I love morality.
It may be silly, this bizarre obsession of mine, but I sponsor morality whenever I can. I plead for it, I advocate for it, I embrace it. I work so hard to advance morality that I’m often asked: Why?
Why should I care about morality? How do you even define morality? What good does it really do to moralize to others?
The answer to all three could simply be “profit“, but I think you deserve the longhand.
Why should you care?
Morality is the glue of society.
If you’ll forgive a biological analogy, we can talk a little about the coefficient of relationship (r) and prosociality. The former is simply a measure of genetic relatedness and the latter is the tendency to act on the benefit of cooperative others: together, they are the closely correlated and form the basis of cooperative (or altruistic) organisms.
Take for example the humble ant or the selfless bee. Both of these insects have a peculiar pattern of inheritance tied back to a common parent and remarkably little genetic diversity. That’s right, there are Queen Bees and Queen Ants that cause all of the members of a particular “hive” to be at least 50% genetically identical and thus with a very high r value. (Mammals aren’t excluded from this principle either: naked mole rats also exhibit this pattern of a Queen mother and a limited pool of fertile males.) This high degree of specialization, essentially leaving breeding as the exclusive role of a specific class, encourages other morphological specialization such as a different categories of sterile workers. If we examine this phenomena from the perspective of genetics, we can immediately see that even occasionally self-sacrificial altruism has a genetic advantage in this context. (E.g., a termite might drown itself to form a bridge over which other termites might pass. Even though that termite does not breed, it shares more than a 50% genetic heritage with its surviving sisters.) If we look toward praxeology, we can see how this is a kind of division of labor that yields a net benefit to everyone involved.
In the human organism, consanguinity is still of interest in the pursuit of prosocial impulses but it is joined by other pressures. Because of social hierarchy, there is a constant interplay of social statuses being enthroned and overthrown in the context of local clans, areas of commerce, and groups of common interests. Because of communication, humans have the means of propagating sophisticated ideologies and identifying with them strongly enough to justify genetically-transcendent altruism. Because of technology, the human drama has taken a new stage where hundreds of millions of people can watch simultaneously with the same front-row seats anywhere in the world. Veritable millions are swelling the ranks of internet users each year and nothing on the Internet is forgotten… if the future is a continuation of the present, we can expect reputation to only grow in importance. These factors have conspired to make human prosociality less about genetics and more about social capital.
In other words, the actions most likely to reward respect, status, affection, money, or any kind of profit are those transcendent acts of altruism that are outside our standard biological imperatives. It is when the millionaire travels to a far-off land to share modern medicine with an otherwise unknown population that we take notice. The sheer improbability, the seeming genetic inferiority of this strategy is indeed something to ponder, yet the social benefits gained through public altruism is both real and obvious. In an increasingly connected and personal society, where you broadcast what you like, who you know, and where you live, we can only expect increasing returns on social capital.
How does one acquire social capital? Morality.
How can you define morality, anyway?
There have been relativistic trends in philosophical thinking since the beginning, sometimes but not always associated with nihilism. The idea that morals are subjective is about as true as the my ability to read a thermometer is subjective. In other words, not only do we have strong intuitive understanding of universally preferable behavior but we can recognize these preferences as existing between cultures. One might have differing views on tattooing, e.g., but one would be hard-pressed to find someone who endorses their own theft, assault, or murder. Quite literally, coercion and violation of autonomy are prerequisite for certain acts of indisputable immorality.
Now, a look at the other side. Are there universally desirable actions? Our biologic context gives all humans a common set of basic preferences with culture providing refinement. In other words, every person is fond of having food accessible yet the most desirable type of food is indeed variable. Yet wealth is always desirable and always volitional. The reason for this is simple: fungible currency is the most liquid asset. One can use money to invest in whatever resources are most important to them, be it shellfish or spaghetti or shingles or sales copy. It is thus universally desirable to generate wealth.
