Does virtue come from truth? Or does truth come from virtue? It’s an ancient question and one that helps define the differences between cultures.
According to the father-son team of Gert Hofstede and Geert Jan Hofstede, these questions help determine whether a culture is long-term or short-term oriented (LTO or STO). LTO cultures foster “… virtues oriented toward future rewards — in particular, perseverance and thrift.” STO cultures, on the other hand, foster, “…virtues related to the past and present — in particular, respect for tradition, preservation of ‘face’, and fulfilling social obligations.”
Cultures that rank high on the LTO index tend to be eastern. Countries with the highest LTO indexes are: China (LTOI = 118), Hong Kong (96), Taiwan (87), Japan (80), Viet Nam (80), and South Korea (75). Cultures that rank lower tend to have a European heritage: Sweden (33), Germany (31), New Zealand (30), United States (29), Great Britain (25), Canada (23), and Spain (19).
According to the Hofstedes, a short –term culture emphasizes quick results, spending (as opposed to saving), respect for traditions, and concern with preserving social status and ‘face’. Longer-term cultures emphasize sustained efforts, thriftiness, respect for current circumstances (as opposed to tradition), and concern with personal adaptiveness (as opposed to status).
How does all this play out? Students in LTO cultures tend to link success to effort. In STO cultures, students may attribute success to many factors, including luck, social status, appearance, or “who you know”.
The differences crop up in myriad other ways as well. Marriage is a moral arrangement in an STO culture but more of a pragmatic solution in an LTO culture. Gifts for children tend to be playful in STO cultures but educational in LTO cultures. Old age is viewed as an unhappy period in STO cultures but the opposite in LTO cultures.
The extended family is typically more important in LTO cultures. In long-term societies, you’re born into a family and tradition and you adapt to situations that were created long before you arrived. Society imposes itself on you. Short-term cultures, on the other hand, tend to value the “self-made man” who can impose himself on society.
These differences affect organizations in various ways. STO businesses tend to focus on the bottom line and this year’s profits. LTO businesses focus more on market position and profits over the coming decade. Managers and workers are in two different camps in STO cultures; they share similar aspirations in LTO cultures.
But what about virtue and truth? The differences tend to follow an East/West (or, more generally an LTO/STO) divide.
Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) all have a Book disseminating a truth that individuals can apprehend. What you believe is important. Virtue comes from truth.
Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taosim) are not based on a Book containing eternal truth. Rather, they focus on living virtuously, which may include meditation, ritual, and self-abnegation. What you do is important. Living virtuously can lead you to spiritual awareness. Truth comes from virtue.
Where virtue comes from truth, enlightenment can happen instantaneously. Think of Saul on the road to Damascus. Where truth comes from virtue, enlightenment may take considerably longer.