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Voltaire's challenge

by Dr Simon Longstaff
05 November 1994
Voltaire once observed, “History never repeats itself, man always does.” Many will regard this observation as being tinged with both realism and pessimism. Yet, if accepted as true, Voltaire's words would seem to condemn humankind to an endless cycle of mistake. In the end, to believe Voltaire is to be like Cassandra, a true seer cursed never to be believed.

In the current climate, the thought that the same mistakes are repeated over time is a challenging idea. For example, it challenges the belief that the 1980s represented a unique low-point in the history of business and professional conduct.

"... the profiteers insolently and covertly attack the public welfare ... They charge exorbitant prices for merchandise, not just fourfold or eightfold, but on such a scale that human speech cannot find words to characterise their profit and practices."

Or again,

"... those I abhor are the unprincipled men who ... use unethical means to obtain undue profits ... they hoard currency or commodities to force the value up ... I will have nothing to do with such people."

For most, the language will be vaguely familiar. Yet, each quotation is drawn from writings penned in the fourth century CE. The first extract forms part of a decree issued by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 301 CE. The second extract was written at around the same time by the Chinese scholar, Ko Hung.
History allows us to look at where we have been, recognise the footprints that lead to our own time and know that we too can survive it all...
The reason for drawing attention to these observations of, and from, the past is a simple and, one would hope, reassuring one. History allows us to look at where we have been, recognise the footprints that lead to our own time, and know that we too can survive it all, perhaps to be the object of study of an unknown generation of future historians.

While not wanting to suggest that we should return to a position of complacent optimism concerning the prospect of humankind's ultimate perfection, we do suggest that there are reasons to believe that the cycle of history allows for periods of consolidation and correction.

This perspective offers a counter-point to Voltaire's pessimism. As such, it challenges the position of those who hold that the current concern about ethics is nothing more than a fleeting product of recessionary times and that the return to sustained periods of growth will be accompanied by a resurgence of questionable behaviour.

So how might this vicious cycle be broken? One suggestion is to reinstitute a fairly rigorous framework of regulation and surveillance. Yet, there are good reasons to believe that a wholesale return to regulation may be the least sensible option if society truly desires to avoid Voltaire's dictum.
We must be wary of thinking governments can force us to be good – any more than they can force us to be free!
We must be wary of thinking that governments can force us to be good – any more than that they can force us to be free! It may be instructive to cast our minds back two hundred years to France.

The Terror was building to its bloody crescendo in Paris. Still sitting at the centre of the maelstrom, Robespierre believed that the guillotine could be used to cut the cloth of France into a shape fitted for his much proclaimed Republic of Virtue. Robespierre was not some wild-eyed fanatic. He really believed that a system of controls could lead people to be good. And in the France of those days, everything was controlled – prices, wages, movement, even places of worship (with Notre Dame turned over to the new civic deity, the Goddess of Reason).

In his turn, Robespierre was sent to the guillotine. As he mounted the scaffold, I wonder if he realised the utter futility of his project? Too much regulation and surveillance destroys the one thing that people need if they are to be truly virtuous; that is, a sense of personal responsibility. It is because of this that we should be wary of any group or individual claiming to have all the answers and a system to make us good.

Instead of relying on external controls alone, there is a need to develop internal frameworks which reflect the values which organisations (and their key stakeholders) hold to be important. Indeed, even as current management theory propounds the advantages of the knowledge-based companies and industries, the next wave of insight is likely to draw attention to the indispensability of developing an organisation's wisdom base.

Wisdom-based organisations will not walk blindly into ethical death-traps. This is not because the ethical landscape will become any easier to traverse; it will still be a place of greys rather than blacks and whites; a place full of the boggy terrain of conflicting principles and ethical dilemmas. However, an orientation towards wisdom instead of mere knowledge will make people alive to the limitations of technique as a way of securing certainty in this inherently uncertain domain of human being.
Dr Simon Longstaff AO is Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre.