Friday, September 11, 2009

Andrew Verga, a full-time MBA candidate in the class of 2011, sent this email to his classmates outlining his disagreements with a Sept. 10 speech by former BB&T Corp. CEO John Allison, who is now a distinguished professor of practice at the Wake Forest University Schools of Business. Verga says his intent is to “encourage a dialogue” on the topic of altruism v. self interest.

John Allison is an amazingly intelligent and successful individual. His message is logical and convincing if you accept his premise: "Everyone has the right to their own life." Sounds good, right? Let me ask you this, did your mother and father not sacrifice part of their own life to create you? Didn't your neighbors and teachers and friends all sacrifice part of their lives to develop who you are? Don't we all have a certain responsibility to pay that sacrifice forward?

During his speech, Allison touched on two major philosophical concepts. First, he mentioned Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative. Allison claimed that this concept led to the fascism of the Nazi party because it stressed a sense of duty and responsibility to your community and your nation. This could not be further from the truth. Kant's concept is this: If everyone acts as though their decisions will be made into universal truths, we will all be better people and have a better society. This concept does not require us to blindly follow whatever authority happens to control our community; rather it puts responsibility for the collective well-being on every individual. John Allison is all about personal responsibility, but I am disappointed he misused this great concept to further an agenda of blind, obsessive individualism.

Allison also discussed Aristotle's concept of happiness, that the idea of a "long life well-lived" should be our ultimate goal. He failed to mention that a huge part of Aristotle's definition of "a long life well-lived" is a focus on cultivating "right desires." Aristotle understood that people want what they want and are inclined to go get it. He posited the idea that we should attempt to curb our own desires. The intention is not to deny any of us individual freedom or happiness, but rather to encourage all of us to take each other's happiness into account. During Aristotle's time it was understood that we are all responsible for each other. In the Ancient Greek concept of citizenship, the relationship between the citizen and the city was one of codependence. Everyone who was a member of the "polis" had a personal responsibility for the well-being of the entire population.

The significance of this citizen-polis relationship is a sense of duty. If it is bred into us to care about our fellow citizens (we can still care about ourselves by the way), then public service will be rewarding enough to attract the top minds in a society regardless of financial compensation.

Allison made a point of saying that the government made stupid policy decisions. True. He also made a point of saying that the people at Goldman Sachs are way more intelligent than the people at the Federal Reserve. Also true. I also assume, and I think Allison would agree, that if working at the Fed paid as much as working on Wall Street we would have top minds in government. Why is it that the brilliant minds in our society are dedicated to personal gain instead of public service? Why has our culture come to the point that "individual freedom" is only realized when personal financial gain and security sit at the top of our value hierarchy? The rhetoric of individualism has brought us here.

I am certain that John Allison thinks he is doing a great service by educating people about the financial crisis. I appreciate his words and his expertise on the matter. He certainly understands the global economy much better than I. However, living the "moral high ground" that he mentioned does not mean forgoing personal sacrifice and service. This crisis should not motivate us to turn inward and become even more individualistic. On the contrary, it should motivate us to create better people in the future.

Allison blamed this crisis not only on government policy but on individuals making bad choices. He blamed it on stupid people making stupid decisions. He asked the audience, "Do you want to bail these people out?" Well, it is just not that simple.

Allison mentioned that our K-12 education system is failing. He is absolutely right. Hey, maybe that is one of the reasons there are so many “stupid” people around? Maybe instead of letting them starve to death and live on the streets (he wants to do away with welfare all together, remember?) we should take it as a lesson that we need to educate our citizens better.

People are naturally selfish. Fred wants Johnny's toy in the sandbox. John Allison doesn't want us to think about the reasons behind Fred's lack of a toy. He wants to punish Fred for his parents’ bad decisions. I think we can do better. We all know that any form of social welfare will be abused, but that does not mean it isn't worthwhile. It doesn't mean we can just give up on each other.

Your parents, teachers, friends, and community all sacrificed parts of their lives to support your life. It is our responsibility as individuals to make productive decisions for the community. I apologize for soap boxing to all of you, but I feel it is very important to understand that the world John Allison envisions is a world of dramatic hardship and poverty for billions of people. While social welfare may not be a sustainable answer either, I will sleep better at night knowing that I have helped other people have "long lives well-lived."

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