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Sunday, November 18 , 2018, 8:13 pm | Fair with Haze 56º


Harris Sherline: The Luxury of Morality

Americans really aren't much better than those we're quick to criticize

Many Americans don’t seem to realize that our nation’s wealth gives us the luxury of thinking we have the right to judge other cultures by our own standards of morality and ethics, or at least the standards we profess to have. Protecting endangered species and the environment, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, subsidizing the poor and the elderly, and helping the disadvantaged are just some of the worthy and important goals of our society.

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

The list sometimes seems endless, but Americans, who are often critical of how others around the world deal with such concerns, generally fail to recognize that the basis of our standards of ethics and morality is largely dependent on our wealth. In short, we can afford them.

We rarely acknowledge that other societies can’t afford to live by our standards. Do we really have the right tell others around the world, who are often literally starving, that stealing or cheating is unethical or immoral? Or that people in places such as Africa, Asia and Latin America, who must somehow try to exist below even subsistence levels, should live by our rules of conduct? Just how easy is it for starving people to “do the right thing”? Isn’t that much easier for those of us whose basic needs and many of our wants are satisfied?

Too often, Americans seem to expect the rest of the world to conform to our ideals of right and wrong, notwithstanding the conditions under which most other peoples are forced to live. It’s little wonder that we are viewed by so many as arrogant.

Furthermore, our criticisms of the ethical and moral failures of other societies often overlook the fact that there is an overabundance of unethical and immoral behavior right here in our country. No nationality or ethnic group has a corner on the market for lying, cheating and stealing, or just plain taking advantage of others — and none is exempt, including murder and mayhem.

We have only to look at the endless stream of stories in the media about violence, theft, fraud and business and governmental abuses in our own society to see that we are really not much better than many of those we are so quick to criticize.

It has been said that true morality is doing the right thing when no one is looking. How many Americans can honestly say they live this way? We have evolved into a system of situational ethics, which vary according to the circumstances involved, with no absolutes. Nothing is really right or wrong — only right or wrong depending on the situation.

What we do have going for us that most other societies do not is freedom. That’s what makes us truly different — and better, in spite of our own sorry parade of transgressions. We may often be wrong, but at least we are free to try to improve.

Americans appear to believe these issues can be resolved by passing more or tougher laws to regulate and control behavior, but I worry that this hasn’t worked. Instead, from the vantage point of my 80-plus years, things seem to have gotten progressively worse.

Not long ago, I saw a young woman interviewed on television who openly acknowledged that she and a group of fellow students cheated to win a competitive academic contest — and she didn’t see anything wrong with it. As a matter of fact, she volunteered that she would do it again — without exhibiting any evidence of contrition or embarrassment. Current research overwhelmingly reports that cheating is rampant among young people today. So, why are we so shocked to learn that many of our business, political and religious leaders are unethical or immoral? Is our wealth also the basis for this disconnect?

Is it time for a reality check? Perhaps the answer is as obvious as the current generation, especially our political leaders, conducting themselves as exemplars and teachers of moral and right behavior simply by doing right. Or is it too late for that?

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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