It was tough watching parts of London burn a few weeks ago. My son Dominic, who was roaming around Camden on one of the nights, told me that the looters he saw on the streets were intent on breaking into shops to steal Nike trainers and mobile phones.
It was also tough watching bankers award themselves significant bonuses again this year and pay themselves extraordinary salaries compared with almost all other jobs in our society.
These are not unrelated events. It seems to me that at the heart of both is the simple refrain ‘because I can’. At that moment in time in Camden High Street, it was possible for people to steal Nike trainers and mobile phones, and some chose to do so, because they could. And at that same moment, it was possible for bankers to pay themselves large bonuses, and some chose to do so, because they could.
Whether it’s trainers or bonuses, it’s about seizing the opportunity, making the most of today. It’s not just looters and bankers who are taking action on the basis of ‘because I can’. The trainers the looters stole are branded with the slogan ‘Just do it’, and the shampoo they use could well have come from the brand that tells them ‘because I’m worth it’
When I wrote The Shift last year, I talked about the increasing need in the future to build sustainability into our lives, our communities and our companies. I’ve been reflecting on this as these two events have infolded over the summer. I’m reminded of Dov Seidman, CEO of LRN, who in his book How described the way that two competing kinds of values are being played out in our lives, our societies and our corporations. He called these ‘situational’ and ‘sustainable’ values.
It was situational values we saw played out this summer. Actions were taken based on the calculation of what is available in the here and now and then how best to exploit these short term opportunities – whether it is the Nike shoes in a looted shop, or bonuses in an industry that’s used to dipping into the trillions that washes around it. It’s about calculating what we can or cannot do in any given situation – and what we saw this summer in these two events was ‘because I can’.
Sure, if your pals are picking up Nike shoes – you can do the same. And if the banking industry is paying out big bonuses this year again and you are a banker – you can do the same. The ‘because I can’ is essentially a question taking place in an amoral space. The calculation is “can I do it?” “Can I do it right now?” It’s about making the best bet right now. So the emphasis is always on the short term and the optimization of current options.
When our actions take place in a moral rather than an amoral space, the question is not what can I do? but what should I do?
Over the coming months, we will see severe sentences passed out in the UK courts for people caught looting Nike shoes in Camden High Street. The hope of the courts is that demonstrating the tough consequences of looting will force people to recalculate the question of “Can I do it?” by factoring in the severe punishment of being caught. But this is essentially addressing the ‘situational values’
Sustainable values, those that address the question “Should I do it?”, have their foundation not in the perceived consequences of actions, but rather from a much deeper belief about what is right and wrong. These beliefs come primarily from how we see others behave; in other words, the role models we see in our society.
Whether it’s bankers, government representatives or celebrities, these are the role models that are creating the values in our society. And if they are seen as short-term opportunists operating on the basis of “because I can”, let’s not be surprised that our sustainable values are eroding.
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