The Snake in the Garden – the two contradictions at the heart of morality

Moral principles are culturally variable. In one culture it is bad to eat a pig, in another to eat a cow, in another a woman must cover her hair and in yet another a woman must shave her head, and so on. Yet these variable principles tend to be the least important, the least central of these moral systems. The hearts of all moral systems seem to be remarkably similar which is why it is possible for culturally diverse societies to live together.

Let us take the Golden Rule, for example: “do as you would be done by”. It lies at the heart of all the great moral systems of the world including its religions. The root of the success of all the main world religions has been their ability to extend the principle from being only applicable between people within a small group who share a genetic pool – tribal or national, for example – to those people who share our opinions, and onwards to humanity as a whole.

This rule is deducible a priori from the condition of being a social animal whereas the other principles mentioned may be characterised as culturally specific. On the other hand, the biosphere is by its nature cannibalistic: living things must live at the expense of other living things, even plants compete for space, light and air. In the natural world there may be respect between the hunter and the prey but there cannot be reciprocity. “The cut worm forgives the plough”, as William Blake formulates it. Within humanity too conflicts inevitably arise especially where groups compete for scarce resources.

Human existence is not solitary but social so humans need to have moral systems. But, another consequence of the social nature of human existence is that everyone depends on other people and therefore needs things from other people which they do not necessarily want to give. Ideally the survival of the individual depends on reciprocity and free giving but it doesn’t always work like that, and sometimes people are forced to be manipulative or coercive.

It is because of this fact that moral conundrums are most often not black and white. The real moral dilemma is the one where we have to weigh more than one bad option against another to work out which will have the least worst outcome. Parents tell children that they must not lie yet most adults find that they often have to lie to avoid situations where offence may be caused or more serious damage may be done.

A moral principle may be an a priori truth or it may be a cultural norm or custom. But even when it is an a priori truth the way in which it is applied is culturally determined and historically variable. Only a short while ago devout Christians in Europe thought that trial by ordeal and public executions were perfectly acceptable but would be likely to call them “un-Christian” in the twenty-first century. In other words, moral standards are a matter of what society decides they are at the time, and in other words again, they are a matter of point-of-view.

The other paradox that lies at the heart of morality is the illusion that all human individuals are uniquely valuable. From the point of view of the parent each of his or her children is uniquely valuable, other relatives and friends only slightly less so, but the effect tends to wear off with distance. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I care about the man on the other side of the world who assemble my bicycle as I do about a close relative though there may be reasons why I would not wish him any harm. For me, in truth, he is a means to an end.

Proximity in this analogy may be equated with love. On the subject of love Derrida says:

The difference between the who and the what is at the heart of love, separates the heart. It is often said that love is the movement of the heart. Does my heart move because I love someone who is an absolute singularity, or because I love the way that someone is? …

That is to say, the history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and the what. The question of Being, to return to philosophy – because the first question of philosophy is: What is it “to Be?” What is Being? The question of Being is itself always already divided between who and what. Is ‘Being’ someone or some thing? I speak of abstractly, but I think that whoever starts to love, is in love, or stops loving, is caught between this division of the who and the what. One wants to be true to someone – singularly, irreplaceably – and one perceives that this someone isn’t x or y. They didn’t have the qualities, properties, the images, that I thought I’d loved. So fidelity is threatened by the difference between the who and the what.

Here Derrida identifies love as being an aspect of what it is to be conscious and human – part of being – and the paradox of valuing people for the value they have for others – trust, beauty, intellect etc. – or valuing them for themselves as fundamental to being human. It is so fundamental that if a person is not valued for themselves alone in the early years of their lives, psychologists tell us, the individual will grow up damaged and unable to take a full part in society.

This ability to love is uniquely human but it is part of the delusional picture we have of ourselves. Love does not exist yet we have to believe in it to make things work. It fulfils a function rather like i, the imaginary square root of minus one, does in mathematics. At an individual level we need love for society to function. Yet at a social or at an historical level individuals are not important. We all embody strands of our culture, experiences, thoughts and feelings that are also available to others. A loss of ten per cent of an army does not destroy the army and does not even alter its character appreciably.

