[OUTLOOK]These people have no scruples

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[OUTLOOK]These people have no scruples

While I was writing this series of articles on noblesse oblige, a number of people wrote me letters or made phone calls pointing to the failings of our society's elites - their corruption, emphasis on money-making and so forth. These people complained that in the years since the inauguration of the present government, the length and the breadth of corruption involving the political powers and the moral decay involving our society's leadership has appeared almost boundless.

Nations are swimming in the stream of globalization. The world is becoming more interdependent, and, as a result, international society is asking for a uniform standard, such as political transparency, that may be applied to every nation. Unfortunately, Korea is moving in the opposite direction.

Noblesse is a Western term that refers to the upper-class, people high on the social ladder not simply in occupation or vocation, but with a status that clearly distinguishes them from ordinary people.

In Korea, the noblesse are people who hold institutional power and belong to the higher social classes, but the ranking of the classes is not as clear cut in Western countries. Institutional social status involves not only governmental institutions, but also the media, corporations and other private entities. Nevertheless, positions tied to government and political institutions are the most influential in Korea.

In Korea, society cannot work properly without the assistance or intervention of the government and political institutions. To this extent, power is highly concentrated with the central government, and once the government becomes corrupt, the spillover effect is tremendous, negatively affecting the entire nation.

Noblesse oblige is the morality that the upper class should bear in mind. It could be categorized as moral conscience, moral behavior and moral obligation. A moral conscience is the capacity or ability to draw a line between what you should and should not do. Moral behavior is doing what you should do and not doing what you should not do. Moral obligation means you accomplish every duty you are responsible for. A teacher is responsible for his school duties and students, whereas a corporate manager should fully take care of his business and related matters. In accomplishing your duty, before the receivers benefit from your moral behavior, you are the one who must be self-confident of the results of your outlook. The true definition of noblesse oblige is the obligation of not stigmatizing and humiliating others through one's status. Not only this. Loyalty and a spirit of self-sacrifice to society are also obligations. Risking your life when the nation is in a state of emergency and bearing the burden when society is confronted with a dilemma are examples of noblesse oblige.

Ordinary people are not asked to have such morality, sense of sacrifice and loyalty. They do not get as much benefit as the noblesse from these attributes. They never have had and probably will never have the socially scarce valuables of political power, wealth and reputation during their lifetime. Expecting ordinary people to display loyalty and a sacrificial spirit is unrealistic because they are not the ones who receive the social benefits from these actions, and the likelihood of corruption is low in their occupations. For this reason, the working class should not be expected to display the highest morality.

Nevertheless, Korean society demands that ordinary people be highly responsible for their behavior and conscious of the moral life. In fact, ordinary Koreans are more ethical than members of the elite, and they have stronger loyalties and a sacrificial spirit than the elite. They follow social regulations more closely than people who have actually set the laws and have heavier responsibilities, such as tax payments and military service. When the country faced the economic recession in 1997-98, they were the ones who helped saved the nation by selling their gold rings and by faithfully adhering to restrictions.

Nowhere else in the world are there elites who are as brazen and unscrupulous as the members of Korea's upper classes. These people are zealots in the acquisition of power and wealth. "Gate" - as in Lee Young-ho gate - refers exactly to Korean politicians who yearn to achieve universal power without thinking of their reputations and the overall social benefit.

Without noblesse oblige the state of affairs would become total disorder, eventually driving the country into chaos. Korea would become a country without specific goals and standards. I strongly recommend that the ruling class consider the past misdeeds and learn the true meaning of noblesse oblige.


The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei university.

by Song Bok

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