The Crisis of Ethics in America

Even before the critically acclaimed film The Social Network opened in theaters, there was one big financial winner: Newark, New Jersey’s public schools.

While critics were screening the movie, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the struggling school system. Not only that, he made the announcement on Oprah.

Apparently, Zuckerberg was looking for a little bit of good PR. He’s concerned that people who see the film may question his personal ethics. The more important concern ought to be, however, what the film says about business ethics in our culture.

The Social Network, based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, tells what’s been called a “creation myth” about the wildly successful Facebook. The “myth” alternates scenes from Zuckerberg’s days at Harvard and depositions taken in connection with two lawsuits filed against him by former schoolmates.

One lawsuit alleged that that Zuckerberg stole the plaintiffs’ idea. The other lawsuit was brought by Zuckerberg’s best friend, who accused Zuckerberg of cheating him out of his share of Facebook.

Well, regardless of the legal merits of the allegations, Zuckerberg has reason to be concerned: His actions depicted in the film ranged from merely duplicitous to outright treacherous.

While the filmmakers have acknowledged taking some creative license, Zuckerberg’s ruthlessness is well-documented, which prompts the central question of the film: Why? In the film, the answer is that he’s an insecure outsider who wants to be one of the “cool kids.” Others have speculated that he suffers from autism spectrum disorder, which is unfair to autistic people: They may be socially awkward, but they are the farthest thing from ruthless.

Focusing on Zuckerberg’s foibles misses the point: The most important failure wasn’t personal but cultural. Every one of the actions depicted in the film was arguably legal: You don’t have a proprietary interest in an idea. Zuckerberg’s friend signed away his interest in Facebook because he wrongly thought that Zuckerberg’s lawyers were looking after his interests as well.

Similarly, virtually all of the practices that nearly wrecked the global economy back in 2008 were legal—all of which goes to prove that just because something is legal doesn’t make it ethical or right. Any lawyer worth his hourly billings can find a way to exploit weaknesses in the system.

So the question isn’t “why?” but “why not?” If the only thing standing between you and millions, even billions, is other people’s disapproval, why not do what you want to do? Especially since you can subsequently buy their approval with a check and an appearance on Oprah?

Of course, if this becomes normative, then the kind of trust that makes free markets possible would dry up, which is exactly what happened in the aftermath of sub-prime crisis. Lenders have money to lend—what they lack is confidence in borrowers’ ability or willingness to repay.

This ethical crisis we see in America is why Robbie George at Princeton and I have filmed a video teaching series on ethics called Doing the Right Thing. We expect to release this at year’s end. But you can watch the trailer by going to BreakPoint.org and clicking on today’s commentary.

Remind those who see The Social Network (number one in box-office receipts), that without real ethics, trust is impossible, and no amount of money can repair the damage that causes.

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  • grn724

    For many, any ethical situation is really a moral one. We live under the precept that we can do whatever we want, whenever we want as long as it is legal claiming that is freedom. True freedom is not doing whatever you want, rather, doing what one ought to do. There are many choices we make throughout the day and night with only the short term goal in mind. Instant gratifcation usually being that goal, we sell our soul for the pleasure of the moment and are eventually left empty. We don’t consider how others will be affected and in alot of cases, don’t really care, selfisness. A moral and ethical life depends on the long term goal insight, heaven, and if we are not living within the boundries of that goal we are surely going to skimp and morals and ethics.

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