As someone who writes about ethics and values, it seems nice that they have become hot topics.
“Ethics” is a word that has been bandied about a good deal these last two weeks, and for good reason. The behaviors of corporations, congressmen and countries have come under question.
Hewlett-Packard executives have been questioned regarding abuse of trust. They stand accused of using private detectives to gather information on reporters and board members. Their stated goal was to protect themselves from bad press and corporate spies.
They did what they call “pretexting.” It is lying to get information. It is easy to do, but it is unethical.
In Congress, 13 members have been labeled “most corrupt” by the Denver Post and several watchdog groups. It has to do with their votes that appear to be in exchange for power or payola. Some of them have been linked to the notorious Jack Abramoff, accused by federal investigators of fraud and illegal influence-peddling.
A 14th is Mark Foley. He resigned last week in the face of ethics violations. Foley resigned for being caught sending suggestive e-mails to underage Congressional pages. The pressures of society or, possibly, his own conscience led him to a public mea culpa.
Foley compounded the breech of moral standards by functioning as one pledged to protect young people from adult predators.
Our country’s executive branch has been criticized for its position on human rights in the treatment of prisoners of war. We all have been affected by the erosion of privacy. The White House has asserted power to overturn constitutional provisions, such as “habeas corpus” and the prohibition of illegal search and seizure. Our e-mails and phone calls are not private if we look or act like a terrorist.
The argument is that each of these groups has been unethical or has done some things outside of what we consider “good, right or fair.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, famed ethicist of the mid-20th century, wrote a landmark volume called “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” His book had a great impact on many, not least of whom was Martin Luther King Jr.
Coming out of World War II, Niebuhr contended that moral people will do unethical things in groups. The context or “culture” of institutions changes individuals. Good people together can do bad things.
An example of this is the behavior of the boys in “Lord of the Flies.” The character Ralph comes to escalate his power in the group. The isolated youngsters turn savage to the point of murder.
Another example is the modern-day actions of the folks on “Survivor.” Winning becomes the only thing.
Niebuhr would have a heyday in contemporary America. His premise is proven nearly each day as the media reports on the behavior of groups. He asserted that public ethics are not the extension of personal ethics.
It is unfortunate that we do not influence one another to be better as a group than we are as individuals. It is sad that corporations, Congress and countries cannot draw their constituents into more moral behavior.
In each case, however, there is hope that the individuals within the society can reverse the process and take the moral high road as a group. If enough people stand up for what is right, the pattern can change. If enough people also stand up for others who would choose the moral high road, we would see the trend transformed.
We have to support those who call us to moral positions and stand against the trend to descend to the lowest common denominator.
Individuals do not have to assume the culture of the group if that culture is ethically lower than our own. There still is the courage to stand up for what we know is right.
May a culture of higher ethical standards become more the norm and lead individuals to superior moral behavior.
• Mike McLellan can be contacted by leaving a message at 830-4201 or e-mailing him at DrMikeM@sbcglobal.net.