I’ve been re-reading John Steinbeck, returning to his books after a thirty to forty year hiatus. I read differently now, not surprising with so many additional years to experience life and interpret and perhaps even understand what I am reading. Steinbeck points out that good human qualities include wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity and humility. Good humans live moral, ethical lives, practice the Golden Rule, deal honestly and transparently with others, do not cut corners or press to see how much wealth, power and/or prestige they can accumulate without having to answer for their methods.
Bad people demonstrate cruelty, greed, self –interest, graspingness and rapacity. They \do their best to take advantage of others and believe their worth is determined by how much wealth, power and/or prestige they accumulate. They are sharp dealers who take advantage of every opportunity to accumulate more and don’t seem bothered by moral or ethical issues. They ignore or avoid ethical and even legal issues whenever they believe they can get away with it. They push the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
Steinbeck reckons our American society almost always judges the second group to be successful while the first group, those millions lacking wealth, power or prestige are considered unsuccessful. I fervently hope this jaded view is not true, although our society does seem to idolize those individuals who accumulate, through whatever means, and considers them to be “successful”. The rub is that these accumulators, especially as they age, often become philanthropists and re-discover morality and ethics. Sometimes they even re-discover the greatest teacher of those values, religion. Think of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Kennedy, Astor and the various railroad and mining robber barons. The list could include many more recent examples. Their lack of morality and ethical behavior while acquiring massive wealth is overlooked by society because they were or are judged successful, and they managed, for the most part, to avoid prosecution. We anoint these individuals as smart business people and respect, if not adore them.
The probable truth is that all of us have some characteristics of both groups, the division is not so stark, not so black and white. Perhaps our society does accommodate shades of gray behavior that allow an individual to make minor trespasses but, for the most part, live a moral, ethical life and still be considered successful. But then I believed in the tooth fairy for a long time.