Everyday technology develops and artificial intelligence becomes a more immediate reality. It is conceivable that within the next few decades artificial intelligence may replicate human intelligence and interface with it directly. Is it then conceivable that a machine might value another entity as a “who” rather than just as a “what”? It is not a mystery; it depends on how the programming code is written.

It is an important lesson from human history that a moral system that consists of a book of black and white rules to be rigidly applied is unlikely to be satisfactory and inevitably results in exacerbating the cruelty and injustice it was intended to avoid. Justice is a matter of balance and discretion and no one has the unlimited wisdom required to make it perfect.

In recent years the problem has become more difficult with the globalisation of trade and the accompanying mixing of groups with different cultural norms. It is a constant problem to reconcile conflicts between the moral principles of groups who live side-by-side? It is about to become even more difficult with an increasing impact of artificial intelligence and biological engineering, and the combination of the two, which will challenge all our customary points of moral reference.

Security as a Barrier to Knowledge Creation

As the sharing of information has become more sophisticated the ways in which information can leak have become more subtle and insidious. Unguarded moments of committing thoughts to social networking sites have caused embarrassment to many and so has accidentally putting the wrong name in an email address field. On another level, the actions of hackers and serious cyber criminals have become an everyday hazard. We have a culture of paranoia where security is seen to be an intrinsically good thing and yet this is not always so.

Organisations have always been anxious about their secrets. As a business lecturer I have often come across resistance when it comes to work based assignments, for example. I have had students who have been told that they cannot say anything at all about their work because they might release sensitive information of use to competitors. In my experience, the employer has always relented when they have realised that this kind of information will not make it into the student’s assignment. Nevertheless, it demonstrates a general anxiety that organisations have about confidentiality.

The thinking goes like this. We have a process which goes from x to y to z. This process is the basis of our profits and if anyone were to copy it, they would be able to steal market share. Of course, this line of reasoning is full of misconceptions and half-truths. It is as misconceived as to think that the window cleaner looking in at the office window would then be in a position to steal the business.

I suggest that information that organisations consider to be confidential falls into three categories. Let me illustrate with the example of a manufacturer of widgets. The first type of information is information like the details of the manufacturing process. The widgets are manufactured using a well-established process that has been used for more than a decade. There are a number of companies in the same geographical area which have from time to time lost employees to each other. Though you could not find a description of the process on the internet, you could say that the process is part of a community of practice (Wenger 1998) which is not the property of any one company. This is the sort of information that companies try to keep secret but fail in due course.

The second type of information is information about a new development. Let us say that our company has discovered that they can manufacture the widgets to higher tolerances by carrying out part of the process in refrigerated conditions. This will give them a competitive advantage and the other companies would be able to copy it if they found out. The news will get out because of informal networks in the industry and because personnel will move from one company to another over a period of time. This kind of advantage can only ever be temporary and, probably, short-lived.

The third type of information is very specific to the business. It would include things like the bid price on a tender and is unequivocally useful to a competitor in a way that would almost certainly damage the business. This kind of information is usually kept confidential even within the company and only revealed on a need-to-know basis.

Bearing in mind these three types of confidential information let us compare them with the junior employee of the company who attends college on day release to learn some general principles that will make him or her more useful as an employee. No one feels uncomfortable because of that kind of information. All the present and potential future employers would say that this kind of knowledge transfer is a good thing. And yet, where is the boundary between that and the first kind of confidential information that I have described? And where is the boundary between the first kind and the second kind? Are the first two categories of information that companies commonly see as confidential properly confidential at all?

The manufacturers of widgets might give consideration to the basis on which they compete. Since it is not the details of the process which differentiates them, perhaps they would be better off to collaborate on research and development. If the whole industry could become more efficient, all the competing companies would be in a better position to resist competition from substitutes. While each company barricades itself in a bunker of confidentiality it may be damaging its future competitiveness.

