Right and wrong are grounded in moral absolutes for theologians and philosophers, but the law recognizes right and wrong only as relative to time and place.
My father the bookie, for example, was raided often, and he was taken down to the police precinct to be charged with operating a numbers racket with gambling tables on the side. Years later, long after he had left "the life" behind, I stood next to him at the opening of one of the big casinos in Atlantic City as he looked on with amazement at the rows of flashing lights, the endless rolls of the dice, the fat wads of bills and stacks of black and red chips being shoved around on the tables in a rapidly moving mosaic.
"I had only one craps table, one blackjack game and four slot machines," he said. "Nothing like this." He chuckled. "And a lot of men with less than I had got 10 years as guests of Uncle Sam for their trouble." He waved his hand to encompass the cavernous room. "Now look at all this, and it's legal, too. So are lotteries, which are merely state-sponsored numbers games. I was just 50 years ahead of my time."
Daddy never went to prison but several of his associates did. My brother and I were occasionally told that Uncle Sidney wouldn't be around for Thanksgiving or that Shorty and Slim were "on vacation," but we knew they weren't sunning on the sand in Miami Beach.
My father, who was always a "Big Daddy" to me, told me after I was an adult that he suffered the tortures of the damned, obsessed with his view of himself as a man perceived by others to be shameful and dishonest. He didn't know then that he was seen by men and women on both sides of the law as a bookie who was trusted as a man of character.
He longed to go "straight," what he always characterized as moving "to the other side of the tracks." He wanted to do right without illegal strings attached. Finally, when I was 13, the stacks of yellow legal pads with names and numbers and the phone banks disappeared from my house as if by magic. Big Daddy went legit, becoming a "home builder."
He was thrilled with the notion of "respectable" work. So he was shocked when he discovered that the ethics of many of his new business associates were considerably more suspect than those of the gambling men he had left behind. Many had no problem using shoddy materials, cutting corners on poor-quality pipes, hiding defective wiring in the walls, and cheating the customers in nickels, dimes and dollars. He learned that what defined men on both sides of the track was something called character, a concern for doing the right thing because it was the right thing.
I think about my father, his work, fears and conflicts when reading about the corporate scandals in the newspapers. Daddy knew when his gambling was against the law - he didn't pretend to be what he wasn't - but he tried to be a man of integrity within that system. What the corrupt corporate officials do is to maintain the appearance of living within the law when they know that what they're doing is wrong. The corrupt CEOs and accountants don't change their behavior to make things better, they merely try to look moral while stealing the fortunes of others. They're not concerned about doing the right thing, only to not get caught doing the wrong thing.
An essay on the op-ed page of The New York Times, by Jean Strouse, author of a biography of J.P. Morgan, says it all: "Capitalism Depends on Character." She tells how the railroad tycoon in the 19th century was no saint, but nevertheless took on moral responsibility for restructuring failing companies. When he was asked by Congress whether money was the most important value for judging a man who wants commercial credit, he replied that it was not money but character that was most important, "because a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom."
The evildoers on Wall Street (and evil is exactly what some of them do), by lacking character, not only cheat others of their money, but undermine trust and confidence in business. While the law will probably punish some of them, and new laws may make it harder for others to get away with cheating in the future, the rest of us have to worry about re-establishing what President Bush calls "an ethical compass," a sense of right and wrong in the whole corporate culture -and in the larger culture. That larger culture is where the rest of us live.