Cherish That Guilt. It Means You Are Still Human

10/08/2013 04:08 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The other day as I was leaving for my business trip, my five-year-old daughter ran to block the door with her arms fully stretched out, begging me not to go. Her wide, frightened eyes soon welled up with tears. After minutes of futile negotiation, I forced my way out of the house, fighting the urge to turn around. Then, while I struggled with intense guilt at leaving her behind, a strange thought occurred to me: I still have this kind of human feeling inside of me -- not bad for someone who had been battered for years in the dog-eat-dog world of commerce.

Let me explain.

You see, Confucius held that human nature is generally quite kind, based as it is on our capability for empathy (ren). So why is it that so many business leaders and investment bankers -- most of whom are upright citizens in their private lives -- act without scruples at work? In my view the fundamental issue seems to be the culture of hyper-competition (along with occasional backstabbing) which makes it all but impossible for us to be ourselves or trust one another. The situation is not unlike the fictional "Hunger Games," in which the selected participants must fight one another to death until only one winner is left standing. In the novel, the hero confides his feelings to the heroine (the narrator) the night before the competition:

"I don't know how to say it exactly. Only... I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?" he asks. I shake my head. How could he die as anyone but himself? "I don't want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I'm not."

Here the protagonist indicates that he does not expect to win the competition. There are twenty-four participants and only one can emerge alive. Rather, his goal is to maintain his decency and die as a human being. That will be his moral victory against those who have forced him to take part in this cruel competition. As the plot progresses, it becomes clear that staying true to oneself is the ultimate test of character in the story.

In a competitive environment, where you are under constant pressure to outdo your peers and deliver short-term results, just staying who you are becomes a challenge. Sooner or later your heart grows hardened, and your sensitivity is dulled. In such a state, you no longer respond to your own pain, let alone those of others around you. You say things not because you want to say them, but because they are what others want to hear. You do things not because you want to do them, but because they are what is expected of you. You just react to market signals, without thinking too hard about the moral implications of your actions, because you need the money and promotion. Li Zhuowu (AD 1527-1602), a radical Confucian, compared it to the loss of "a child's heart":

When one loses a child's heart, one loses his true heart. When one loses his true heart, one loses his true humanity... [When his true humanity is lost] what one says is what he heard from others or what passes for truths, not what his child's heart produces. Although the words might be elaborate, they have nothing to do with who he is... When a fake man utters fake words, other fake men delight.

Zhuowu knew firsthand how difficult it is to stay true to oneself in a decadent world. According to his own account, Zhuowu struggled to support his family as a low-level bureaucrat with a meagre salary, yet he stubbornly refused to take bribes. One day he came home from a long trip, only to discover that his two daughters had died from hunger. It took him a while to recover from the shock and grief, but the tragedy somehow freed him from the shackles of "fake" social obligations. He went on to quit the civil service and to write two controversial works, which he respectively called "A book to be hidden" and "A book to be burned." When the authorities arrested him for promulgating dangerous ideas, he cut his throat in prison, as a final form of protest against the dehumanizing forces of society.

My conclusion is a simple one: to restore morality to our businesses we must start by recovering our ability to feel, namely ren. As Jonah Lehrer, a writer on psychology, points out, the worst criminal is not someone who lacks moral reasoning but someone who feels unmoved by others' suffering -- the very definition of a psychopath. For the purpose of illustration, think of the phone hacking scandal in the UK: reporters at the News of the World illegally accessed the phones not only of celebrities and political figures, but of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, relatives of deceased British soldiers, and victims of the 2005 London Bombings. Legal issues aside, what truly shocked the public was the astonishing lack of sensitivity. Apparently, the competition among British tabloids was so fierce that journalists working in the organization had all but lost their human sensibilities -- a state which Confucians have called bu-ren, the negative form of ren denoting numbness of the heart.

So the next time our children guilt-trip us, let us cherish that guilt, or pity, or compassion, or whatever twinge of uneasiness we feel from the misery of others. It means we are still human. It means the hyper-competition in our society has not yet paralyzed our sensitivity or robbed us of basic human qualities. Such humane sentiments, argued Confucius, constitute the basis of our morality. They also happen to be the last bulwark against the amorality of market-based capitalism.