The Limits of Levees

Michael Metzger

The nature of the beast.
As devastating as Hurricane Katrina was, a greater disaster might have occurred had the storm made landfall just 150 miles to the west, where a series of flood control structures on the Mississippi River are located.  Begun in the 1950s and built where the River makes a sharp 90° left turn, these dams and channels are designed to fight against the natural inclination of the waterway – which is to follow the path of least resistance and find the shortest route to the sea.  In this case, the River wants to continue straight ahead, fanning out into the Atchafalaya Basin.  That’s the nature of the beast… and the problem.1

Today, those control structures allow 30% of the Mississippi River to go south through the Atchafalaya Basin.  But we’re fighting against Mother Nature.  In 1973, a flood forced the Corps to open up the Atchafalaya structures to alleviate flood waters so that New Orleans wouldn’t go underwater. The flood undermined the foundation of the Atchafalaya Dam, in addition to trying to go around and underneath it.  At an additional cost of almost $300 million, the Army Corps proceeded with the construction of an additional structure. But since this cuts off most of the River’s sediment, the Atchafalaya is scouring deeper into its riverbed, providing an even steeper route for the Mississippi.  Again, it’s the nature of the beast.  But it’s also a good picture of what’s mostly missing in our modern “ethics training” so common in business today.

As we read about the endless litany of ethical breeches and CEO trials; we do need external barriers that curb our fallen tendencies.  But most remedies like “ethics training” and Sarbanes-Oxley don’t seem to get at the nature of the problem – which is that people are not beasts.  We have a soul.  We are not waterways that can only be curbed by levees. People have an internal gyrocompass that can alter the course of our internal nature.

This is one of the strengths of the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition, when it is understood as a “four chapter” Story.  It approaches problems from the external and the internal.  This faith sustains the tension between espousing “the way things ought to be” and recognizing “the way it is.”2 It builds control structures and ways to change the fundamental direction of business behavior (all behavior, really!).  How?

Close to 100 years ago, John Fletcher Moulton, a noted English judge, spoke on the subject of “Law and Manners.”  He imagined the structure of a society or company as similar to an oval divided into three sections.  At one end is the domain of law, “where,” he said, “our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us which must be obeyed.”  At the other end of the oval is the domain of free choice, which, Moulton continued, includes all those actions as to which we claim and enjoy complete freedom.”

Between these two extremes is the center which I describe as the moral middle. This is where our actions are not prescribed by law, nor are we free to behave in any way we choose.  It is what Moulton called “the domain of obedience to the unenforceable.”  In this center, he said, obedience is the obedience of a man to that which he cannot be forced to obey… it extends to cover “all cases of doing right where there is no one to make you do it but yourself.”3

Moulton got to the heart of the matter.  Doing the right thing is ultimately unenforceable… but achievable.  “The real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of obedience to the unenforceable.”  By that, Moulton acknowledged we have to enact laws (since we’re fallen and do bad things), but the strength of a culture or company is how much it enjoys an expansive and expanding “moral middle. We’re not beasts and can’t ultimately control behavior.  But we can bracket it while encouraging moral actions.  And how do we encourage such behavior?  Through helping our colleagues navigate work by their God-given gyrocompass.

The ancients referred to our compass as conscience.  They recognized we ultimately follow our conscience – be it good or bad. But that’s a unique leverage we have with humans that you don’t get with beasts.  Beasts – like the waters of the Mississippi River – have no conscience.  No matter how many control structures are built, the nature of the Mississippi River is to follow the path of least resistance. But it’s not necessarily the nature of our colleagues.  By developing corporate and individual conscience, we can expand the “moral middle” and enjoy a system of capitalism that promotes doing the right thing.4 Otherwise, when pressure increases, the next breech is inevitable.  And who knows how catastrophic it will prove to be?

1 The Atchafalaya Basin offers a route to the Gulf that is 175 miles shorter than its present course.  If the Mississippi followed that course, the lower River would back up and become a saltwater estuary as far as Baton Rouge.  And since the economies of Baton Rouge and New Orleans depend on the Mississippi for fresh water, commerce, and transportation; any breech in the control structures would mean goodbye to their economies.
2 Creation is how things ought to be, the Fall is what is – i.e., what are things really like in the real world as a result of our shortcomings, Redemption is what we can do to make things better, and the final Restoration what things will be like some day, when the world is fully refurbished.
3 These comments were delivered by Dr. John Silber – then president of Boston University – on May 21, 1995, to the graduating class of Boston University, on the occasion of Dr. Silber’s twenty-fifth commencement as president of B.U.
4 It is intriguing that journalist Roger Wilkins, usually antagonistic toward the Bush Administration, recently agreed with both Charles Colson and President Bush that “conscience is essential to healthy capitalism (c.f., August 16, 2003 Washington Post).


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