for what and to what?
Survival in a chaotic system requires some point of reference that will endure no matter what happens. Think of it as the navigation system of a passenger airline. The computer sets up a course, but the airplane can seldom stick to it exactly, thanks to wind, weather, air currents and exigencies, but the course is always there as a point of reference, and the pilot’s job is to keep getting back on the course, whatever it is. In life, we all require a linear constant of some kind to keep us from flying out of control, changing goals and directions, wasting time and energy:
That linear constant can be anything. The important thing is to have one, and if you want it to work for you, stick to it to the exclusion of all else. One of the great benefits of religion is that it provides pre-packaged linear constants for the average person who might not have the time, talent, ambition or education to develop another one. Amway, in its heyday, proved that if your linear constant was making money and gaining material things, you didn’t have to be a genius to accomplish that goal, just be willing to exploit your friends, relatives and neighbors. Achieving power can be a linear constant. Being a great lawyer is a linear constant: Clarence Darrow was a terrible employer, husband, father and friend, but he achieved great things through the law. Ted Williams’ linear constant was to become the greatest hitter in baseball history, and he almost achieved it. Late in life, however, he confessed that he may have given up too much of the rest, perhaps the best, of life to follow his dream: he too was ruthless and callous to the people around him.
Society and the culture benefit greatly from those special individuals.whose linear constants through chaos drive them to be productive, creative and successful. From a utilitarian perspective, ironically, although they sacrifice ethics to stay on course, that sacrifice may benefit civilization as a whole enough to make their non-ethical constant ethical in the end. It is a conundrum. If everyone followed an ethical linear constant, the world might be a worse place for all of us.