Moral decline and the end of big ideas


Participants pray at The Response, a call to prayer for a nation in crisis, Saturday, August 6, 2011, in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP)
September 26, 2011

What drives someone to want to change the world?

Pure market economists would tell us that self-interest drives innovation. But Wall Street has shown that one’s self-interest is better served by financial manipulation than by inventing or creating something of lasting value. For those who have opted for entrepreneurship, rational self-interest dictates that they reach for low hanging fruit. Our market opportunities are so large that it is unnecessary to aim high when even a modest opportunity can result in millions of dollars in profits. For example, a well-known technology incubator recently launched an underwear delivery service. Unless you’re someone who finds it difficult to keep your underwear clean, I hardly think this qualifies as game-changing, and yet I hear the company is doing well. Who’s to judge them? After all, they are being rational. Why shoot for the stars when success can be had at significantly lower risk?

The next question is one of necessity. As Plato said, it is “necessity who is the mother of invention.” In the developed world, are there really any necessities? Even if nothing else is invented in our lifetimes, we still live lives many times wealthier and more comfortable than any generation before us. When our ancestors were forced to invent a spear or crossbow, the necessity was to prevent their families from starving. Today, many of us face no such pressing need. In terms of necessity, the modern world is similar to the airplane. For the first 70 years after the Wright brothers flew, airplane development grew by leaps and bounds. But, since the 747 made its first commercial flight in 1970, development in airplanes has nearly ground to a halt. Once we reached pressurized cabins and jet engines, the pressing need to innovate all but disappeared.

If self-interest dictates that we pursue easier paths, and our lives are so comfortable that there is no necessity driving us, then we are left to ask , yet again, why would someone take on the challenge of creating something that would change the world? I believe the answer is “moral obligation.” Consider Elon Musk the founder and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla. From the sale of his previous companies Zip2 and PayPal, Musk was already worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Rational self interest for Musk would have meant a diversified investment portfolio. In terms of necessity, he had no more (and perhaps much less) “need” than the rest of us. Why then would he risk his entire fortune — to the point that he was surviving on loans from friends — to pursue space travel and electric cars? After all, there are easier ways to pursue fame, fortune and power. Some might argue that Musk simply likes the challenge. While I have no doubt that is part of the equation, I believe Musk and people like him are driven to pursue game changing innovations by an inherent moral obligation to change the world for the better.

Our ancestors lived in small communities that had a shared moral and social fabric for millions of years. If someone lied or did something harmful to the group, they were likely caught and ostracized. Conversely, if someone invented a useful tool, then the entire group would benefit. Today, we live in a society that is so large and complex that we no longer share the moral and social fabric that formed our village bonds and drove our obligations to the well being of the populace. A 2008 study by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith showed that young people did not even possess the vocabulary to discuss morality. Instead, Smith found an environment of non-judgmental moral individualism characterized by answers such as, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.” The young people surveyed seemed to have no moral compass other than whatever they felt good about at the moment. I am neither conservative nor religious, and I’m not suggesting a forced morality on the population. But I do feel we are facing a decline in the moral fabric of our society — and with it, a decline in our obligation to consider the good of society as a whole.

I began this piece by asking: “What drives someone to want to change the world?” I believe the answer is a sense of moral duty to make the world a better place. This ranges from purely altruistic people such as Gandhi to innovators with grand business ideas like Elon Musk and X-Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis. Rational thinking alone does not explain the choices that they have made. Perhaps my challenge to the technology community to be unreasonable needs to be altered. Instead of being unreasonable, consider what moral obligations you might have to the greater good. Because, if moral obligation fades completely, I fear that the big ideas and grand ambition to change the world for the better will fade with it.

Francisco Dao is the founder of 50Kings, which hosts invitation-only adventures for technology and media innovators. He is a former leadership columnist for Inc.com, a lifelong entrepreneur, author and former stand-up comic.

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