Where’s the morality we used to take for granted?

It’s a value that can’t be taught in a training class


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On Jan. 13, 2012, the Costa Concordia struck a submerged reef off the coast of Italy when her captain took her off course to dazzle some friends. The ship capsized and partially sank. Most of the 4,252 people managed to get to safety, but 32 lost their lives.

The captain, Francesco Schettino, was severely criticized for abandoning ship long before the passengers were safely evacuated and is currently standing trial on manslaughter charges in Italy.

On April 16 of this year, one day after the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the Sewol, a South Korean ferry, capsized and sank with 476 people aboard. To date, 174 have been rescued and 302 are still missing or dead.

Once again, the captain, Lee Jun-Seok, left the ship prematurely. He was reportedly one of the first to leave, with most of his crew. Jun-Seok and many of his crew are under arrest and will certainly stand trial.

Maritime tradition and laws dictate the captain goes down with his ship, or at least is the last to leave after all others have been rescued. Even Capt. E.J. Smith, skipper of the Titanic, knew enough to go down with her.

However, scandals are not limited to the high seas. In the business community we can point to a number of them without giving it too much thought.

Most recently, there’s the GM ignition switch problem and the delayed recall. So far, 13 deaths have been attributed to that fiasco. And who could forget Enron, Worldcom and the others? Nor can we forget Bernie Madoff and his family, who lived so well for years on other people’s money.

Not to be outdone, our governments (federal, state and local) have plenty of scandals too. Even the Catholic Diocese of Manchester recently saw one of its top priests sent to prison for stealing. And, of course, there are many incidents that either go undetected or are not considered newsworthy.

Steadily worse

Collectively, all these incidents raise interesting questions: are things getting better or worse? Are we becoming more or less corrupt as a society? Is reprehensible behavior more or less common?

Judging by our prison populations, you can make a pretty strong case for things getting steadily worse.

Even honest, well-run companies have elaborate systems of controls, as well as checks and balances to protect their assets. These, of course, cost money, often lots of it, thereby increasing costs and reducing profits.

Regardless of the pledges you may have made to get a captain’s license, the relative safety of a lifeboat is far more attractive than risking or even sacrificing your life to rescue people you don’t even know.

What about when there’s no loss of life? Madoff and other rip-off artists may be hated even more than either sea captain, but it’s because they hurt more people, even if none of them died.

If things are in fact getting worse, how do we reverse the trend? Morality is not something we can teach in a training class. It’s not a skill; it’s a value. Either your heart’s in the right place or it isn’t.

Luckily, there have been many conversions throughout history, yet these almost always involve a religious experience of some kind. Few other vehicles are effective at converting selfish or self-serving behaviors to the selfless kind that benefit others. And it’s the selfless, self-sacrificing behaviors that build truly great organizations, countries and societies.

Belief in and concern for some sort of final judgment after we die has a way of modifying our behavior for the good (Yes, this phenomenon can be misused, as extreme terrorists are wont to do.).

For instance, I’m Catholic, and we are expected to confess our sins or shortcomings to a priest. I’m far from perfect, but I’ve never even cheated on an expense account. I’m not worried about getting caught; I’m worried about what I’d say at the Pearly Gates. When I confess to a priest, I can be forgiven, but I have to make restitution. Why steal it, if I’ll only have to give it back?

This doesn’t make us Catholics necessarily better than others, as witnessed by our jailed monsignor, but it makes us think twice, and avoiding guilt can be a powerful inhibitor.

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