I recently visited Finland, my native country. The trip made me think as to why so many people choose to follow the majority opinion as opposed to thinking for themselves, and why they avoid “extreme” positions on any issue as opposed to adhering to valid principles on which their lives literally depend. Conformity to the majority view and moderate pragmatism are not particularly Finnish qualities—they can be found everywhere—but they are prominent in Finland, a typical Nordic welfare state with a homogeneous population of merely five million and egalitarianism as the mainstream ideology. Since conformity and avoidance of “extreme” views have significant implications for human survival and well-being, they are worth analyzing.
As an example of following the majority view without thinking for oneself, consider the idea of human-caused climate change. Most of the media advocate climate alarmism blaming human activity, suppressing contrary facts and views. The majority of people believe in it as if it were warranted by facts. Those scientists who challenge the human-caused climate change dogma with contrary evidence are dismissed as “deniers”. The media and their consumers believe the reports of scientists who have joined the climate alarmism bandwagon (even after their authors have admitted penning them for political reasons only). A Finnish engineering professor argued in an article that because of man-made climate change, we must give up fossil fuels and embrace solar energy—which he claimed would be a viable alternative to fossil fuels by 2040.
Perhaps people feel safe in going with the majority, persuading themselves that “50,000 Frenchmen cannot be wrong” and that the emperor’s new clothes are splendid because everyone else seems to think so. However, nothing could be more hazardous than following others blindly. As shown by Aristotle and Ayn Rand, we survive and thrive by using reason: to achieve any value, from a nutritious breakfast to a successful career, we must adhere to facts and apply logic. And reason is an individual faculty; there is no collective brain. Each of us must think for ourselves—because unthinkingly following others will lead us to their values, which could be opposite to our own. If we are given advice, such as: “Abandon fossil fuels (and their derivative products, from gasoline to plastics to synthetic clothing),” we must independently assess its validity—if we want to live and flourish. Because our lives and well-being depends on such independent thinking, independence—‘the primary orientation to reality as opposed to other people’—is a moral virtue and important guide to action.
An example of avoiding “extreme” positions was a comment someone made to me in Finland. I attended a panel discussion about the future of the euro organized by the Libera Foundation, an independent Finnish think tank that promotes individual rights, free markets, and free society. I was telling about it to a CEO acquaintance and suggested that he attend future Libera events to benefit from the exchange of ideas that could help solve Finland’s problems, such as ballooning public expenses and chronic unemployment. His comment was: “Libera stands for such extreme views that I do not want to associate with it.” Admittedly, in the Finnish entitlement state, individual rights clash with the moral duty to be our brother’s keeper, the free markets with government regulation, and free society with the nanny state that knows best what’s good for its citizens.
But are individual rights, free markets, and free society “extreme” principles that should be avoided at all costs and replaced by the “moderate” ideas of altruism, market regulation, and the nanny state? Again, Ayn Rand convincingly demonstrated that our survival and thriving depends on identifying and consistently applying valid principles, no matter how “extreme” they may be considered by those clinging to the majority consensus.
Individual rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness are a necessary concept and define our freedom of action in a social context and protect us against the initiation of physical force by others. Free markets are necessary to maximize creation of material values and therefore, physical well-being. And free society, based on the recognition of individual rights and free markets, makes possible peaceful coexistence and prosperity. Adhering to these “extreme” principles is integrity, ‘loyalty to rational principles’—another moral virtue we need as a guideline to survival and happiness.
Achieving our values in the long term requires that we give up following the majority unthinkingly and knee-jerk rejections of “extreme” views. We must think for ourselves and act on rational moral principles instead.
May 14, 2014
Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada. Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.