"Greed is the universal motive, sincerity is a pose, honesty is for chumps, altruism is selfishness with a neurotic twist, and morality is for kids and fools."
That was Walt Harrington writing in The Washington Post on Dec. 27, 1987, in response to the financial and sexual scandals of that period. Then, the ethical violations were committed by men named Ivan Boesky and Michael Milkin. Their means to immoral ends were junk bonds and insider trading. The most prominent (though by no means only) sexual sinners of the '80s were Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado and TV evangelist Jim Bakker.
It is remarkable how little has changed since then. Today, most of the public recognizes the names of corporations tainted by ethical violations more than they do the individuals who head them -- Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Xerox, Rite Aid.
In 1988, I published a book titled, "The Death of Ethics in America." One of my points was that if we do not teach our children the importance of ethics and good morals and model such things before them, they're not likely to display them automatically.
Our culture promotes greed, and so greed we get. From those profiled on television to the stories in popular magazines, the selfish corporate chief with his huge income, private plane(s), multiple residences (and sometimes multiple wives) is king. The CEO who looks out for his employees before himself and who is paid a salary that never comes close to the obscene, seems not to exist.
Our politics suffers from a shortage of people who put character and country before career and personal gain. We need more congressmen like Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), who has announced his retirement because he believes there are things in life more important than a congressional career. Watts has been a model of personal and professional rectitude.
The current round of business scandals will be addressed by the courts and Congress, which will pass new regulations and laws that will be as effective as the laws and regulations just violated. Some members of Congress will be influenced by corporate lobbyists interested in blunting the impact of any new legislation.
James Madison believed the public would mostly elect virtuous people to office, but only if the people were mainly virtuous.
"To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea," Madison wrote.
The late Senate Chaplain, Richard C. Halverson (cq), looked at the ethical scandals in high places nearly 20 years ago and offered this diagnosis of their source: "Abandoning an absolute ethical (and) moral standard leads irresistibly to the absence of ethics and morality. Each person determines his own ethical/moral code. That's anarchy. Humans become their own gods and decide, each in his own way, what is good and what is evil. Evil becomes good -- good becomes evil. Upside down morality! Good is ridiculed! Evil is dignified!"
It isn't that all people in every age don't sin (remember that "quaint" word?). Wrongdoing was once treated seriously. Today, it doesn't matter and what we tolerate we get more of. Celebrity is all that matters today and it matters not how attained. A killer may be sought by people who desire his autograph. The Puritans put those who stole other people's money on display in the public square to be ridiculed and spat upon by the public. Our "robber barons" hire expensive lawyers and have a good chance of escaping any meaningful punishment. Rather than accept blame, they blame others.
It isn't that we don't know where to look for guidance in how to build lives of personal integrity and governments and institutions that reflect them. It is that we have chosen to ignore such things in the pursuit of immediate gratification.
Reflecting on the monetary scandals of the 1920s which led to the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover observed, "Monetary loss or even the shock of moral sensibilities is perhaps a passing thing, but the braking down of the faith of a people in the honesty of their government and in the integrity of their institutions, the lowering of respect for the standards of honor which prevail in high places, are crimes for which punishment can never atone." ("Memoirs of Herbert Hoover," Macmillan Co., 1952)