Ethics in Government and in Life are based on Consistent Standards of Right and Wrong
Should we care that allegedly, the former House speaker Dennis Hastert sexually abused at least two students during his years (1965–1981) as a teacher and wrestling coach in the farm town of Yorkville, Illinois? What's the chance that some of Hastert's congressional colleagues had knowledge of the cover-up? Why does this even matter that the 59th Speaker of the US House of Representatives, who served from 1999 to 2007, may have committed the worst of all possible crimes?
The Hastert case reminds of Mark Foley, the former Florida congressman who resigned in the fall of 2006 after the exposure of predatory, sexually explicit emails and instant messages he sent to male congressional pages. Foley was said to have trolled pages inappropriately as far back as 1995. After the scandal became public, both journalists and House Ethics Committee investigators found that Hastert, had remained “willfully ignorant” (as the Ethics report pointed out) about repeated reports of Foley’s transgressions. Some say that Hastert seems to have adopted a see-no-evil defense akin to Coach Joe Paterno’s. But unlike Paterno, he was able to slip away quietly, departing Congress after Foley’s exit.
The Hastert matter smacks of self-indulgent behavior void of any ethical values. When a person goes into public life, he or she must understand: Certain issues that might be considered private for a private individual can become matters of reasonable public interest when that individual runs for office. Becoming a public servant means putting the public's interest ahead of your own.
The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University puts it into perspective in an opinion piece. It points out that everyone will draw the line between personal and public in a slightly different place, but generally, if a private matter affects the performance of the officeholder's duties, most people would agree that it is no longer private. One might extend the same logic to Hillary Clinton’s exclusive use of personal emails to conduct private government business, but that is a topic for another day.
At the risk of becoming too philosophical, let me remind my readers of some political philosophy that dates back for centuries. Public reason requires that the moral or political rules that regulate our common life be, in some sense, justifiable or acceptable to all those persons over whom the rules purport to have authority. It is an idea with roots in the work of Hobbes, Kant, and Rousseau, and has become increasingly influential in contemporary moral and political philosophy as a result of its development in the work of John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, and Gerald Gaus, among others.
If we accept this premise, then the conduct of our elected representative should reflect societal values, which may be the problem. The reality is today what happens in Congress doesn’t stay in Congress. It infects all of us. We know that our representatives get away with behavior that others abhor. Yet, we do not get up in arms. Does anyone really care about the behavior of Hastert and Foley and the legends of other congress people who came before and will come after them? I don’t see it. What I see is a blasé attitude about all of it. Let’s face it, this isn’t just a problem in Congress? It’s in sports, entertainment, businesses, and so on.
I used to think we had reached rock bottom when it comes to the decline of ethics in society. I now know we are still falling off the cliff – and it is infecting us in a major way. Witness the uptick in violent crime in some major cities, perhaps due to a sense that the police will not interfere in a way that was done before as a result of increased public scrutiny following gratuitous behavior by some police against our citizens. We’re talking public safety here.
What about the TSA? Are they a corrupt organization letting so many escape detection at the screenings in airports? I think it is part of a bigger problem in society. We have a culture of incompetence. Pride in one’s job has given way to just getting it done and moving on to things one would rather be doing. The indifference is startling, whether in the TSA, GSA, IRS, or name your favorite government agency.
Like a good professor, let’s return the discussion to philosophy. Public reason is not only a standard by which moral or political rules can be assessed: it can also provide standards for individual behavior. Because we make moral and political demands of each other, if we are to comply with the ideal of public reason, we must refrain from advocating or supporting behavior that cannot be justified to society, on whom the rules would be imposed.
The problem as I see it is in politics, government, business and other institutions, what is considered ethical is based on a double standard. Some behaviors are accepted in the workplace that would not be in our personal lives, although what Hastert and Foley did violates ethics in both cases.
In general, a person would be reluctant to abuse a family member but given our ethical frailties, it may happen in the workplace. A person is generally unwilling to take money or other things that don’t belong to them, but it can and does occur in government and elsewhere all the time.
We need to realize that how we act in the workplace influences how we lead our personal lives and vise versa. The old adage: “Good ethics is good business” is correct. Still, the real importance of having a consistent ethical behavior is one feeds into the other. Ethics is not like a spigot that can be turned on and off when we so desire. It needs to be cultivated by practicing being an ethical person.
According to "virtue ethics", there are certain ideals, such as excellence or dedication to the common good, toward which we should strive and which allow the full development of our humanity. These ideals are discovered through thoughtful reflection on what we as human beings have the potential to become.
"Virtues" are attitudes, dispositions, or character traits that enable us to be and to act in ways that develop this potential. They enable us to pursue the ideals we have adopted. Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues.
To create a more ethical society we all need to learn these lessons and hold ourselves to the highest of standards at work, in the home, and in all our relationships with others.
Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 18, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.ethicssage.com.