The Smallest of Compromises

As a resident of Durham, North Carolina, I live in a diverse and international community that blends into the culture of a southern state, full of residents whose families have been here for generations.

Fifty years ago, when the population of Durham NC was almost entirely southern and Christian, Jesus was a commonly named presence in the workplace. Some long-time residents (and business owners) find themselves stymied by the modern idea that “Jesus” is no longer so welcome. The new Durham workplace is populated not only with longtime Christians, but also with agnostics, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, and more who do not consider Jesus their “Lord and Redeemer.” Further, The new legal environment is populated with rules that prohibit workplace discrimination–intentional or otherwise–that may come from the explicit invocation of Christian practice.

Fortunately, business owners and managers can live out their core, religious values without naming the source. How? By remembering that people from nearly all faiths, and non-religious people-of-good-will, all draw from a common set of precepts which Christians call “The Golden Rule” and evolutionary biologists call “reciprocal altruism.”

  • In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Jesus Christ is quoted “Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.”
  • Rabbi Hillel the Elder said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

But the Judeo-Christians don’t have a lock on the moral code. Consider the following:

  • Gautama Buddha: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Udanavarga 5:18)
  • In Islam, from the prophet Muhammed: “”Seek for mankind that of which you are desirous for yourself, that you may be a believer.” (Sukhanan-i-Muhammad)
  • From Hinduism: “If the entire Dharma can be said in a few words, then it is—that which is unfavorable to us, do not do that to others.(Padmapuraana, shrushti 19/357–358)
  • From Confucious “Surely it is the maxim of loving-kindness: Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”, one of the earlier versions of the Golden Rule (Analects 15,23).

Outside the realm of religion:

  • Reciprocal altruism: “under certain conditions natural selection favors these altruistic behaviors because in the long run they benefit the organism performing them.” (Robert L. Trivers, The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism)
  • Immanuel Kant: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”
  • Aristotle: “We should conduct ourselves toward others as we would have them act toward us.”
  • And especially, Linus Torvalds, creator of the free, open source “Linux” operating system: “On freedoms, fairness, being selfish and tit-for-tat: I was not trying to get everybody to contribute to some big goody-goody “let’s all sing kumbaya around the campfire and make the world a better place”. No, Open Source only really works if everybody is contributing for their own selfish reasons… by no means about financial reward, though. The fundamental property of the licence is a very simple “tit-for-tat”: I’ll give you my improvements, if you promise to give your improvements back. It’s a fundamentally fair licence, and you don’t have to worry about somebody else coming along and taking advantage of your work. The thing that then seemed to surprise people, is that that notion of “fairness” actually scales very well. Sure, a lot of companies were initially fairly leery about a licence that they weren’t all that used to, and sometimes doubly so because some portions of the free software camp had been very vocally anti-commercial and expected companies to overnight turn everything into free software.But really, the whole “tit-for-tat” model isn’t just fair on an individual scale, it’s fair on a company scale, and it’s fair on a global scale.” (2012 interview with the BBC)

The list goes on and on… but I don’t mention these so that you may quote them. Instead, I mention them to note that modern behavior is rooted in many sources and traditions that include “the Golden rule” as their central commonality. Rather than quoting any source, consider the simplest route when speaking of moral decisions at work, “Let’s do the right thing — for others and for ourselves.”

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Bonus tip: avoid the explicit mention of “prayer” at work. It can sound unnecessarily awkward, even to others who also pray. Instead, say, “After sitting with this a while” or “After some reflection” or “after some reflection and consideration of different arguments, I’ve decided.” You don’t have to name a deity. People who know you well will know that you were praying. People who don’t will trust that you were doing some combination of thinking and listening to your gut.” More importantly, if you develop a track record of good deicions that meet the needs of your team and other stakeholders, your team will stick with you, regardless of what they think of how you make your decisions.