Of Shakespeare, Bridges, and Mirrors

“This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow as the night to the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

The words of William Shakespeare, spoken by Polonius to his son Laertes in Hamlet, have never been more appropriate. Meanwhile, author David Callahan, in his book The Cheating Culture, draws a chilling picture of American society. Every generation has had its share of cheaters, but he says the past 20 years have wrought a pervasive willingness to use any means necessary—right or wrong—to get ahead. Driven by greed, behaviors once thought reprehensible are now considered normal and, to many, essential.

Callahan divides American society into two groups: the winning class and the anxious class. Members of the winning class feel above the rules, while those in the anxious class are afraid to lose their share of the bounty in a winner-take-all society. When success is largely defined by the outward trappings of what money can buy, having less is tantamount to branding oneself a failure. Is it any wonder, in such a ruthless economic climate, that people are willing to sacrifice personal integrity to ensure they don’t become one of the have-nots?

In this issue, JCK examines ethics in the jewelry industry. As an industry, we pride ourselves on our heritage, tradition, and institutions of trust, and we zealously guard our reputations. Yet a recent JCK Retail Panel survey shows a surprising percentage of respondents feel the industry is less ethical than it was a generation ago. A significant number ticked “It’s wrong—but everyone does it,” when asked about some unethical behaviors, indicating that even in a trust-based industry, profits may come at a price.

If two wrongs don’t make a right, do 2,000 wrongs make it right? Should we be able to renegotiate the rules any time they don’t suit us?

If so, one could argue, why bother setting rules in the first place? Because without them society would descend into chaos. Yes, there should be provisions for adaptation, because times do change. And some “rules” were wrong to begin with. But there’s a big difference between thoughtful, necessary change and selective elimination.

In the words of Everymother, “If all your friends jump off a bridge, are you going to jump, too?” Sometimes the need to be part of the “in” crowd (read: the winner’s circle) trumps common sense.

In May, three teenagers in Norristown, Pa., jumped off a local railroad bridge into the Schuylkill River, a dangerous rite-of-passage for kids in the area. This year, one of them drowned. If the need to win drives someone to jump off a bridge, what chance do ethics have?

Your willingness to stick to, or deviate from, accepted codes of ethical behavior is something only you can decide. For some, fear of the consequences of being caught will keep them honest. For others, a deeper sense of personal pride keeps them from behaving badly.

Would you rather have a new Mercedes every two years or the ability to look in the mirror and be proud of who looks back? It doesn’t have to be an either/or choice. As sociologist Robert Frank proves in his book, What Price the Moral High Ground? Ethical Dilemmas in Competitive Environments, it’s possible to have both.

Or maybe it’s as Polonius said: If you’re true to yourself, it follows that you’ll be true to everyone else.

hschupak@reedbusiness.com