by Bob Kenny
I tell you that virtue is not
given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every
other good of man, public as well as private.”
John Locke originally declared that
life, liberty, and property are inalienable rights. Thomas
Jefferson and company put more than a small spin on the
phrase in the Declaration of Independence. When the Founders
wrote “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,”
they championed a life of value, not just property. But
what constitutes a life of value? And how is such a life
Socrates suggests that we find happiness by
creating a life in which we honor our most cherished values.
Isn’t that what the founding fathers meant by “the
pursuit of happiness?” They created a capitalistic
system within a democracy, allowing us to pursue happiness
according to our own values.
There is, however, an ever-present tension
between democracy and capitalism. Our economic and political
systems are dependent on each other, but it is an uneasy
relationship at best. It is with the effects of that uneasy
relationship that I sometimes find myself wrestling.
It is impossible to escape the reality that
I live in a culture dominated by money, where values seem
to be relegated to a secondary consideration. Yet I realize
that I am a beneficiary of this capitalistic system. My
challenge is a balancing act: living democratic values (caring,
respect, trust, responsibility) in a culture that promotes
capitalist values (net worth, status, power). I must admit,
at times I find it much easier to be a capitalist. As hard
as I try, sometimes my life gets out of balance.
I know that if I want to be my best self,
I have to pursue the democratic values I cherish. I have
no ambivalence about doing so within a capitalist system;
my goal is to live with awareness and intention, integrating
my values into everyday life. But sometimes I wish it were
easier. As I honestly admit how tough it is for me, a leader
in an organization dedicated to putting values above money,
I recognize with trepidation what that portends for the
country, and indeed, the world. Almost every important issue
that we face as a species over the next few decades will
involve money and values. Individually and collectively,
we are making vital decisions about energy, food production,
water, health care, and education. If we continue on the
present course, allowing money to set our standard, we will
be making those decisions essentially devoid of values.
What could be a greater threat to human survival?
I can’t just sit back and shake my head
in disbelief, or point my finger at the Enrons of the world
and say that capitalism is out of control. I have to do
something. Gandhi said, “We must be the change we
wish to see.” Certainly I must start with myself,
but I earnestly desire—and need—the company
and support of others.
Unlike many countries, the United States does
not have one charismatic and powerful founder. David McCullough’s
much-honored book, John Adams, tells us how important the
network of founding fathers and mothers was, as they worked
together to establish the system of government we hold so
precious today. The final words in the Declaration of Independence
say, “…we pledge to each other our lives our
fortunes and our sacred honor” (emphasis mine). Their
pledge acknowledges the need for us to work together as
a community, a society, and a nation.
Despite individual flaws and, in some cases,
contradictions between their public and private values,
the signers of the Declaration are recognized as great leaders
because they endeavored to be ethical leaders. They are
remembered for what Derek Bell calls “ethical ambition1,”
not for their economic or political ambition. As we know,
most of them were wealthy; some were extremely wealthy.
They believed that to be wealthy and do nothing in a morally
imperfect world was not the way to pursue happiness. They
pursued happiness by using their wealth to enable them to
live according to their highest values. Their bold action
sent a message heard around the world, transforming the
way people viewed individual freedom, power, inheritance,
self-governance, and the pursuit of happiness. The world
has never been the same again.
We are the inheritors of their legacy. We
are the seventh generation since the Declaration of Independence.
Can we stand up and tell the world that Americans are ready
to transform the way we look at money and the pursuit of
happiness? Despite our individual flaws and contradictions,
can we demonstrate by our own actions that we are willing
to attempt these changes? Can we be the ethical leaders
of this generation?
I don’t think there will be one charismatic
leader for the challenge we presently face. In their influential
work, The Leadership Challenge2, James M. Kouzes and Barry
Z. Posner write about leaders as “ordinary people
who guide others along pioneering journeys.” We will
need to guide and enable each other. Together, we can pursue
the values and the happiness of a democratic culture, and
we can encourage each other to take heart. When we do, there
will be another revolution in this country and, once again,
the rest of the world will never be the same.
Ethical Ambition: Living a Life
of Meaning and Worth
by Derek Bell, Bloomsbury USA,
2 Third edition, Jossey-Bass, 2003.
Bob Kenny, Ed.D, is the executive director
of More Than Money. For more than 20 years he has worked
with individuals, communities, and organizations to identify
and address the gaps between their stated values and the
realities of their lives.