Ethics Are Fundamental

By Fred Smith

If you kept every piece in print on ethics you would have overflowing file cabinets. The subject is hot. The very absence of ethics has made their presence a topic for discussion.

The media is the mirror of our times, sometimes taking over God's function of exposing sin and condemning sinners. Time magazine gave ethics its cover; PBS is running a series of panels on ethics; and seminars and articles are proliferating.

There may be two reasons the media is so involved. First, they see a major change in American values. Then, it may be their sense that something is wrong. Even philanthropists are funding ethics. Recently a former president of the New York Stock Exchange gave $30 million to Harvard for the teaching of ethics. It could be our subconscious attempt to replace theology with philosophy. Philosophy can be taught; theology must be experienced to become effective.

The litany of demands for ethics is a long one. I'll give only a short list here:

1. Sports -- broken contracts, illegal betting, drug use

2. Management - leaders of public corporations acting as owners rather than stewards, maneuvering take-overs, mergers and golden parachutes.

3. Legislators - changing charity into entitlements to garner votes from the poor; accepting trips, gifts and consulting for favors.

4. Financial frauds - filling our papers, highlighting man's easy fall into greed.

5. Entertainment - permeating our society to the point it now is reaching into religion, education and even the news focusing on the entertainment factor.

6. Social relationships - changing sin to alternative lifestyles.

7. Lying - social lies to useful lies, feeling that lying is better than losing. In "a nation of liars" no society can hold together when it consistently lies to each other.

8. Unethical opportunities - redefined as sophisticated opportunities. Computerizing our use of other people's money is no less greedy.

The best seller of a few years back was Dr. Menninger's book, What Ever Happened To Sin? I feel someone can now write with great effectiveness, "What Ever Happened To Ethics?"

We must have trust in business; therefore, ethics are essential to our American system. Trust is largely based on our ethical practices. The securities business would be in real trouble if we couldn't buy and sell by phone. We would face difficult delays if we could not call our suppliers or our customers and get business moving before everything is put in black and white.

One of the most colorful of our Texans called me in Cincinnati and asked me to come and take over a deal he had gotten into in California because "those damn liars don't understand the Oklahoma guarantee and I'm not going to work with anybody who doesn't understand that."

Recently I was using a particular car rental agency for the first time. When I returned the car I found that they had changed the standard method for gasoline charges so that they would pick up five or ten dollars by departing from industry practice. When I asked them about this they pointed out that it was in the contract. I asked them if they had any idea how under productive their office would be if everyone distrusted them enough to read the contract before signing it. Their office force would have to double. It is simply efficient to have an ethical position where you can point to a line and say "sign there" and "initial these three other places."

The chief purpose of ethics is to define right and wrong. We don't need ethics to define rich nor powerful, but we do need ethics to define good. Professor William James, one of our great thinkers, was once asked what he considered to be the purpose of higher education. He gave a very simple answer that I had to look at twice: "The purpose of higher education is that you will be able to recognize a good man when you meet him." He was pointing out the importance of the definition of good.

Georgie Anne Geyer pointed out recently what De Tocqueville said of America: "America is great because it is good. When it quits being good it will quit being great."

© 1989 Fred Smith