John Colson: Hit and Run
October 29, 2009
I’ve been reading a bit of detective fiction – not a very good book, I must say – by a Spanish author about an aging fencing instructor who gets caught up in a plot with deep and nasty political and moral implications.
As I said, the book isn’t that good, but the main character attracted my attention. He’s a 57-year-old fencing master living in the middle of 19th-century Spain, watching the world around him go to hell in a handbasket and lamenting the loss of personal honor and integrity, particularly in the young hotheads who seem to be running, and ruining, the world.
Sound familiar? Do the terms “Wall Street broker” or “investment banker” come to mind?
Whatever. Let us continue.
This hapless gent in the book lives by a strict moral code of honor and behavior, wouldn’t even think of lying to get out of a tight spot or to get into a lady’s bloomers, and is engagingly distressed to discover that others are lying and scheming all around him.
The story ends oddly, not at all as you might expect, but there’s no need to take it any further. If you want to know more, contact me.
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My interest in the story has to do with the idea of a code of ethical conduct that is inherent to a person’s understanding of one’s self and, by extension, of one’s relationship to the world. Breaking that code, if it truly is carved deeply into one’s psyche, is a very uncomfortable thing, and not casually done.
But it seems that, all around us, the world is increasingly dominated by, and pandering to, a type of person who has no such internal code.
We could go on about the Wall Street stock brokers for whom greed is the only important concept, but that’s gotten a little boring.
Instead, I’ll offer up the case of a niece of mine, who recently went on an all-expense-paid trip to Las Vegas, courtesy of the wealthy family of a college friend, for a lavish birthday weekend thrown for said friend.
It appears that my niece and her friend were caught with phony ID cards at a bar, got tossed out and lost those precious cards, despite mom’s best efforts to get the bartender to give the cards back. My niece apparently fled to her room, crying hysterically over the fact that she was being prevented from drinking herself into a stupor that night.
Well, the next day, while shopping with said friend, the friend’s mom started shouting excitedly from the other side of the Nieman Marcus store, bringing my niece and her mom running, expecting to see some juicy article of must-have clothing. Instead, they found a girl who looked just like my niece, who was willing to sell her driver’s license for a C-note so said niece could get into a bar and drink herself silly. Mom paid the girl, niece got the license, and everybody was happy, right?
Well, in one sense, but what message did that episode convey to my 19-year-old niece? That with enough money one gets whatever one wants, regardless of ethical or moral implications? That such seedy transactions are just part of the great game of life? That there are no consequences for dishonesty and cheating, especially if it’s in the name of FUN?
I don’t want to seem preachy here, because I’ve certainly done my fair share of idiotically dishonest things in my life, mostly when I was young enough to blame it on inexperience, stupidity or sheer gall.
But the thing with my niece and her mom troubles me. Where does it end? Is there no true “right-and-wrong” that prevents us from taking actions that we know are not honest, that we know might be dangerous to others or to ourselves, all in the name of selfishness and instant gratification?
A new study by a guy named Michael Josephson, of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in California, finds that basic dishonesty is on the rise among the young, that teens and 20-somethings today are more likely than their elders to, say, falsify an insurance claim to get a little money, or lie to their boss or their spouse, or just generally be cynical and dishonest with everybody around them. (For details, go to jiethics.org.)
Now, I don’t know this guy Josephson, but in a preview of his study he was kind enough to note that “journalists tended to fall in the middle of the pack” where ethical attitudes are concerned. So it could be that he’s on the right track.
Which would mean that we, as a society, are on the wrong one.