Communication and Academia

There is a revolution going on, a paradigm shift, a significant event in the story of humanity. We have found ourselves living in the information age and as institutions and as individuals we are struggling to come to terms with what that means.

It isn’t so very difficult in itself. The new communications technology has made everything much simpler. The problem is how to rid ourselves of the old ways of doing things, the old ways of thinking about things. All organisations are affected by changes in the way that information is stored and exchanged but the ones that need to do the deepest thinking about what the new circumstances mean are the ones whose biggest concern is information. One of these is higher education.

Only two decades ago information was a scarce commodity. That meant that for an academic the bookshelf in his or her office was a major component of the working toolbox. It also meant that the information in his or her head was a major component of the toolbox. It was not so many decades earlier, right up to the 1960s, that the lecture was the main way that an undergraduate student could obtain information but books became cheaper and more easily available and the lecture became less important as an information source. Instead, it became a way for the student to experience the lecturer’s mind in action as it grappled with the problems in the subject matter. The change was subtle, almost unnoticed, which is why the transition was achieved smoothly. However, this time the paradigm has shifted much further and things need much more fundamental reconsideration.

Bill Gates has told us that the days of the university it are necessarily numbered. He is wrong. But, it is an easy mistake to make if you think that education is all about information.

Of course, you do not need a university to disseminate information but you do need one to create and propagate knowledge and understanding. Knowledge is created by dialogue and knowledge is propagated through dialogue. It is not created by solitary individuals beavering away in isolation. I read some papers on a topic, realise that there is more to said, a concept that needs further examination, another point of view to be considered and so I come to write my own paper. And, knowledge is not propagated through monologue. I say something to my student and his reply indicates that he has not understood so I ask him a question, add some further information, offer a different point of view and slowly the process of understanding comes about for him and, very often, I will gain further insight myself because in the teaching process I have been challenged to look at the matter from a different angle. Always, the best way to learn something is to teach it.

Universities are funded because they teach and because they create new knowledge. It is only recently that educators have come to the realisation that you can teach a topic more effectively by giving students some information and then having them discuss it between them in a structured way – what it means, what the consequences are, how it might be applied and so on – than by just standing in front of them and subjecting them to a deluge of facts. Some academics have still not grasped the point. But, effective teaching is one of the benefits that society expects from the university in return for funding.

The other benefit that society expects is the creation of new knowledge. However, the paradigm of university research is an academic who sits in a silent room for months on end working on a topic which he or she does not discuss with anyone and eventually produces a paper which is of no interest to anyone in the world apart from a handful of people who happen to have the same obsession. Of course, not all academic research is like this and the proportion which is like this varies from discipline to discipline but this scenario is very common.

The university needs to ask fundamental questions of itself about its role in society. If the university is there to teach and create new knowledge then it must do so effectively. It must teach students effectively and it must create new knowledge that is significant. It can do both of these much better if the institution thinks of itself as a centre for dialogue. Students who learn through collaboration with other students are being taught effectively and they are learning a skill which will be useful to them for ever. Academics who engage in dialogue, perhaps working collaboratively, will be more effective at producing papers that are significant for a wider audience.

I don’t just mean that academics should write for a wider audience of academics but that they should be able to engage with serious practitioners as well. As it is, for example, how many people in business ever read an academic journal concerned with their specialisation? The answer is, very few.

It has been remarked before that academics are reluctant to use the new media such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook or Linked-In. Younger people, unhampered by ideas about how things should be done, quickly find the benefits of these as tools for discussion and problem solving while older people often find it more difficult to see the potential. Yet these tools open up possibilities for dialogue that is wider and potentially more fruitful than has ever been possible before.

When there is a paradigm shift institutions have to seize the opportunities or die by a thousand spending cuts.

