Among all the sins a man might commit, betrayal – a species of fraud – ranks among the most ethically abhorrent. The key to understanding the gravity of the sin of betrayal, and the crime of fraud, is the fundamental role of trust in the organization, function and governance of society. In Aristotle’s model of the ethical spectrum whereby human relationships range from the primarily transactional (business and trade) to the largely altruistic (love and friendship of every kind), reciprocal trust and confidence are what sustain the viability of interpersonal relationships.
A simple, practical illustration of the validity of this model and its foundation may be found in any transaction in which the parties agree upon the terms of trade: I will give you $1.59 and you will provide me with a refreshing beverage. The successful completion of this transaction tacitly reaffirms the reciprocal trust and confidence of the parties involved. Now, suppose that after remitting the $1.59, I either do not receive my refreshing beverage, or worse yet, I receive what may look like my refreshing beverage but is in fact a noxious concoction. In such a transaction, I become the victim of fraud, a betrayal of my confidence that I could trust the vendor to deliver what he promised for the $1.59 I gave him.
If, on the other hand, I do in fact receive the refreshing beverage I asked for, but the vendor instead discovers that the currency I gave him is counterfeit, then it is he who becomes the victim of fraud, my having betrayed his confidence that I was remitting the $1.59 as he trusted me to pay. In both scenarios, the primary ethical violation is a betrayal of trust which serves to undermine the individual’s confidence in a fundamental premise for interpersonal relationships.
Extend these two scenarios to situations where the stakes are much higher — be they materially objective, or psychologically subjective. Under any circumstances, from the transactional to the altruistic, violation of trust and breach of confidence constitute the gravest ethical transgression. In summary, trust is the connective tissue of all relationships in society – from its economic and political systems to its interpersonal dynamics — and without it, individual activities lose ethical integrity.
These are the issues at the core of Empire of Gold, the current SBS drama starring the fantastic Lee Yo Won. The story here pulls no punches when it comes to dramatizing a wide variety of fiduciary transgressions, exploring how the various agents of fraud and betrayal arrive at the choices they make and deal with the consequences of their actions.
The drama does a brilliant job of presenting its subjects’ progressive descent into irrevocable self-damnation as an inexorable domino-chain of fraud and betrayal, each occasion daring the sinner to make a different choice, offering an opportunity to break the headlong descent into perdition. Among the DramaFever reviews of Empire of Gold, MacKnee99 says it best:
This drama takes family dysfunction to a whole new level. Corporate takeovers, corporate liquidations, conspiracies, deception, treachery and betrayal are the hallmarks for these nonredeemable cast of characters. Each trying to one up each other on that bullet ride to satan’s door.
Given such a description, one has to wonder what could possibly serve to redeem this story and make the drama worth following. As I mentioned earlier, it is precisely the drama’s unapologetic dramatization of avarice and its ethical cost that makes it so compelling. Most remarkably, Empire of Gold manages to avoid being apologist about its subjects’ bad behavior. Its unflinching view of the inescapable spiral of casual corruption is more an indictment than a celebration. Eighteen chapters in, with six episodes to go before the end of the story, Empire of Gold is still sending its subjects careening to hell’s gate.