Sometimes, after a hard day's reading of the daily newspapers with their endless tales of scam and scandal, I relax with the moral philosophers and the stories they tell of ways to keep on the straight and narrow. They often offer more reflective ideas for how to nurture a better society than all the speeches about SWAT teams to strike at fiscal fraud, or prescriptions for longer prison terms for cheats (but those are good ideas, too).
Plato recounts the myth of Gyges in a discussion of the meaning of justice: Socrates is under the gun for his radical notions about cultivating virtue for the sake of good government. His interlocutors, the young Turks of classical Athens, tell him he doesn't understand anything about human nature. To bolster their position, they invoke the myth of Gyges.
Gyges (as every schoolboy once knew) was a shepherd who served the king. An earthquake occurred while he was feeding his flock and the earth opened up, exposing a huge corpse with a ring on its finger. Gyges takes the ring and discovers that by turning it on his finger it will make him invisible. Turning it again, he becomes visible once more. While invisible to others, Gyges races to the palace, seduces the queen, kills the king and seizes power. He does what he does because he cannot be caught. He has no idealistic concern about doing the right thing, except in relation to rewards and punishment, fears and desires. Ask the young cynics: "Isn't that how nearly anybody would act?"
The crusty old philosopher does not discount such pragmatic considerations for developing morality, but he has little patience with his questioners because they're only interested in what people actually do, and he's more interested in what they (begin ital) ought to do. In a democracy, as in a republic, it's crucial not only to consider how people conduct their lives as seen by others, but also how they behave behind the scene. While the carrot and the stick are important for controlling human behavior, Socrates believed a moral society should inculcate in every citizen a desire to do the right thing - even when invisible.
In his speech to Wall Street last week, President Bush sought to strike a proper balance between a Socratic appeal to virtue and a pragmatic appeal to change the law. He proposed tough new criminal penalties and more authority and more money for investigators at the Security and Exchange Commission, to find and root out corporate corruption hidden in cooked books. He urged a "new ethic of personal responsibility in the business community, an ethic that will increase investor confidence, will make employees proud of their companies and again regain the trust of the American people."
But a rush to enact lots of new criminal laws, as Congress wants to do, strikes me as a mistake. This could invoke the iron law of unintended consequences, diverting fair and honest men and women from good business practices to spend most of their time policing wrongdoing.
More than 300 fraud and misrepresentation statutes are already on the books. Adding more, argue two professors in the New York Times, will merely encourage the corrupt to seek more creative ways for skirting the law. "And honest executives, instead of focusing on doing their jobs honorably, wind up playing the same legal games dishonest executives play," write David Skeel, who teaches business law at the University of Pennsylvania, and William Stuntz, who teaches criminal law at Harvard. "That is the natural consequence of relying too much on criminal law and too little on civil regulation and, especially, moral norms."
The president introduced the concept of "moral norms" in the Wall Street speech, harking back to the 1990s, as a time when making enormous profits tempted a lot of us to toss standards aside. In characterizing the 1990s as a decade of excess, the president didn't specifically say the seeds for scandal were planted by the Clinton-Gore administration, but the Republican National Committee was not so reticent. It placed the "era of irresponsibility" directly at the feet of the previous administration: "Scandal after scandal, revelation after revelation, Clinton-Gore always had an excuse."
We were told over and over in those years that personal morality made no impact on public good. What a president did after business hours was nobody's business but his own. We've since learned that public and private morality are not so easily separated. Moral norms of behavior are contagious across the spectrum, whether for ill or good. The ring that Gyges wore worked in both directions.