Monday, December 15, 2008

Why Ethics Has a Bad Name

Here's an excerpt from an article about Illinois Governor Blagojevich I read over coffee in this morning's New York Times:
The moment could not have been more welcoming for a Democrat. Gov. George Ryan, a Republican who was by then engulfed in a corruption scandal, did not run for re-election, and the Republican who did had a long record of public service but an unfortunate last name: Ryan.

Mr. Blagojevich focused his campaign on pledges of reform and clean government, and won. Once in office, even amid accusations of campaign donations being exchanged for state jobs, Mr. Blagojevich continued to promote himself as a lonely fighter against the gargantuan pressures of lobbyists and lawmakers — pressing for tougher ethics laws, appointing inspectors general and sending state employees to “ethics training.”
In an earlier posting about "A Ridiculous Use of Medical Ethics Teaching" I speculated about why a state ethics board ordered a physician whose multiple offenses suggested incorrigibility to take an ethics course. The three possibilities I came up with were cynicism (avoid meaningful action by appearing to do something), optimism (the multiple offender means well - an ethics course will show him the true path) and magic (like divine intervention, the ethics class will pierce the miscreant's evil self and bring about transformation).

Governor Blagojevich, who is now the toast of late night comedy shows, provides a fourth reason ethics can have a bad name - duplicity. This is the technique the hungry wolf used in hope of eating Little Red Riding Hood. Disguising himself as the kindly grandmother is like the Illinois governor presenting himself as the candidate of reform.

Ethics education and ethics committees can be enormously valuable, but only as a support for the objectives set by ethical leaders. As grandma probably told Little Red Riding Hood - actions speak louder than words.

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