Something’s not right in the affairs of Men. Something has gone wrong. The stirrings of unease, doubt, and uncertainty pinch painfully at the edge of my consciousness. We don’t seem to be the kind of people we once were. Something is missing.
Today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription, alas, required) contains a piece written by John Bogle of the Vanguard Group of Mutual Funds, titled "A Crisis of Ethic Proportions". Known as a man of honor and character, he reports his concern:
I recently received a letter from a Vanguard shareholder who described the global financial crisis as "a crisis of ethic proportions." Substituting "ethic" for "epic" is a fine turn of phrase, and it accurately places a heavy responsibility for the meltdown on a broad deterioration in traditional ethical standards.
Commerce, business and finance have hardly been exempt from this trend. Relying on Adam Smith’s "invisible hand," through which our self-interest advances the interests of society, we have depended on the marketplace and competition to create prosperity and well-being.
But self-interest got out of hand. It created a bottom-line society in which success is measured in monetary terms. Dollars became the coin of the new realm. Unchecked market forces overwhelmed traditional standards of professional conduct, developed over centuries.
The result is a shift from moral absolutism to moral relativism. We’ve moved from a society in which "there are some things that one simply does not do" to one in which "if everyone else is doing it, I can too." Business ethics and professional standards were lost in the shuffle.
The driving force of any profession includes not only the special knowledge, skills and standards that it demands, but the duty to serve responsibly, selflessly and wisely, and to establish an inherently ethical relationship between professionals and society. The old notion of trusting and being trusted — which once was not only the accepted standard of business conduct but the key to success — came to be seen as a quaint relic of an era long gone…
Adam Smith presciently described the characteristics of today’s corporate and institutional managers (many of whom are themselves controlled by giant financial conglomerates) with these words: "[M]anagers of other people’s money [rarely] watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which . . . [they] watch over their own . . . they . . . very easily give themselves a dispensation. Negligence and profusion must always prevail."
The malfeasance and misjudgments by our corporate, financial and government leaders, declining ethical standards, and the failure of our new agency society reflect a failure of capitalism. Free-market champion and former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan shares my view. That failure, he said in testimony to Congress last October, "was a flaw in the model that I perceived as the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works." As one journalist observed, "that’s a hell of a big thing to find a flaw in."
Even more disturbing than the breakdown in the standards of ethical behavior is the nearly total unwillingness on the part of the actors to respond to their malfeasance in an honorable way. By that, I mean to say that these folks, having failed in their fiduciary and agency responsibilities, have not found it necessary to resign, apologize, or otherwise leave the scene of their crimes. This suggests that they either will not accept that their actions have been irresponsible, unethical, harmful to others or that the decisions they made while in positions of responsibility were wrong.
Which brings up the second part of this cri de coeur.
We have become a nation, maybe even a world, of narcissists. Here is a working definition from Psychology Today:
An individual with narcissistic personality disorder exhibits extreme self-importance, inability to empathize with others and heightened sensitivity to criticism. Self-involvement and lack of empathy characterize this personality disorder.
People with narcissistic personality disorder are frequently perfectionists and need to be the center of attention, receiving affection and admiration, and controlling the situation. To get the attention he craves, he may try to create crises that return the focus to him. Like patients with antisocial personality disorder, this person places entitlement issues at the fore. He feels that the world owes him, regardless of whether he makes a contribution.
There are too many examples of narcissism experienced in our daily lives, from rude customers to selfish parking to needless, specious litigation to expectations of special treatment. This sad state of affairs is so pervasive that common acts of decency or kindness are now deemed worthy or reportage, as if their occurrence is so unusual as to be newsworthy. No wonder that narcissism is the subject of best selling books. From a review of "The Narcissism Epidemic", currently available from Amazon and other bookstores,
Narcissism — a very positive and inflated view of the self — is everywhere. It’s what you have if you’re a politician and you’ve strayed from your wife, and it’s why five times as many Americans undergo plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures today than did just ten years ago. It’s the value that parents teach their children with song lyrics like "I am special. Look at me," the skill teenagers and young adults obsessively hone on Facebook and MySpace, and the reason high school students physically beat classmates and then broadcast their violence on YouTube for all to see. It’s the message preached by prosperity gospel and the vacuous ethos spread by celebrity newsmakers. And it’s what’s making people depressed, lonely, and buried under piles of debt.
The big question is whether or not the awareness of our ethical/moral crisis is enough to defeat this behavior. Because it is our own awareness that will motivate self-behavior; the institutions that formerly provided such guidance have, for the most part, disappeared. There aren’t any more guardrails. Or will we, like great civilizations of the past, simply slowly disappear into an ever increasing fog of self-absorbed, selfish self-delusion?
Perhaps an organic revival of moral and ethical behavior is the only thing standing between us and the disappearance of our culture. It is obvious that looking for leadership from our politicians, business leaders, celebrities, and sports "heroes" will not get this train back on track. There is, in essence, no standard of leadership.
Let me suggest that we start with ourselves, and that we let these words inform the principles by which we ought to live:
You are bound by what you think he thinks you mean. In that simple but searching formula, there is not hiding place for deceit or dissimulation
Know what I mean?