In the current Acton Commentary, I take a look at the common temptation to consider ourselves as somehow uniquely beyond the mundane obligations of the moral order. I do so through the lens of the hero of Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, and a particular moral dilemma he faces.
I read through A Field Guide for the Hero’s Journey last week, and was struck by the significance given to this insight in chapter 3, “The Importance of Setting Guardrails.” In a short essay, “The Road Not Taken,” Jeff Sandefer discusses his relationship with Jeff Skilling, and how he “watched Skilling’s meteoric success at Enron, and saw him acquire enough money and power to make the need for ethical guardrails seem old fashioned.”
Sandefer, who teaches in and founded the Acton MBA in Entrepreneurship program, draws a couple of pedagogical lessons from Skilling’s case:
After watching the rise and fall of Enron, and the corrupting influence of money and power, I started encouraging my students to make a list of “I will nots”–actions like cheating on a spouse or embezzling money–the lines that they promise never to cross, no matter the temptations.
I also encourage my students to write a “letter to self,” with advice to themselves, to be opened whenever they might be tempted to cross such a line, and seal it and place it in a safe place, to be opened when needed, as it surely will be. Because the more success you have, the more likely it is that the letter and ethical guardrails will be needed.
There are opinions about heroic or virtuoso morality, such as those espoused by Nietzsche or Machiavelli, that would place the heroic figure beyond mundane moral categories, beyond the good and evil of common folk. But truly heroic morality is mundane, precisely because the great and powerful are not exempt from the basic obligations of the moral order. As Lord Acton put it, “If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases.”
Rev. Robert Sirico’s essay in chapter 3 of A Field Guide for the Hero’s Journey takes a look at the complementary idea that it is as important how we behave when no one (other than God) is looking as when we are in the public eye. I recommend checking out this fine book for inspiring insight into how “anyone can do great things, can live a life that’s remarkable, purposeful, excellent, and yes, even heroic.”