Sunday, 18 October 2015

Conscience Keepers - part 1

“When I was at Yale in the mid-1980s, studying at the School of Managment” the man said “Yale University was the conscience keeper of the nation.  Why has this changed today?”

The questioner was a well-dressed middle-aged man, and he was addressing Peter Salovey, the current president of Yale University at a high-tea reception in Mumbai last week.

Salovey’s response was telling.  He made a comment to the effect that “that is not language we would use today” before going on to make a fairly tame (lame?) statement that the university still grappled with hard issues and that students and faculty are dealing are in a dialogue about the challenging topics of the day.

“Conscience keepers” in deed. When I was at Yale in the mid 1990s I actually attended a class where a position was put forward that paediastry was not so bad after all – and who are we to judge adults who are attracted to children.

Conscience only makes sense when we hold to clear values of right and wrong.

Salovey is right to the extent that the language of even talking about conscience-keeping seems quaint and out-dated in a relativistic, make-your-own-values-as-you-go-along world that the university champions today.

But surely today is when we need consciences the most?

Consider the fall of the mighty Volkswagen car company.

Over my lifetime, VW has grown from strength to strength from being the ‘cute’ German car company to a global monster of a firm.  Last year it was ranked as the largest automobile company in the world by revenues (US$ 220 billion – 5 billion US$ more than Toyota). 

A dear friend of mine is a manager for exports of a needle roller bearing company in India which supplies many of the large auto-makers in the world.  He has told me about the stringent standards that the big car companies demand of them as suppliers – and how quality control does not only end up with the final product meeting a raft of different specifications, but how the car-companies actually have their staff come and inspect the supplier’s factories and do quality audits in the actual manufacturing plants that his company runs.  For a big company, if there is a recall of cars for any reason, it means huge losses.  And so they want to make sure that sub-contractors and suppliers will give them fool-proof products.

My friend’s company has been supplying Diamler Benz for a number of years with needle roller bearings – and experienced the Diamler engineers going over his company with a fine-toothed comb well before any contract was signed.

So a year or two ago, my friend approached Volkswagen to see if they would be willing to get needle roller bearings from his company.   After an initial inquiry, my friend was refused.  The good folks at VW who were dealing with my friend said that the quality control that the Indian company was offering did not meet up to their standards.  “But we supply Daimler” said my friend “and they are happy with our process.”

“Ah” said his counterpart “But we are Volkswagen.  We are not Daimler.”   End of story.

Well, not quite.

Last month the revelations of all sorts of skeletons in Volkswagen’s closets have started tumbling out.

This company, which has built its reputation on touting Teutonic engineering, has been systematically cheating the US environmental agencies for at least the past 7 years.  How?  They have installed a ‘defeat device’ into the diesel cars they made.  This software programme was able to ‘detect’ whenever their nitrogen oxide emissions were being tested.  While the emissions tests were being conducted, the car engine would adjust itself to give less harmful emissions and so meet the emissions norms set by the agency.   Once the test is over, the car would go back to its normal state, which emitted between 10 to 40 times the amount of nitrous oxides permitted in the US.  

How much extra nitrous oxide have the VW cars been emitting?  Estimates are hard to make but reports suggest between 14,000 to 59,000 tonnes of NO2 into the air.

Someone needs a conscience badly.   And this has been going on for years and years.  Each quarter profit margin boosted by illegality.  As time went on, the cover-up of this programme would have become wider and wider until it blew up and now the world knows the truth.

The VW deception has led to a loss of 1/4 of its market value.

We are living in an era where utilitarian values rule.  If you can do something and get away with it, what is to keep you from doing it?

Germans have often placed themselves as the good guys - the folks who play by the rules (as opposed to, say, a stereotype of the Greeks being lazy and corrupt),  The difference in cultural understandings of what 'debt' means can be revealing.  But these days the myth of the 'upright German' is taking a bit of a beating.  

With the big bad world of FIFA unravelling before us - with all the sleaze and bribery that the quadrillions of dollars minted from our global fetish with the beautiful game - is it any surprise that we should have new revelations tumbling from the closets?  Revelations that include the Germans?

This week Der Spiegel (the Mirror) a prominent German magazine has published its investigation that suggests that the German Football authorities (DFB) bribed their way into getting the 2006 Football World Cup awarded to them.

How do we judge right from wrong?

As much as we don't want to bring this up, there was a prominent German (or Austrian who came to Germany and then annexed his own homeland) who wrote the following:

"In this world success is the only rule of judgment whereby we can decide whether such an undertaking was right or wrong." My Struggle (Volume One, Chapter XII), 1925-26

Put simply - the man says that 'success is the only earthly judge of right and wrong.'

This man is the chap modern Germans hate most to be reminded of: Herr A. Hitler himself.

But the utilitarian attitude that grounds so much of our world today is quite happy to take this philosphy and run with it.

Cheating is not a matter of right and wrong - it is a matter of getting ahead.

We are currently reading through a whole sordid set of revelations about how top class cricketers have swayed games in return for money (and in some cases women) from betting syndicates.  More on this in another post.  

For me the most clear statement of this comes from a man who many lifted up as a hero.  Cancer survivor.   Tour de France winner.  Never took drugs - only worked hard" world champion cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Over his amazingly successful career Armstrong repeatedly said that he had never taken performance enhancing drugs.  His Nike ads boasted that others thought he was on drugs, but he said that he 'was on his bike, Busting my ass 6 hours a day.' Armstrong was lying.  The whole time.

And when he was finally cornered, he grudgingly admitted it.  But said that he would probably do it again if he faced the same situation:

One thing is clear.  Success reigns in most people's hearts.  As long as someone is getting things done - almost everything is forgiven.

But is that all there is?

History shows us where moral utilitarianism leads us to.  The 6 million deaths in Nazi camps continue to haunt us.

Who will stand up for the truth?  Is truth even relevant?   Is there a role for conscience keepers?  Or is that just a quaint hold-out from 'simpler days' in the past?

It is more than ever.   One man said something totally different to the world of success-driven ethics. He said that He was the way, the truth and the life.

More on this in the next post.

Stay tuned.


  1. It was couple of days back that both Angel and me was discussing the word 'cheating' with our kids. The discussions were quite interesting. I was amazed at how perceptions have changed even at the level of kindergarden stage. I was not surprised when I read today about kickbacks that Walmart made in India (