Think Tank

My Business Ethics class was instructed to read this story and I found it so interesting and thought provoking... So many questions to be pondered in life :) Enjoy!

The Parable of the Sadhu

Text Box: Bowen McCoyPhotos by Mike Brozdasadpic1.jpg (40295 bytes)On a mountain climbing expedition to the Himalayas, Bowen McCoy, a managing director of the Morgan Stanley Company, and his party found a pilgrim, or Sadhu, dying of cold. Although the climbers helped the holy man, Mr. McCoy and his team ultimately pressed on with their trek, determined to reach the summit. This unexpected ethical dilemma left them questioning their values--and the values of business, which often places goal achievement ahead of other considerations. In this moving article, which received the Harvard Business Review’s Ethics Prize in 1983, Mr. McCoy relates his experience in the distant mountain of Nepal to the short and long-term goals of American business.

Last year, as the first participant of in the new six-month sabbatical program that Morgan Stanley has adopted, I enjoyed a rare opportunity to collect my thoughts as well as do some traveling. I spent the first three months in Nepal, walking 600 miles through 200 villages in the Himalayas and climbing some 120,000 vertical feet. On the trip my sole Western companion was an anthropologist who shed light on the cultural patterns of the villages we passed through.

During the Nepal hike, something occurred that has had a powerful impact on my thinking about corporate ethics. Although some might argue that the experience has no relevance to business, it was a situation in which a basic ethical dilemma suddenly intruded into the lives of a group of individuals. How the group responded I think holds a lesson for all organizations no matter how defined.

sadpic2.jpg (77732 bytes)

Sadhus, or holy men, roam the countryside of India and Nepal, begging for food

The Sadhu

Nepal experience was more rugged and adventuresome than I had anticipated. Most commercial treks last two or three weeks and cover a quarter of the distance we traveled.

My friend Stephen, the anthropologist, and I were halfway through the 60-day Himalayan part of the trip when we reached the high point, an 18,000-foot pass over a crest that we'd have to traverse to reach the village of Muktinath, an ancient holy place for pilgrims.

Six years earlier I had suffered pulmonary edema, an acute form of altitude sickness, at 16,500 feet in the vicinity of Everest base camp, so we were understandably concerned about what would happen at 18,000 feet. Moreover, the Himalayas were having their wettest spring in 20 years; hip-deep powder and ice had already driven us off one ridge. If we failed to cross the pass, I feared that the last half of our "once in a lifetime" trip would be ruined.

During the late afternoon, four backpackers from New Zealand joined us, and we spent most of the night awake anticipating the climb. Below we could see the fires of two other parties, which turned out to be two Swiss couples and a Japanese hiking club.

To get over the steep part of the climb before the sun melted the steps cut in the ice, we departed at 3:30 a.m. The New Zealanders left first, followed by Stephen and myself, our ports and Sherpas, and then the Swiss. The Japanese lingered in their camp. The sky was clear, and we were confident that no spring storm would erupt the day to close the pass.

At 15,500 feet, it looked to me as if Stephen were shuffling and staggering a bit, which are symptoms of altitude sickness. (The initial stage of altitude sickness brings a headache and nausea. As the condition worsens, a climber may encounter difficult breathing, disorientation, aphasia, and paralysis.) I felt strong, my adrenaline was flowing, but I was very concerned about my ultimate ability to get across. A couple of our porters were also suffering from the height and Pasang, our Sherpa sirdar (leader), was worried.

Just after daybreak, while we rested at 15,000 feet, one of the New Zealanders, who had gone ahead, came staggering down toward us with a body slung across his shoulders. He dumped the almost naked, barefoot body of an Indian holy man--a Sadhu-- at my feet. He had found the pilgrim lying on the ice, shivering and suffering from hypothermia. I cradled the Sadhu’s head and laid him out on the rocks. The New Zealander was angry. He wanted to get across the pass before the bright sun melted the snow. He said "Look I’ve done what I can. You have porters and Sherpa guides. You care for him. We’re going on!" He turned and went back up the mountain to join his friends.

I took a carotid pulse and found that the Sadhu was still alive. We figured he had probably visited the holy shrines at Muktinath and was on his way home. It was fruitless to question why he had chosen this desperately high route instead of the safe, heavily traveled caravan route through the Kali Gandaki gorge. Or why he was almost naked and with no shoes, or how long he had been lying in the pass. The answers weren’t going to solve our problem.

