The three noble truths of modern ethics

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There they were in this expensive hotel lounge, its walls lined with bogus sporting paraphernalia and sub-Brideshead accessories, designed to impress people who are easily impressed. You couldn't have missed them because they were the sort of people who didn't fit, couldn't fit not anywhere; not even here. Not with the flat-faced, flat-eyed Japanese executives in their Burberry blazers. Not with the howling Americans in their uneasy Yur-peen-style casuals. Not with the bewildered Finns, given a bum steer back in Helsinki, wondering earlier what was going on but now happily blotto, letting it all wash over them. Not even with me and the blonde and her boyfriend, a nice man suffering from a nasty dose of laryngitis.

The first thing I noticed was the smell: Aramis, sloshed on with a decorator's roller. Then the man appeared. There was something wrong with his well- cut blue suit: just too well-cut, just too blue, just too... suity. His shirt had a strange sheen to it, as though it hadn't just been starched but was somehow made of starch. His tie, heavy, glossy silk, looked as though it had been tied by a valet, possibly Latvian, who knew he would be knifed if the knot wasn't absolutely so.

He snarled at a waiter and strode over to the window table, his suity blue suit moving stiffly, as though built over a substructure of bullet- proof material. People were stealing covert glances at him, then turning away with tiny moues of disgust. He had cropped hair: phoney-looking, as though it was sprayed on every morning. A thin vicious face. A moustache which seemed to have been etched into his skin rather than growing from it. He looked like a man who maimed people, and it rubbed off; you wanted to maim him, there in the expensive lounge; to slice his face with a thin nasty knife-blade, or to drag him to his feet, pinion his arms, drop his suity blue trousers, grab a piece of bogus sporting paraphernalia from the walls and use your imagination. That would take teamwork, but the man with laryngitis had been a Hussar and knew what was what.

"Some sort of crook," I said.

"......," said the man with laryngitis.

"Could be," I said, "Though I'd put my money on his being a Russian Mafia bagman."

"...!" said the man with laryngitis.

"Quite right," I said. "Bent Russian Mafia lawyer."

The smell of Aramis was overwhelmed by a new one: Giorgio, lathered-on. It said: popsy. It said: moll. In she came: arse-length bleached blonde hair, heroin-thin with a figure like a Biro if you discounted the silicone bosom. She teetered on six-inch white go-f***-yourself shoes. Frozen splintered eyes, man-made tits, sprayed-on synthetic allure: the sexual equivalent of fast food.

She went over, sat down. He pawed at her and began making loud calls in Russian on his mobile phone. They sounded like death threats. In between calls he showed her his teeth, snapped his fingers at the waiter, gripped her spindly thigh. There they were, the legacy of Marx and Lenin: Bastard and Junk Girl. We tried to epitomise the relationship. Not quite pimp and whore, not punter and showgirl, not even gangster and moll. Then we got it. Incestuous daddy, abused daughter. Go on. Go on baby. You know you want it.

It occurred to me that here was a man entirely in tune with the age; not necessarily the killing and maiming, but certainly the greed and contempt. From the whole tremendous range of human thought and feeling, you can grow rich on just three phrases, and there was one of them: "You know you want it." We argued about the other two for a while, and settled on: "Screw you," and "Give us the money."

It's not just Russian mafia lawyers, either. Most of modern public life can be reduced to a permutation of those three essential phrases. Advertising? "You know you want it. Give us the money." Politicians in the run-up to an election? "You know you want it." Politicians after an election? "Screw you. Give us the money."

Fergie? "Screw you. Give us the money." Princess Di? "You know you want it. Give us the money." Almost everyone involved in the construction of the Honiton-Exeter dual carriageway: "Screw you." National Lottery operator Camelot? "You know you want it. Give us the money" Nicole, Papa, the baggage in the Kenco advertisement, the nasty little travelling salesman in the Megane advertisement, most computer companies, all banks, Carlton Television, and all mobile phone outfits? "Give us the money," and immediately thereafter, "Screw you."

And Junk Girl herself? Hmmm. Well; every scientific theorem needs minor adjustment. In this case, a quick pronoun-tweak should do it. Here you go: "You know you want it. Screw me. Give us the money."

I initially thought I had come upon a truth as profound as - was it Socrates who divided men into three classes: those who love wisdom, those who love honour, and those who love gain? Anyway, as profound as that. I thought at first that it was one of those epiphanic moments, so I decided things would be different from now on.

Alas, it is far too late to start going round the place with a face like a switchblade, saying "You know you want it; screw you; give us the money," but I could at least recommend it to you all, as a general ethical test. It would be so easy. You would simply analyse each and every proposition put to you, and if it boiled down to one or more of those three phrases, you would reject it, with loud cries of alarm and disgust and, where appropriate, physical violence, public calumny or vulgar abuse.

But then I realised it wouldn't work. The whole of our social and economic life would collapse. Everything. Even my own small corner of the world. You don't believe me? Listen: do you enjoy this column? Of course you do. You know you want it. You don't? Well: screw you. I don't care. You've read it anyway. Give us the money. See? !