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The Tarnished Golden Rule

BERLIN – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” What a simple and logical concept – a straightforward way to resolve knotty moral dilemmas. Yet, at a time when distinguishing right from wrong seems to be more difficult than ever, this classic postulate – the “Golden Rule” – seems to be going out of fashion.

The ethical norm of reciprocity pervades human history, beginning with the ancient civilizations in Egypt, Greece, India, and China. It is among the only intellectual threads that connect the teachings of virtually every major religion and those of philosophers through the ages, from classical Rome’s Seneca the Younger to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, and on to Jean-Paul Sartre and John Rawls.

The Golden Rule is the backbone of our modern understanding of universal human rights and forms the core of the modern social contract. It is the starting point of our interactions with one another within our communities and on a global basis. It underpins the rise of today’s sharing economy, exemplified by Uber and Airbnb. It even guides our personal relationships.

But the Golden Rule is under assault, and those with the most influence are leading the charge. Politicians, even in the world’s supposedly enlightened democracies, are refusing to provide refuge to desperate people fleeing brutal war; making little, if any, effort to address high and rising economic inequality; and are all but ignoring the factors driving civil-rights movements like America’s Black Lives Matter.

This lack of empathy is frightening, and it is not limited to politics. At a time when business has massive – perhaps even excessive – influence worldwide, companies, in their drive for profit or power, often disregard their own societal obligations.

Consider the case of Theranos, a biotech company founded by Elizabeth Holmes in 2003 that promised to revolutionize blood tests. For several years, the company’s “Edison” blood-testing devices were lauded as groundbreaking. Theranos boasted reputable financial backers, partnerships with a large number of pharmacies, and a board that seemed very impressive on paper. Its valuation skyrocketed to $9 billion.

Last year, the truth came out: Theranos was all smoke and mirrors. Not only were the vast majority of the lab tests the company offered conducted on traditional machines; many of the results it was producing were inaccurate. In fact, it later emerged that Theranos had stopped using the Edison machines altogether in the summer of 2015, and had voided results from them that had been issued since 2014, sending tens of thousands of corrected reports to physicians and patients.

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But Theranos could not void the damage. It was, after all, in the health-care industry; it wasn’t selling socks or soap. Its mistakes had real-world consequences for the many patients who had based their health decisions on erroneous data.

It is hard to fathom the hubris and callous disregard for human beings that enables a CEO and management team to play with people’s health and hopes in such a manner. Holmes, who was touting her company’s transparency and reveling in its massive valuation long after she knew that the Edison machines were not cutting it, did not just break the Golden Rule; she melted it down.

And she has plenty of company. The Panama Papers – the leaked files of the world’s fourth-largest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca – provided a glimpse of the lengths to which people go to hide their assets and avoid paying taxes. Major multinationals like Apple, Amazon, and Starbucks have structured their businesses to minimize taxes to such an extent that they are now facing sanctions from the likes of the European Union. The New York Times recently disclosed that US presidential candidate Donald Trump is a tax-avoidance enthusiast, as well.

Trump calls tax avoidance “smart.” Most people, including me, call it selfish, insidious, irresponsible, and a breach of the social contract that enabled him and his family to accrue their wealth in the first place. Any society that made a virtue out of his reckless and self-serving behavior could not function, much less prosper.

Yet such behavior is increasingly common, with serious consequences. In the United Kingdom, political leaders stoked fears and made impossible promises – ultimately bringing about a vote to “Brexit” the EU. The new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has launched what is essentially a war on human rights, while pursuing an isolating path of aggressive behavior toward other countries.

The Trump campaign may be collapsing under the weight of its standard-bearer’s personal history; but an important reason it got this far is that it advanced the lie that American workers would benefit from the construction of a wall – both literal and metaphorical – around the country. The truth, however, is that Trump’s isolationist approach – which will not die with his defeat next month – would have the opposite impact.

The reciprocity norm has been virtually omnipresent since the dawn of human civilization. Yet we cannot take it for granted. We must not lose sight of its value, in our personal or professional lives, and we must not allow our leaders to do so, either. Lucy P. Marcus is CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting.

By Lucy P. Marcus

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