There's a new ethic in our world -- and it isn't ethical at all: "If I get away with it, it's legal, and if I get over on you, you're a chump who deserved it." This me-first-with-a vengeance-and-without-a-conscience is a key source of the financial and moral scandals that have dramatically eroded trust in business and government. And I think I finally understand its source.
Some high school students at the Fieldston School, an elite private school in New York, were caught with pot-laced brownies on a school-sanctioned trip last month, in clear violation of a contract they all signed. About fifteen seniors admitted their participation and were suspended from the senior prom at Studio 450 on May 29. Many students were disturbed and confused by the failure of the adults to hold the offending parties more accountable -- even given the nature of the "crime" -- and believed that parents, like administrators, were too soft on the students.
Too soft? How's this: One of the fathers of the culprits organized a luxurious anti-prom on May 29, on a yacht.
A son of an irate parent told me that his father was more incensed by a casual conversation with a fellow parent at the school, a mega-wealthy gentleman who was instrumental in overseeing the banks gamble in the derivatives casino. The father told the member of the 1 percent that he thought the school should use the incident as an opportunity for the parents to talk with their kids about values and character. The financier dismissed his idea with a laugh. I suspect that, like members of the Horace Mann administration during the recently reported decades-long sexual abuse scandal ("Prep School Predators: The Horace Mann School's Secret History of Sexual Abuse," New York Times Magazine, June 10, 2012), he was only concerned with damage control and minimizing bad publicity.
I felt sad for the children at the anti-prom. Their parents think they are gaming the system -- but they are actually stealing from their kids. Their job is to teach their children what it means to do the right thing, be accountable for what they commit to, and cultivate character and a conscience -- not find loopholes and learn how to evade responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Such parents are reinforcing the wrong message: their children are entitled to do as they please, think of no one but themselves, and respect nothing but their own desires -- a blueprint for pathological narcissists and psychopaths.
The future of these morally deficient students may well include early success and vast wealth. But I don't think it's a leap to say that the lessons they're learning are a breeding ground for the destructive, myopic ethic practiced at Enron, BP, and Goldman Sachs, among many others. When the children of parents who don't do their jobs grow up and don't give a damn about anyone else and feel beholden to no one and nothing beyond their own egotistical whims, we shouldn't be shocked when they shaft their employees, cheat their customers, and expect everyone but them to pay the tab.
Every parent has heard that a fundamental obligation of child rearing is to teach their kids to respect other people and themselves. Parents who steal from their kids the opportunity to develop an internal moral GPS are more than negligent. They're unindicted co-conspirators.