Stephan and the four Swiss began stripping off outer clothing and opening their packs. The Sadhu was soon clothed from head to foot. He was not able to walk, but he was very much alive. I looked down the mountain and spotted below the Japanese climbers marching up with a horse.

Without a great deal of thought, I told Stephen and Pasang that I was concerned about withstanding the heights to come and wanted to get over the pass. I took off after several of our porters who had gone ahead.

On the steep part of the ascent where, if the ice steps had given way, I would have slid down about 3,000 feet, I felt vertigo. I stopped for a breather, allowing the Swiss to catch up with me. I inquired about the Sadhu and Stephen. They said the Sadhu was fine and that Stephen was just behind. I set off again for the summit.

Stephen arrived at the summit an hour after I did. Still exhilarated by victory, I ran down the snow slope to congratulate him. He was suffering from altitude sickness, walking 15 steps, then stopping, walking 15 steps, then stopping. Pasang accompanied him all the way up. When I reached them, Stephen glared at me and said: "How do you feel about contributing to the death of a fellow man?" I did not fully comprehend what he meant. "Is the Sadhu dead?" I inquired. "No, replied Stephen, "but he surely will be!" After I had gone, and the Swiss had departed not long after, Stephen had remained with the Sadhu. When the Japanese had arrived, Stephen asked to use their horse to transport the Sadhu down to the hut. They had refused. He had then asked Pasang to have a group of our porters carry the Sadhu. Pasang had resisted the idea, saying that the porters would have to exert all their energy to get themselves over the pass. He had thought they could not carry a man down 1,000 feet to the hut, reclimb the slope, and get across safely before the snow melted. Pasang had pressed Stephen not to delay any longer.

The Sherpas had carried the Sadhu down to a rock in the sun at about 15,00 feet and had pointed out the hut another 500 feet below. The Japanese had given him food and drink. When they had last seen him he was listlessly throwing rocks at the Japanese party’s dog, which had frightened him.

We do not know if the Sadhu lived or died. For many of the following days and evenings Stephen and I discussed and debated our behavior toward the Sadhu. Stephen is a committed Quaker with deep moral vision. He said "I feel that what happened with the Sadhu is a good example of the breakdown between the individual ethic and the corporate ethic. No one person was willing to assume ultimate responsibility for the Sadhu. Each was willing to do his bit just so long as it was not too inconvenient. When it got to be a bother, everyone just passed the buck to someone else and took off."

I defended the larger group saying "Look, we all cared. We all stopped and gave aid and comfort. Everyone did hit bit. "The New Zealander carried him down below the snow line. I took his pulse and suggested we treat him for hypothermia. You and the Swiss gave him clothing and got him warmed up. The Japanese gave him food and water. The Sherpas carried him down to the sun and pointed out the easy trail toward the hut. He was well enough to throw rocks at a dog. What more could we do?" "You have just described the typical affluent Westerner's response to a problem. Throwing money--in this case food and sweaters--at it, but not solving the fundamentals!" Stephen retorted.

"What would satisfy you?" I said. "Here we are, a group of New Zealanders, Swiss, Americans, and Japanese who have never met before and who are at the apex of one of the most powerful experiences of our lives. Some years the pass is so bad no one gets over it. What right does an almost naked pilgrim who chooses the wrong trail have to disrupt our lives? Even the Sherpas had no interest in risking the trip to help him beyond a certain point."

Stephen calmly rebutted, "I wonder what the Sherpas would have done if the Sadhu had been a well-dressed Nepali, or what the Japanese would have done if the Sadhu had been a well-dressed Asian, or what you would have done, Buzz, if the Sadhu had been a well-dressed Western woman?" "Where, in your opinion," I asked instead, "is the limit of our responsibility in a situation like this? We had own well-being to worry about. Our Sherpa guides were unwilling to jeopardize us or the porters for the Sadhu. No one else on the mountain was willing to commit himself beyond certain self-imposed limits." Stephen said, "As people with a Western ethical tradition, we can fulfill our obligations in such a situation only if (1) the Sadhu dies in our care, (2) the Sadhu demonstrates to us that he could undertake the two-day walk down to the village, or (3) we carry the Sadhu for two days down to the village and convince someone there to care for him." "Leaving the Sadhu in the sun with food and clothing, while he demonstrated hand-eye coordination by throwing a rock at a dog, comes close to fulfilling items one and two," I answered. "And it wouldn't have made sense to take him to the village where the people appeared to be far less caring than the Sherpas, so the third condition is impractical. Are you really saying that, no matter what the implications, we should, at the drop of a hat, have changed our entire plan?"