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What ever happened to right and wrong?


I DO NOT FEEL I HAVE done anything wrong! Everyone I know has done the same thing at one time or another. If you call my actions unethical or unacceptable, you might as well accuse everyone in my profession of being crooks and charlatans!"

Do you recognize this monologue? You may have heard it many times. Perhaps it was that young man from Wall Street caught misusing inside stock trading information, or maybe it was the young lady caught distributing illegal copies of a copyrighted computer spreadsheet program. It could even have been the used car dealer who was arrested for turning back the mileage on cars he was selling. Any one of these actions could get a person arrested if he or she were caught. For those who aren't caught, however, these actions are often considered lucrative risks.

As a security professional I have grown increasingly concerned about something we seem to have lost sight of in America. It has been the mortar between the bricks of our national character and our industrial strength, and it is represented by one small word, a word that encompasses the best qualities we have always expected of ourselves, our peers, and our leaders - ethics. That word lives among a select group of small, powerful words like duty, honor and country, words that carry meanings far beyond their humble dictionary definitions.

According to Webster's, ethics is "the system or code of morals of a particular person, religion, group, or profession." In reality, ethics are binding threads that are interwoven through every fold in the fabric of human endeavor, providing strength and trust. Ethics are inseparably linked to the laws of our land, to statutory requirements, and to social acceptability. Behavior that is unethical is often also illegal.

Power or money is not required to possess or to instill in others the ethical qualities of honor, integrity, and pride. These qualities are within the grasp of every individual, regardless of his or her station in life, because these characteristics come from within. They cannot be purchased at any price, yet they carry a tremendous worth. They can only be acquired through dedication to and pursuit of the basic values of right and wrong.

Without a strong and consistent family indoctrination during the formative years, and without meaningful social reinforcement by schools, churches, corporations, and courts, the concept of ethical behavior is becoming weak. Today, many children approach adulthood without a clear interpretation of what is right and what is wrong because parents, music, television, and movies have given them distorted and confusing values. Many people wouldn't think twice about taking home a few company pens or markers for their children to use in school, and few corporations would actually punish an employee for such a small breach of ethics. However, if taking a few pens a month or some leftover paper pads is acceptable - as perceived by a lack of negative corporate response - then might it also be acceptable to

* use the company copier to make posters for your weekend garage sale,

* use the company's longdistance service to call your aunt or to order some merchandise from a catalog,

* use the computer on your desk to keep the accounts straight for your weekend catering service,

* use the company fax machine to request songs on your favorite radio station,

* use the company car to take the family shopping on the weekend,

* use a box of computer diskettes or printer paper from the office on your personal computer at home, or

* use the corporate computer to develop a software system you intend to market yourself on the side?

Once corporate apathy or even corporate example has established that it is all right for employees to appropriate company resources for their own purposes, it becomes a simple matter of rationalization for employees to escalate the size, frequency, and value of such appropriations.

There are many reasons why we are seeing this widespread disregard for ethical behavior. However, I believe one of the biggest factors has been the breakup of the family. Over the past 30 years we have seen a dramatic and systematic fragmentation of the family as the basic functional element of our society. Traditionally, parental responsibilities have included teaching the concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, honor and dishonor, and pride and shame. The teachings of the family were generally reinforced within the public school systems and later by our colleges and universities. When the rules were broken there was no question that punishment would follow and that family pride and honor would be ruined - and that those things mattered to society in general!

Coupled with the weakening family structure, our national social values have experienced dramatic changes. Suddenly, it seemed the rights of violent criminals and drug dealers were more important than the rights of their victims. Criminal notoriety became a guaranteed path to national media exposure, successful autobiographies, and sometimes cult heroism.

Increasingly, the critical task of teaching morals and ethics was passed from the parent to a public education system that was already overburdened and ill-equipped. As an unfortunate result, our children and future leaders are often left to glean their basic beliefs and behavioral models from television, movies, and music videos. This increasing lack of fundamental moral and ethical beliefs is now plaguing America with shady deals, employee pilferage, embezzlement scams, penny-stock frauds, misusing positions of public trust for personal gain, betrayals in government contracts, and outright criminal activities by otherwise intelligent, ordinary people.

Does the solution to this situation lie in creating an even bigger and more Orwellian security industry? Are we already so disenchanted that we are unmoved by the required presence of armed guards in our schools? Can we continue to laugh at jokes about unethical politicians, government contractors, lawyers, doctors, executives, insurance companies, used car dealers, and substance abusers? I don't think so.

Not long ago, there was a national outcry regarding the quality of education in our public school system. The country was shocked at the number of high school graduates who could barely read and write. While I would not pretend to have the answer to the ethics problem, perhaps we need a similar outcry regarding moral and ethical values.

Reestablishing and reaffirming a national committment to ethics won't happen in a year or perhaps in a decade. It has taken many years for us to reach our present state of decline, and reversing the trend will be a long and arduous task.

Al Foster is a data security administrator at US West in Englewood, CO. He is a member of ASIS.
COPYRIGHT 1989 American Society for Industrial Security
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Title Annotation:erosion of ethics in society leads to business crimes
Author:Foster, Al
Publication:Security Management
Article Type:column
Date:Nov 1, 1989
Previous Article:Computer vulnerabilities.
Next Article:Bucking bribery abroad.

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