Information Sharing and the Fear of Chaos

One facet of knowledge management which can readily make a large difference to the efficiency of an organisation is the sharing of information. However, there are a number of commonly occurring problems which arise when managers try to create a culture where information sharing is part of everyday activity.

A few years ago I found myself in a working as part of a team in the IT department of a largish organisation. Some of the everyday duties of a number of people in three different teams could have been made dramatically more efficient if all of them were able to access the information that already existed. One person had a database which was useful to everyone that she kept privately to herself. Another person knew of documents created by a predecessor in the job that would be of use to another team. One team had access to technical information that would be of use to another team, and so on.

I proposed setting up a folder on the drive shared by all the teams involved with an html page in the root where there would be a brief description of each document with a link to it. Once set up, the maintenance of the ‘database’ would take minimal time and have no other cost implications.

When I asked people about sharing the information that they had, most of them thought that it was a good idea though none of them thought that the sharing should be given any priority. In other words, they were happy if I did the work but were not willing to do it themselves. This attitude reflected the culture of the organisation which was good natured but little thought was ever given to knowledge sharing of knowledge transfer.

However, there were others who had more serious reservations. They asked who would be ultimately responsible for the database and suggested that there might be false or damaging information creeping into it unless it was tightly controlled, and no one had the time to do that. They went on to say that probably many of the documents in the database would be out of date, could be misleading and no one had time to check them and correct or rewrite them if necessary. These objectors were mostly team leaders or others who had responsibility for the workings of these teams.

Whenever change is proposed, however minor it may be, there are always those who look for the disadvantages and emphasise them over any possible gains. In this case the objections came from a fear of loss of control over subordinates and a fear that blame might accrue to them in some unforeseen way. These objectors felt that a lack of information sharing and the resulting ignorance, costly in time and in the degraded quality of the service provided, was preferable to the risks that might be introduced by trusting employees to make their own decisions about what information was worth sharing. It was true that some documents were out of date and that some of them might contain inaccuracies but I pointed out that, nevertheless, making the information available did not make the situation any worse than it already was and it offered obvious benefits.

Of course, if the organisation had already had a culture where information was routinely shared, we would have been encouraged to set up a wiki on the intranet. In this case, it was so difficult to have information made available on the intranet, unless for a very small and select group of people, that no one thought that it was worth the expenditure of time and effort.

It is generally true that information is not shared more within organisations because of a blame culture, because of a lack of trust in employees and because of a fear of chaos. If the knowledge asset is to be used effectively in many organisations, these are among the issues that have to be addressed and the culture changed. To facilitate better knowledge management it is not only attitudes towards knowledge itself that have to be addressed.

Building a Brand Framework for a Small Business

So often small businesses do not think very deeply about marketing issues. It is enough for them to do to supply customer needs and control the cash flow from day to day. However, I have found that it is very valuable even for the smallest of organisations to have a brand framework because it saves time and avoids confusion.

For example, recently I found myself in the position of briefing a web site designer on a new ecommerce web site for a small business. I looked at competitors’ web sites and felt that there was a mismatch between how the site appeared and their target market. But, who had got it wrong? Was it the web site owner who had failed to correctly identify the target market or was it the web site designer who had failed to deliver on their brief? It can be difficult to write briefs for a web site; there is much scope for misunderstanding and confusion, so the probable cause of the mismatch was a failure of communication. To avoid falling into the same trap, I used a brand onion as a quick way to pin down the brand framework and the task became much more straight-forward.

The brand onion is a tool which has been used by marketing practitioners for a number of years. It has been criticised by some practitioners for being too technical for clients and a possible block to communication. However, it is like any tool: it is how it is used that matters and the key to using it successfully is to use simple but precise language.

The brand onion is a tool which starts from the core values of the business. From these core values come the benefits that the organisation offers to its customers and these benefits can be conveniently divided between emotional and functional. From the benefits the personality of the organisation is developed. The core values may be thought of as being wrapped in the benefits which, in turn, are wrapped in the personality – hence the onion analogy.

