This I Believe

David - Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Entered on August 16, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65


My daughter Sarah is ten. Ever since she could speak, my wife and I have been instilling values in her. Sometimes deliberately, often unconsciously, we are teaching her the basic tenets of our common society.

But is that the right thing to do? By teaching our children these ethical standards are we handicapping them in what, after all, is not a particularly ethical world?

We grow up adhering to certain principles in the belief that others do, too, and that somehow that adherence will be rewarded. We are taught that cheaters never win, that liars will be caught and that people who take unfair advantage of others will be punished. Slowly, inexorably, painfully, we learn that such is not always, or even often, the case.

The workplace is more likely to feature ambitious, unethical managers and executives than the kind, caring variety. And the former inevitably advance further than the latter. The senior ranks of business are rife with greedy, heartless leaders more concerned with crushing their opponents than abiding by some quaint notion of values.

So why am I teaching Sarah what’s right and what’s wrong? Surely she would be better off having the advantage of knowing how the world really works. Armed early with deceit, trickery and guile she could more easily and more quickly achieve the wealth and status that we all seem to admire and worship.

Yet I can’t bring myself to discard my values and start teaching Sarah how to steal, cheat and exploit with impunity. What is it, I ask myself, that weds me so tightly to these principles in the face of all the evidence of unprincipled success I see around me?

Perhaps it’s because those principles remain the underpinning of this thin veneer we call civilization. While business leaders and politicians subtly (and sometimes blatantly) trample the platitudes they piously preach, enough people still try to live their lives by ethical guidelines to give hope and make society function.

It is that constant striving for the common good by the average citizen that ensures that there remains a society to be exploited by the greedy and privileged few. Most of us fall far short of perfection in our ethical strivings. But at least we try. And that’s what holds our larger community together.

So that’s why I will continue to teach my daughter the basic values most of us, against all odds, still believe in. Because, in the end, I couldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t play some small part in advancing the cause of justice and compassion. And I want Sarah to feel that way, too. But maybe I will temper that moral teaching with a little practical knowledge as well. Maybe I will let her know that there are people out there who will cheat, lie, steal and profit from their duplicity. But I’ll also let her know that, even if those people have the trappings of success, they have failed both themselves and their society. For, in the end, all we have are our values.