Written by John Graves
Editor's note: John Graves challenges us to face some unpleasant questions about ethics and morality in our modern age. Do you bend your sense of right and wrong depending on whether the situation aligns with or against your interests? After you read this article come back to that question and answer it while looking yourself in the eye in a mirror.
Rich Karlgaard recently published a piece titled, The Age of Cheats. In it he questions the current ‘relative morality’. Is it in fact a sign of our times? Are we, as a society, in moral decay? Do we need a teacher to rap a few knuckles to keep the class in line? Can we be better, despite ourselves?
As we have watched the spectacle of the Olympics, do we question the abilities of these young athletes – or do we praise them? Do we assume the doping tests immediately after each event provide sufficient and necessary proof of the absence of drugs? In science, the proof of absence is a very difficult proposal. Proof of presence is far easier. A simple transfusion before a match can enhance performance. Is that to be tested? What of Mr. Pastorius, the incredible South African athlete who was born with deformed legs, had the amputated and now runs on prostheses? It was quite a go to get him permitted into the spectacle. Some question his presence, not as a person but as a symbol of a future ‘prosthetic man’. Their questioning is a future descriptor of ‘the truth’.
The world of sports is as harsh a playing field as that of politics. Simply because there are rules does not mean the contest is fair, or that it goes to the best. Name the sport and you can name the losing team that you thought should have won. Ali vs. Foreman (both fights). The ‘72 Olympics basketball final. Any European cycling team vs. Lance Armstrong.
Was cheating involved? Were the referees stacked against the better players? Certainly that is the case in the ‘72 Olympics – virtually everyone agrees that the ending seven seconds of the game were surreal. Armstrong may still be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles because of alleged doping. His use of EPO is clear. Your reaction to these events betrays a deeper issue. Our awareness is far more visceral than intellectual. Sports was and remains a fight, a duel, a contest to vanquish the opposition. This is ‘war by other means’ as von Clausewitz said about diplomacy. Whether a game of sport or a contest of champions, we each have a vested interest in the outcome and therefore the process – the rules.
Do we expect a ‘fair fight’? That depends upon your point of view. Do you want a win at any cost? Do you want to see ‘the best man win’? Your response defines the extent to which you will condone or condemn cheating. The officiating response may also define the ‘rules of the game’. Recall that these rules change often. The NBA is considering increasing the number of fouls required to be eliminated from a game from six to ten. The change is meant ‘to reflect the passion and intensity of today’s game’.
Cheating depends upon your vantage point. It depends upon who makes the rules. It depends upon the game. In politics too, the rules change constantly. The very act of voting has changed more often than the weather in Spring. Once upon a time, your skin color, sex and property ownership determined your voting rights. All men are created equal – but some are more equal than others. Even today, you cannot vote if you are a convicted felon or a resident alien. The latter is certainly being tested today. Voter registration laws are becoming both more flexible and more stringent, depending upon your view: state or federal. Voter registration lists are under scrutiny, and lack of scrutiny. Apparently, 5,000 dean men voted in the 2008 Missouri elections and a further 8,000 are still registered to vote in Florida. It is an easy jumpy from a dean man’s ID to the voting both. Is this cheating? You and I may think so, but apparently many others would disagree with us, if only anonymously.
The use of slander is of high dungeon in politics. Is it cheating to lie about your opponent? Is it even a lie if the result is a belief in its truth? The Red Queen is alive and well inside the Beltway of Washington, DC. ‘Something is so just because I say it is, nothing more.’ Review the history of elections back to 1796. Each election cycle was a hard fought tumble for often dubious votes. If Washington, the father of our nation, could be subject to ridicule, anyone running for office should expect the same.
Is it cheating to lie? Is it cheating to fudge numbers in DC – or on Wall St.? It would appear to be common, if not rampant. Is the current unemployment rate 8% or 16%. Has spending $5T helped or hurt the economy? Do we need to spend more, or less? It all depends upon your viewpoint. Great debate has riveted great minds on just these subjects. The debate is interesting, but it is not our salient. Is it cheating to report figures that are simply fictitious? Do we do harm to ourselves and our children by lying about the facts? Are cuts in spending the same as reduced growth rates for that same spending? Never ask a politician this question. You will be mesmerized – or traumatized – by the response.
Do all businesses report financial results fairly and truthfully? They all use the same numbers and arithmetic, certainly. Common ground then slips away. Your profit may be my loss. It all depends upon who we are telling: a capital investor or the IRS. Which set of books are legitimate? Is it a lie to accrue expenses and capitalize earnings? Which is more valuable as a judgment tool: gross or net? Are depreciation, depletion and capex expenses really expenses, or ‘accounting tools’ used to ‘adjust’ the balance sheet? Cash vs. accrual? Which is more beneficial? Is either the truth, or a lie? It all depends upon your viewpoint.
In school is it ‘fair’ to grade on the curve? Is it reflective of a Harvard graduates educational experience over four years that 93% of them have straight A’s? Is it a lie? Who fails when no one fails? What is taught when no one learns more than their counterpart? If your child is hurt in a school sporting event, do you sue the school, the coaching staff, the municipality, the county – or all of the above? Is it cheating to claim fault when you have signed a paper acknowledging danger to your child? Does she have to have a ‘sneeze guard’ over her lemonade stand in your municipality? How about a license, a seller’s permit? Should she claim her income as a taxable event? It all depends.
Relative truth is the most dangerous concept in today’s avuncular culture. Everyone is someone’s uncle, so everyone’s truth belongs to some family, some village, some realm of truth. If it is right for you, then it must be so. If you believe in faeries or goblins, ghosts or gods, then it must be true. How can you deny such ‘truths’? Is it a lie to believe in magic?
The challenge we face as a nation is as nebulous as the wind. The phrase is postmodernism. It is about the ‘interpretation’ of the truth. W. B Yeats described it a century ago: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. Cheating is done against a standard, an agreed upon forum, a set of rules. If we lose these standards by changing the rules, the forum is simply a waste land.
We do indeed need a rap on the knuckles – or is that abusive today? I’d be happy to win a war of words on this topic.
About the Author
John Graves, ChFC, CLU, an independent financial adviser and managing partner in The Renaissance Group, LLC, focuses on designing and maintaining custom client portfolios. Graves is a Chartered Life Underwriter and Chartered Financial Consultant through the American College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
He has traveled extensively, with more than 80 countries’ stamps in his passport, and is well-versed in six languages. He has sailed to Hawaii several times as well as across the Atlantic and throughout the Mediterranean and Caribbean. In his previous career, John was a chef. He also enjoys a nice meal with a Bordeaux or a Montalcino.
His new book, The 7% Solution: You CAN Afford A Comfortable Retirement, empowers readers to take control of their own future and provides a clear direction to make retirement dreams come true. The 7% Solution is available for purchase at Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, as well as other online booksellers.