 Brand Onion

Let us look at the use of this model in the context of the business that I was advising which was an online hobby shop.

Brand Onion for Online Hobby Shop:

Core Values

  • Reliable
  • Friendly
  • Understands hobbyists



  • Safe and reliable in all aspects of the service
  • Understands me because run by hobbyists like me
  • Can turn to for authoritative information
  • Enjoyable, entertaining and inspiring


  • The best hobby materials at the best prices.
  • Easy to use web site.
  • Quick despatch.
  • Transparent pricing.
  • Web site that is interesting to browse even if you don’t buy anything.
  • Wide range of hobby materials on offer.
  • Latest releases on offer.
  • Well packed so goods arrive undamaged.
  • Sorts out problems to my satisfaction without fuss


  • Friendly
  • Trustworthy
  • Understands needs of customers

Once the brand onion has been constructed, it is a relatively simple matter to add communications guidelines which follow from it logically.

Communication Guidelines

Key Message

We do it properly: authoritative, trustworthy, providing a service more important than making a sale.

Key Consumer Take-Out

  • High quality goods
  • Wide range of stock
  • Good prices
  • Arrive quickly
  • Safe and reliable to deal with
  • I trust them

Style and Tone Guidelines

  • Authoritative and confident – conservatively stylish
  • Friendly and helpful
  • ‘Down-to-earth’ – not’ flashy’. More impressed by something that ‘gets-the-job-done’ efficiently rather than by style or technical wizardry
  • Informative

Customer Profile

  • Age – 35 – 70
  • Sex – 90% male
  • Social grade – C2/C1/B. In numbers probably C1 is the largest group, followed by B, followed by C2
  • Life stage – mostly ‘empty-nester’ or ‘retired’. Some ‘kids-at-home’.
  • Attitude to technology/internet – mostly not technologically orientated, more interested in what they can get from the internet rather than the technology in itself
  • What values? – particularly looking for honesty and integrity. Will also see information as being good in itself

The brand onion is a simple way to define the branding of the organisation. Once it has been constructed it can be used in a variety of contexts, for example:

  • To brief advertising and other communications suppliers
  • For presentations to the bank or other suppliers
  • To brief new employees

In the context I was using it, the device worked very well; the web site designer had a clear brief and produced a web site which was consistent with the brand.

Some Thoughts on the Problem of Time

Our lives are dominated by time. I was stuck in traffic this morning and was fearful that I would be late for my first appointment. When I was nineteen I was too young to be accepted for certain jobs and now I am too old to be accepted for certain other jobs. We all have our personal histories that we might put into our cvs or find in our photograph albums. There are many different kinds of example that could be given. Of course, this domination by time is a feature of the society in which we  live, an advanced industrial society with a high degree of complexity in its institutions and a high degree of specialisation in its workforce. We are, as the popular formulation goes, “cash rich and time poor”. In pre-industrial societies time is less pressing and in pre-agricultural societies it is something different altogether.

It is perhaps not obvious that our concept time is intimately connected with our consciousness – that time and consciousness are inseparable. Time is like the air we breathe: so ever-present, so much a part of us that we don’t question its nature in the ordinary course of things. Time is such a core concern that we see it as a dimension of the physical world that we inhabit and we speak of time as the ‘fourth dimension’. And yet our perception of time is bound up with the social construction of consciousness. People exist in time whereas things do not.

Take for example, my computer. Of course it exists in time, look there is the digital clock on the right hand side of the task bar. It is telling me that it is nearly lunchtime and that there is barely enough time left for my current task. However, if I go into my spreadsheet and enter the formula for current date and time so that it is displayed in the spreadsheet cell and then reformat it as a number, the shocking truth is revealed: the date is just a number of days since an arbitrary start date and the time is just a fraction of a day. The computer has no knowledge of time at all: time is just another number format.

