Wrong Has Become Obsolete

I was struck in the face with this reality last week. I was surprised that I was surprised. I thought I had a good grasp on how culture had changed. But it turn out it’s changed more than I had thought. That realization was very unsettling.

Last week I discovered that the word “wrong” had become obsolete. Well, perhaps not entirely. But almost.

Of course, I had realized how ethical standards have been watered down during my lifetime. Situational ethics had consumed the concept of absoluteness. Whether something is wrong depends entirely on the circumstances we’re told.

I’ve been witnessing this transformation in the business world for 40 years now. More recently, I witnessed it in the nonprofit world — higher ed to be precise. Yet until last week I hadn’t realized that the transformation was complete.

Saying wrong is obsolete may seem like an odd observation during this time of strident polarization, where many people are so damned sure of the rightness of their opinions and the wrongness of the opinions held by others. But I’m not referring to political opinions and the hubris so prevalent in society today. Rather, I’m referring to a different concept of wrongness: the idea that certain conduct is unacceptable for no other reason than it’s wrong.

So what unsettling event happened last week? It was in the introduction to business class I teach at a local college. The topic of the day was business ethics and social responsibility.

In general, I don’t like handling these topics as distinct matters; rather, I weave them into the fabric of the course. Nonetheless, there were some questions and issues that I thought deserved special attention, so we devoted a class session to the topic.

It was then I discovered that the concept of wrong has shrunk dramatically. It was then I discovered that it had been replaced, almost entirely, by this simple concept: it depends.

Short of cold-blooded murder, I’m not sure there is anything left that is unequivocally wrong.

So, Vera, perhaps this is a good time for me to tell you about your great-grandfather, my dad and your dad’s grandfather. He wasn’t a perfect man. Far from it. But he left one legacy that was rock solid — the idea that there was right and wrong. And that it didn’t always depend.

I can’t imagine your great-grandfather cheating anyone. Or cheating on his tax returns. Or defrauding his fellow citizens by lying to the government about his assets or income, or hiding them by transferring them to his kids, in order to qualify for a government subsidy. Or stealing. Or cheating his employer. Or padding an expense report. Or faking an injury in order to collect workers’ comp benefits. Or shoplifting. Or defrauding anyone.

When dad discovered a merchant had mistakenly given him too much change, he’d walk back into the store and return the money. If someone walking ahead of him had dropped a $20 bill on the ground without realizing it, dad would have picked it up and chased the person down to return it. Dad wouldn’t accept what wasn’t his. He had enough trouble accepting what others wanted to give to him.

Dad had many faults. But he was a man of integrity. In his world, there was right and wrong. The appropriateness of his conduct didn’t depend on who was being victimized, or whether it was justified, or any other excuses others take for justifications.

But based on what I’ve heard and observed, I don’t think there are many of my dads left in the world.

We live in a world in which Walmart’s shrinkage is more than $3 billion. Shrinkage is a fancy word for losses from shoplifting, employee theft, and other unexplained losses.

We live in a world in which even churchgoers cheat on their taxes and defraud the government by hiding assets to qualify for Medicaid and other government handouts.

We live in a world in which employees routinely cheat on their expense reports.

We live in the world in which cheating on college campuses is rampant and in which students routinely fabricate stories to try to extract some benefit from a professor or administrator.

We live in a world in which duplicitous conduct is acceptable conduct (lying and scheming behind other people’s backs).

We live in a world in which one of the most respected bank in the country (Wells Fargo) was found to have been engaged in a massive fraudulent scheme.

We live in a world in which business persons frequently collude with their competitors to the detriment of their customers.

We live in a world in which fraudulent accounting and tax practices are merely considered “aggressive.”

We live in a world in which so-called prestigious and successful investment banks participate in fraudulent schemes with impunity.

We live in a world in which the leader of the world’s dominant military and economic power (the U.S.) is a pathological liar.

None of this conduct is new of course. It’s not that there was ever a golden age of integrity and high ethical standards. But things seem to have gotten worse in my lifetime. Much worse. Or perhaps we merely dropped the pretense. I can’t be sure.

One of my students had a word for people like my dad: a schmuck. Basically, it means fool. No one wants to be a schmuck.

I have to confess, sometimes I wonder whether these characterizations are spot on. Perhaps I am a fool. Perhaps “it depends” is always the right answer. Perhaps thinking otherwise is a stupid act of self-deprivation. Perhaps there is no inherent value in living by a code of conduct that is out-of-step with societal norms. Perhaps one isn’t accomplishing anything but leaving money on the table. Perhaps it’s legitimate to look after yourself and not be concerned about the impact on others.

Sometimes I wonder. But I can’t shake the idea that dad was right: certain things are wrong, and no amount of money can make them right. And in nearly all cases, that’s what it’s about: money.

But, after all, it’s only money. And money isn’t even close to being the most valuable thing you can experience in life.

My students aren’t bad people. Perhaps they never knew people like my dad. Perhaps they have merely succumbed to much of the propaganda that permeates the airwaves. Or perhaps they’re right: perhaps it does depend and perhaps wrong is obsolete.

You’ll have to decide for yourself, Vera. But if you’re tempted to believe it always depends, let me tell you more about the life of a schmuck. It really is better than some people think.

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