Now, I imagine you are economically saavy and literate: you know capitalism isn’t a zero-sum game. In fact, every voluntary exchange is (by definition) only conducted when both parties think it is in their best interest. The division of knowledge means it is impossible for me to deduce someone else’s exact preferences, thus lending strength to the notion that individuals should have express rights to their autonomy in decision-making. Yet, all too often in our modern Information Age, we find trades that seem like they might have been win-lose, that knowledge asymmetry drove an otherwise rational actor to make a decision that had ill effects. All the way through business operations these decision points are reached, with each decision being a trade-off of sometimes mysterious consequences.
For example, if I am a socks manufacturer in America, I know I could outsource my manufacturing to save money. It is easier to keep my factory where it is, yet I am more likely to profit if I move. This simple CBA is being cast in a personal frame of reference. By alluding to the consequences it has for me, the business owner, I am relying purely on personal preference. This is indeed normal decision-making, but it is not valuable from the perspective of the consumer and thus is not marketable.
Let’s reframe this same case from a more objective perspective that is more easily understood by the consumer. I have a sock business that can either stay in the states or outsource work. I might feel that too many people are going to sleep sockless and that I am morally obligated to outsource and expand in order to meet consumer demand. Alternatively, my desire to see the local community flourish might compel me to generate jobs in my local area, but my goodwill would have to trump the dollars flying off the ledger each month. This is where marketing arrives.
A call for taller horses
In our last example, we rephrased our conundrum and created a moral narrative behind both decisions. Yet, in one decision, we seemingly needed to take a loss to do good. This indeed makes for a harrowing dilemma, yet I wish to assure you that it is a false dichotomy. The sock manufacturer’s ability to profit from their decision for the greater good is directly proportionate to their ability to shape the narrative regarding the decision at hand. If a campaign focuses upon how Global Socks Inc uses diverse labor to clothe the world over with the most affordable socks on the market, they may well placate those who would criticize the exportation of jobs. If Local Socks Ltd shows the pride that local workers take in making some of the finest socks in their country, for their country, they could also succeed at recouping and excelling beyond their competition.
Best of all, neither approach is truly right or wrong. Both generate wealth and wellbeing, the distinction is simply one of preference. Yet, in the absence of moral marketing the long-term benefits of social capital weigh a little less in the mind of the executive. Moral marketing takes the invisible and makes it salient to the consumer, simultaneously and incidentally injecting their life with a more realistic paradigm of what business is really about. It does not require consumers to care about charity, hiring practices, or the use of herbicides: it simply invites them into hitherto inaccessible points of view. When a consumer sees the net-positive impact that a business has on so many different and emotionally relatable people, they begin to associate the brand with moral integrity.
Finally, we can begin to see the real value of moral marketing. It is this subconscious association with morality that allows a brand to become worth talking about. And not just for 15 minutes: a good reputation is measured in no less than years. It is the conversion of consumers into advocates that gives them a personal stake in the company. They gain status, self-respect, and other value from associating themselves with the company, correspondingly coming to promote it unprompted and defend it unabetted. Part of the social capital generated by a morally marketed company can be donned by its participants, supplying them with tangible examples of how they contribute to others’ welfare.
It ultimately amounts to a kind of thought leadership, or a leaderless movement based on common ideology. This is the ideal brand, but it is also the ideal charity. As we take note of compassionate capitalists and clear cogitators like Muhammad Yunus, it is time to recognize that only self-sufficient forces make a real impact on the large scale. No amount of fundraising is enduring, for that matter no amount of money is enough. If one has a genuine ambition to improve the lives of others, the only actionable option is to create a buoyant vehicle atop our current market forces and staff it with cheerful oarsmen that believe in your destination.
What does morality mean to you?
Morality is simply our best description of the rules that govern our ability to generate social capital. It is a big part of the reason that pure self-interest can support altruism, communities, and society. No matter the domain, I would like to ask you to dare to be moral. Learn how your business benefits others and promote it with conviction. In due time, you will find that it makes everything a lot Better.