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  • Reverend James Squire

Follow The Money

One of the themes that we discussed about choices in ethics class was to consider how money and its cousin power affect choices. I had the opportunity to engage Charles Callahan in a discussion of this topic covered in his book, The Cheating Culture. It is still the best work that I have seen about the topic of money, cheating, and decision making. He indicates in his book which covers many examples of what powers the engine of unethical decision-making regarding money and power. There are several factors. One is inequality of distribution of wealth which creates a wide gap between the rich and the poor communicating that we are on an uneven playing field, and a dog-eat-dog economic time where there is a lack of clarity regarding what is right and what is wrong.

Callahan’s point is that we do know the difference between right and wrong and cheating when we do it. We can’t plead innocence. But the climate as described above is seen as unjust and not fair so all notions of right and wrong and cheating don’t have the proper boundaries to prevent the perspective that everyone is doing it, and it is a world where anything goes. The notion that cheating may hurt others is gone. It is replaced by a situation ethic where I can justify cheating to achieve justice. Situation Ethics or the context determine too much of our decision-making around cheating, money, and power. The guard rails on the highway of money and power at any cost are gone. The only semblance of a guard rail is the concern that we might get caught.

My students indicate that because everyone is doing it, the only way that some function is to cheat as well although they indicate that they wouldn’t cheat. This is particularly true of courses that are curved. I had a student who received a 92 in a math course at Penn. He received a D. That is what academic pressure looks like for young people.

We reviewed problems that question how a student may cheat or not. Money can take different turns. Would you leave a note if you pulled into a parking space and opened your car door and significantly scratched a Porsche that was parked next to you? Situation Ethics and context for decision making go into overdrive. “If he can afford a Porsche, he can afford to get it fixed.” But empathy becomes one of the chief guard rails on decision making. “Would you leave a note if you had your car scratched in a similar fashion.” Probably!

Another example where context is a big player is the following example that I shared with the class. I went to a nearby school to watch our students in an athletic contest. While parked on the street, a car hit my electric powered rearview mirror and knocked it off. A note was left. I asked the person if I could use this example in ethics class as the right way to do things. There was hesitation. She then said, “I did it because my children were in the car, and I wanted to be a good role model. If they weren’t with me. I wouldn’t have left the note.”

So, empathy and context are important guard rails to keep cheating in check. So, is history.

Most studies indicate that you don’t all of a sudden become a cheater later on in life. The seeds are planted when you are young. The fact for young people that we discuss is that if you cheat now, and get away with it, the odds are statistically higher that you will do so again and again because a “habit” or pattern is formed. Robert Coles, Professor of Ethics at Harvard, distills his beliefs into a simple phrase, “People watch what you do, not what you say!” Recall, parents or a parenting figure determine a young person’s ethics. Students are unanimous about this absolute. A perfect example of the anti-family for honesty and money are the Trumps. They resemble a crime syndicate.

But let’s look at that bastion of money and power. Washington politics. Have you ever wondered how someone can earn $174,000 a year and can leave office as millionaires with only a few exceptions?

There is a growing business now called forensic accounting. Cheating for money and power has caused that course of study to be growing.

What can you do to develop guard rails to keep you honest? First, we remember the tremendous pressure that exists in our culture to cheat and seek power said best by Rod Tidwell, an athlete in the Jerry Maguire movie; “Show me the money!” He repeated that phrase frequently. It’s in the air we breathe. Surround yourself with honest people. Money and power make good intentioned people better and bad intentioned people worst.

Discover one person in an area in your life that represents honesty to you and keep that person as a go to person’s story when you are tempted. For example, I wish Trump was familiar with Bobby Jones who played in the 1925 U. S. Open in a grueling 36 – hole playoff, after calling a one-stroke penalty on himself over the protests of rules officials. In one of the final holes, he slightly grazed his ball, and it moved. It was a penalty that no one else saw. He lost the match and lots of money. You need just one story. I wonder if Trump is aware of that golf story? I think not!

One of my former ethics students with whom I am still in contact, addressed our school chapel. He left the Enron Company when he saw ethical abuses. It became one of the biggest financial scandals in United States history. This student pointed out a lesson in his address about research done by Dan Ariely, behavioral economist at Duke, who said that his research showed that if you have one motto that you think about as you are going into making an important decision, that motto can help you do the right thing.

To simplify one of his experiments, he had people read the ten commandments before giving them a cheating exercise. No one cheated. Give one bonus point to religion.

Money in and of itself is not bad. It gives us choices, and choices are the heart of ethics particularly choiceless choices or choices you would never like to make.

Many Americans are watching the January 6 Commission on TV. I am watching but through a different lens which is the lens of ethics or lack thereof. A good many people are viewing it as political drama. There is one issue that keeps the guard rails up in deciding about choices that we make. The guard rail against greed, money, and power is consequences for our actions. If some of these players in the January 6 Insurrection don’t go to prison, you will see an uptick in cheating for money and power. Consequences will decrease cheating for money and power in our culture. There is a lot more riding on the January 6 Commission Report that is beyond political drama. It is about what money and power should and should not do. Show me the money!!!!!!!!

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