Money and Morality

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MONEY AND MORALITY: Gifts of eternal truth in moments of the mundane By Cheryl Leis, PhD, Management Consultant/Practical Philosopher As inhabitants of this 21st century Western world, we all have to deal with money. We participate in the world of commerce as a means to obtain those things considered necessities of life. Money plays the role of the most commonly accepted means in this giving and getting from others. And the more money one has, the greater one’s power to regulate the particulars of survival – one’s own and that of others. We use money to participate in the exchange of products or services, individually and corporately – whether employed by or leading an organization. In some cases these organizations are publicly funded non-profits, and in other cases they are private, for-profit ventures. Money and morality is a topic that has surfaced on many occasions in my line of work. One such instance was during a contract with CBC TV to work on the development of a six-part national series titled: “Beautiful, Filthy Money and the Search for Soul.” The title itself speaks to the ambivalent nature of our responses to money and its presence in our lives. As part of the contract, I appeared as a guest on the panel, where I was asked to complete the following sentence: “Money is…” Yes, what is money? My response was: Money is a tool for finding out who we really are. What you do with money, and how you live with money’s presence in your life, tells a lot about your values. Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it: “A dollar is not value, but representative of value, and, at last, of moral values.” This is apparently pretty close to what Buddhists believe about money. There are times when many of us are faced with an imbalance between money and morality and find ourselves asking in some form or another: How we can put “Money” and “Morality” in the same sentence and not end up with an ethical contradiction? The incompatibility of these Mwords is an inherent, yet complex part of being human. And it is only when we face the truth of their incompatibility that we can come to understand the utter necessity of their coexistence. The challenge stems from the fact that there is both a spiritual side and a material side to our situation. When we don’t bring the spiritual side into dialogue with the material side, problems result. This is true for individuals as well as organizations. Think about Enron – what do you think their way of dealing with money says about the moral values that guided senior management there? Each of us could turn the question on our own lives. Money, in and of itself, is neutral. It has no intrinsic value, but is a mere yardstick of value, a means of measuring or comparing in the exchange of one thing for another. Money “belongs to the class of great mental inventions, known as 1 measures…” Measures of distance – the meter or mile – span the gulf between two things or places yet are not themselves things or places. Similarly, money brings things of different value together without becoming one or the other.” Because money is merely a way of measuring, it is in itself, therefore, not real. Thus, money is both neutral and unreal. Nevertheless, we often seem oblivious to this unreal nature of money and equate it with things that are very real, like our own values. But if, as Aristotle says, “[a]ll things that are exchanged 2 must be somehow comparable,” what are we saying about our perception of reality when we measure our sense of self-worth by our net-worth? While money is a measure of value, that value can change depending on what the market is willing to bear. It’s rather similar to the story of the emperor’s new clothes. As soon as we agree something no longer has value, our whole perception of it changes. This change in the perception of the value of something affects humans psychologically and emotionally. So when the value of stocks falls through the floor, people react in fear or paranoia. Conversely, when...
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