Wealth Shift: The Decline of Ethics in America
Back to Table of Contents

Chapter 2
What Are Ethics, Anyway?

Ethics, by definition, is the branch of philosophy that deals with the pursuit of a satisfying life. Contrary to popular belief, ethics are not strict rules of conduct imposed on us by others, like morals or laws, but, rather, is a personal quest for what we ourselves deem to be “the good life”, “the satisfying life”, “the life well-lived”.

This is good news and bad news for all of us. On the one hand it frees us to be who we would most like to be, while, on the other hand, it allows us free reign to skirt our ethical responsibilities if we so choose. Nobody has the right to determine our ethical code for us, nor does anyone else have the right to hold us accountable for conduct which they feel violates theirs. And this is great. But it also creates a problem. The problem with the highly-personalized nature of ethics is that it often results in a paradox between how we see ourselves and how others see us.

When people in an office environment were asked, “Are you an ethical person?” every single person surveyed said, “Yes.” But when those same office workers were asked how many of their co-workers were ethical, close to 70% responded, “Hardly any.” In fact, most respondents went one step further and, without any encouragement whatsoever, went on to tell one horror story after another of unethical co-worker conduct that they had personally witnessed.

Is it possible for an entire group of people to see themselves as both ethical and unethical at the exact same time? The answer is clearly “yes”, because we tend to judge our own actions through a filter that takes many factors into consideration, while at the same time we judge the actions of others only in the most absolute of terms. In other words, we hold our neighbors to a much higher standard than we hold ourselves.

My biggest problem with this ethical paradox is that people seem to not only be forgetting what it means to be ethical, but are now actually taking pride in behaviors their parents and grandparents would have considered grossly unethical. No question about it, Wealth Shifting and other forms of unethical behaviors are ‘in’. People are not just quietly finding ways to eek out their fair share from The Man -they are Wealth Shifting with impunity in hundreds of ways that are loud, proud, and totally unrepentant. We have become so ethically bass-ackwards it is scary.

We’ll be discussing this further in the next chapter, but I’ll give one example here. In doing my research for Wealth Shift, I came across a book entitled, How to Burn Down the House – The Infamous Waiter and Bartender Scam Bible By Two Bourbon Street Waiters, which is a perfect example of unethical vanity run amok. Not content to just live happily among the 52% of bartenders and waitresses in this country who steal from their employers and customers on a daily basis, these two have found a way to make even more money by selling a book specifically designed to teach their tricks to others. By no stretch of the imagination can I see how this kind of behavior is ethical, especially when I recall that the very definition of ethics is the pursuit of the life worth living -the satisfying life - the good life.

I sometimes hear people having lofty philosophical discussions about ethics. Is mankind good or bad? Is man just an animal in disguise? Frankly, I could care less how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or whether our current inability to correctly assess the rightness of our own actions is merely a temporary aberration or the permanent result of man’s sadly unethical nature. Does it really matter whether we used to have ethics and somehow lost them, or whether we never had them in the first place? Instead of turning ourselves into a bunch of sad-sack philosophical do-nothings, shouldn’t we be spending our time discussing how important ethics are – to society in general and individuals specifically – and finding practical ways of polishing up our ethics and making them a priority?

We have the benefit of hindsight. We can readily see how some periods in history have been shining examples of people pulling together for the greater good of the whole, while others have been nothing short of every man for himself. We know that at our best we are capable of great heroism and self-sacrifice, and at our worst we are capable of great destruction and selfishness. We have seen what happens when people abandon all ethics in the quest for personal fulfillment through the acquisition of monetary riches and yet we repeat this same mistake over and over again. Intuitively, we understand that an ethical renaissance is the only thing capable of leading us forward to even greater prosperity, just as surely as an ethical dark age will lead us into bankruptcy and chaos.

We know all this and yet we still choose to behave unethically. Why? Is it because we no longer know right from wrong? Is the definition of ethics so vague, so up-forinterpretation that anything flies these days? I don’t believe it. I think we do know right from wrong. I think we do know when we are behaving in ways that ought to get us fired (if not thrown in jail). We do know when we are taking advantage of the company we work for, the other employees we work with, the shareholders who own the company, or the taxpayers who are now bailing us out. We know when we are Wealth Shifting. But we go ahead and do it anyway, and I think the biggest reason is because of the psychological phenomenon I like to call You Go First.

Talk to anyone you meet. You will hear, as I have, how passionately people want to see a return to a more ethical time. Politics, business, you name it. We are fed up with all the liars, cheaters, and thieves we encounter every single day. But the real deal is that we want someone else to Go First. None of us wants to be the chump, the patsy, the dupe. None of us wants to be scoffed at for running around like Dudley Do Right, while everybody else, especially higher ups, are making out like bandits at someone else’s expense.

We are spinning fast on a merry-go-round we’d all like to get off of, only we don’t want to jump first (or even second, or third). And so we end up caring far too much what other people are doing, how other people are conducting themselves, and how we can go about getting our fair share while the getting is still good. We subjugate our own internal sense of absolute right and wrong in favor of grabbing all the brass rings we can, while we can, before they get taken up by somebody else first. No doubt about it - in this war of greed between you and me, I’d just as soon it be me who gets to take home all the goodies.

Amazingly, all of this has been going on at the exact same time as we have been experiencing a period of plenty such as never before seen in the history of mankind (a phenomenon I like to refer to as “The Irony of Prosperity”). It’s not as though we are fighting over crusts of bread, here. Many of us have multiple cars, multiple televisions, multiple computers, shelves full of DVDs…you name it. And yet, somehow, all this is still not enough. We are still not satisfied. We want more. We want “more”, and yet most of us don’t even know what that “more” we want is.

Previous | Next