Imagine there's no heaven ... ... (or hell)

  • Article by: DAVID LEBEDOFF
  • Updated: April 4, 2009 - 6:32 PM

Orwell did -- and he realized the perils of a life presumed to have no ultimate consequence. Which brings us to Wall Street.

The Englishman who saw our economic collapse coming 70 years ago was not John Maynard Keynes; it was George Orwell. And he understood that the cause of the market failure would not be economic, nor even psychological, but rather moral. ¶ Orwell did not have a crystal ball. But he saw his own world more clearly than anyone else. He saw that the Modern Age, which he loathed, represented a sharp break from all prior history in one essential regard: People no longer believed in life after death. Though an atheist himself, he saw this growing disbelief as the most important fact in the modern world. ¶ What does this have to do with the present economic crisis? Almost everything, according to Orwell. When people believed in heaven and hell, there was no doubt as to the preferred destination. The point of life was to build a stairway to paradise. Which doesn't mean that everyone behaved perfectly. The world was a very cruel place. But most people did treat others better than they might have, especially as they grew older, because they really did believe in a Judgment Day.

Ours has become a secular society. The ranks of fundamentalist faiths have grown in reaction to this, but the general trend is clear, and the mainstream churches have depopulated. It is fair to say that today most of the decisions that affect our lives are made by people who never think at all about heaven and hell. They assume that this life is all there is.

If you only go around once, then the main thing is to have fun. If you start by admitting that from cradle to tomb it isn't that long of a stay, then life is a cabaret, old chum, and so, by the way, is Wall Street. There is a bumper sticker favored by some of the recently rich that proclaims "he who dies with the most toys wins." This is indeed the moral philosophy of those who believe that death is the final closing bell. Materialism, hedonism and Stairmasters are what people do until the clock stops ticking.

Back to our wretched economy. We are in this sorry state because those managing our production and our wealth are in many cases free from moral constraint. There have always been some crooks and sharpies in the world, but this is not about them. The greater problem is that the ubiquitous disbelief in an afterlife has altered the behavior of vast numbers of otherwise decent managers. It isn't only that they want to get rich quickly and are more focused on today's toys than on tomorrow's world. It's also the absence of a moral code to temper those goals. The reason Alan Greenspan is still scratching his head is that he always presupposed a moral framework. But when you believe that nothing follows your death except a funeral, then the concepts of right and wrong lose their meaning, and the only guideposts left are what is legal and illegal.

Being technically legal isn't good enough. If that's all you care about, you still can focus your company entirely on the next quarter, because heaven now has been replaced by options. You can sell large mortgages to those you know can never repay them. You can avoid corporate governance by paying board members so much that their loyalty is to the appointing executive's own compensation rather than to shareholders' long-term needs. You can use federal bailout money to pay bonuses for failure. A treasury secretary can publicly avoid taxes that he was obligated to pay, because the statute of limitations has kicked in. Decisionmakers can stop thinking about the future, because the future for them is finite.

Belief in life after death helped keep us from being completely selfish and shortsighted. Orwell was obsessed with the need to find some substitute for that dying belief. He knew that we must believe in something greater than ourselves. He thought perhaps that might be love of one's country, though no one knew better than he where worship of the state might lead.

Perhaps the answer is a leader who speaks to our shared values. We are individuals, but if we can also see ourselves as part of a whole, we can put down our toys and concern ourselves with that whole, which will go on forever. Orwell wrote that a nation is in a sense immortal -- "there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature."

The fanatics who murder for 72 virgins dishonor the concept of afterlife; the nation that responds to their attack with renewed unity does truly achieve the framework that restores moral behavior.

With that framework we can be guided not just by law but by right and wrong. This requires personal choices. And these are the kind of options that business leaders should in fact be seeking.

David Lebedoff, Minneapolis, is the author of "The Same Man; George Orwell & Evelyn Waugh in Love & War."

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