You might object that things exist in time because they have a history. There was a time before my computer existed and there will be a time when it doesn’t exist anymore. This cycle is true of all things, including ourselves. Yet without consciousness this cycle has no meaning and no significance. My computer knows nothing of its creation, of its destruction or of its existence. It is only in time because it is in my consciousness.

Consciousness is created from our dialogue with ourselves which is shaped by our dialogue with others. It is the dialogues between people and within people that reflexively creates our language, our ideas, our preoccupations and the society in which we live. In another society, these things are structured differently so consciousness in a different society is different and its perception of time is different.

When we come to observe the physical world the matter is no easier. I am always troubled when I hear some populariser of science saying something to the effect that when an astronomer looks through a powerful telescope he sees stars that are so far away that he is seeing them as they were millions of years ago because that is how long it has taken the light from them to reach us. This kind of talk is fascinating, but it is nonsense. Our consciousness is a feature of the human organism and our conception of time along with it. It is perfectly fitted for dealing with situations where our dialogue is with someone a few yards away or, with the wonders of modern telecommunications, a few thousand miles away. It is meaningful in the situations we are familiar with to treat ‘now’ as though it were common property and the same for all of us. But, when we deal with a larger scale it becomes meaningless. How can we say that we are seeing an object as it was in the past just because it is a long distance away? Surely we are seeing it as it is now, in our present. There is no related consciousness perceiving the object where it is and there is no guarantee that the two nows have a simple relationship with each other. In other words ‘now’ is just a concept that people have created to help them get along with each other and time is not such a simple matter as it first appears.

Accountability and Intention

It is a commonplace that people should be judged on the consequences of their actions. The drunk driver who causes injury to another driver, the dictator who oppresses his people, the thief ready to be sentenced by the court are all examples where we shake our heads and say that people should be held accountable for the things that they do. But, is this always the case? And, more significantly, is this the best way to look at the matter?

It is especially when this issue is looked at in the context of political debate that the flaws begin to become apparent. It is typical of political debate in the UK at the moment that the Conservatives point out something that the previous, Labour, government did which has had some bad consequences. The go on to say that this example shows that voters should not vote for Labour next time. They say that they opposed this Labour policy at the time and this shows that they were right and Labour were wrong. In all democracies this game is played by all political groups all the time but the argument is fallacious.

Let us take an abstract example. Suppose that there is a chief of a poor village somewhere in a remote corner of the world. The chief is contacted by a government official who tells him that the village’s maize crop must be destroyed because there is a disease that has become prevalent in the area which attacks maize crops and makes them poisonous. The chief commands that the maize crop be destroyed but the local witch doctor says that it must not be done because it will offend the local gods who will be angry. The crop is destroyed but the food cannot be replaced because all the surrounding villages have done the same and the price of maize and all it substitutes has gone through the roof. The chief is blamed for the resulting hunger and the witch doctor claims that he was right because he had told them that there would be bad consequences.

I would suggest that the chief is not at fault because he acted for the best in the light of the information and understanding that he had at the time he made the decision. I would also suggest that the witch doctor should not be given any credit because he gave no good reason for the alternative course of action, which might also have had bad consequences in any case.

A prime example of this situation from recent history is the House of Commons debate on the Iraq on 18th March 2003 just prior to the invasion. The Liberal-Democrats have gained a good deal of prestige in the popular imagination because they opposed the invasion of Iraq at that time. And yet, their arguments were poorly constructed and unconvincing.

At an organisational level we find that so often people are reluctant to make decisions because they are afraid of being blamed if the decision has some negative outcome. As soon as you do something you can be criticised for it whereas not making a decision can be presented as appropriate caution. The prevalence of this kind of ‘blame culture’ has a bad effect on individual organisations and on society at large.

So, perhaps we should be more inclined to judge people on their intentions seen in the light of what they knew at the time rather than on the consequences of their actions. Is the drunk driver who causes no accident really any better than the one who causes a fatal accident? And, is the politician who makes a major decision which causes some harm really any worse than the other politician who opposes him just because it is his job to do so?