Every few months someone writes an article on ethics. They deplore the state of teenagers today. They excoriate the business world and they laud new programs established by universities and corporations to promote and teach ethics.
I don't know if it is really worse now than in the past. Is the pressure greater? Is the desire to cheat more prevalent? Or are we just creating more studies and surveys?
The latest piece I saw appeared in the Los Angeles Business Journal on December 18, 2006, presumably just in time to inspire some New Year's resolutions. The author, Anthony J. Buzzelli, has a solution to the problem. "Education on ethical decision-making is crucial to making real progress. Training, classroom assistance, surveys that focus attention on these issues -- all are invaluable in defining ethical behavior and instilling it in lasting ways in our young people and our culture."
While these may have a role, I am more skeptical than Mr. Buzzelli.
Training is interesting, role-playing may be fun, surveys may provide insight, but as the Torah and most behavioral psychologists know, only consequences really change behavior.
If there are no negative consequences to acting unethically, then all the classroom training in the world, all the business conferences and team-building exercises, won't prevent inappropriate actions. In fact, if there are perceived rewards to cheating or stealing, then the behavior may actually be encouraged by our society.
In its most basic form, the biggest barrier to unethical behavior is fear of getting caught. In this area, we have made strides. Commissions, rulings, attorney-generals with political aspirations, have all conspired to create a more tightly controlled marketplace with less room for manipulative behaviors.
But real success will only be achieved when the stakes are even greater and perhaps more personal. We care about our name; we care about the legacy we leave our children. Is it worth putting these at risk for financial gain?
We all want to be good. What does this mean? The Torah gives us an important insight, distinguishing between two types of theft -- that in broad daylight and that by cover of night.
Although the man who steals by day may be more brazen, it is the nighttime thief who comes under the greatest criticism.
To rob during the daytime means you know you are being watched and willing to take your chances. To rob by night means that you have a fear of being caught -- by people. Yet this neglects the most important Seer of all -- the Almighty's watchful eye.
A thief who is worried about being ensnared by the all too human police, but has no concerned about being observed by the Almighty, is considered a hardened criminal.
The recognition of ultimate consequences is the most effective tool for teaching ethics.
Each unethical act tarnishes our souls. Each act of goodness polishes this diamond within.
Sometimes people complain that their job lacks meaning. But every career can be meaningful if conducted in an ethical way. Caring for employers, employees, colleagues, sticking to the rules, creating a warm and friendly work environment, are all ethical behaviors available to everyone. Jewish lore is full of stories of simple shopkeepers and peddlers who merited sitting by great rabbis in the world to come because they smiled at their customers, kept their scales properly calibrated, or told jokes to the downtrodden.
All our actions have consequences. These can be positive -- we can lift the hearts of those around us, we can improve the situation in the world, we can come closer to the Almighty. Or they can be negative -- we can make our co-workers miserable, we can drag down the world through extortion and fraud and blatant disregard for the needs of others; creating tremendous distance from the Almighty in the process.
We all want to be good -- now, in the future, and in people's memories. Sometimes, as the teenagers surveyed suggested, the pressure to succeed works against us. Of course we need to redefine success -- as a moral virtue and not a financial goal. But apart from such lofty ideals, we need the effective strategy of fear of consequences. Not the cartoonish image of lightening bolts but a very real sense that through our actions we can bring about a sanctification of ourselves and the Almighty's name, or, God forbid, the opposite. That's how we will really be judged. And that's a lesson I think even teenagers can hear.