[Paleopsych] Philapa Inquirer: Moral minefields
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Fri Jun 10 23:45:05 UTC 2005
Philapa Inquirer, 5.6.8
Ethical landmines are everywhere - business, politics, the grocery
store. Why is dodging them so tough these days?
By Jeff Gammage
Inquirer Staff Writer
Even before Mark Felt provoked a gale of accusation and retort by
identifying himself as Watergate's secretive Deep Throat, the issue at
the heart of his role had taken on a new and pressing prominence:
Today the question of ethics - who has them, who doesn't, and the
ramifications for both - is generating news and disagreement from
boardroom to bedroom to jury room.
"It's become like a national pastime, commenting on it, and talking
about it," says Buie Seawell, former Senate chief of staff to Gary
Hart, a man who knows something about ethical puzzles.
Thirty years ago, when Deep Throat was spilling secrets to Bob
Woodward, not much was known or made of his motivations. But when Felt
stepped forward last week - he'd been deputy director of the FBI
during the scandal - everyone from casual Watergate followers to
convicted Watergate felons had an opinion on whether he was a saint or
Today everybody's behavior - even that of the self-proclaimed hero of
Watergate - is fair game.
What's changed? Everything.
Unprecedented amounts of information have moved as close as the
computer keyboard, from there zapped across the country and around the
world. The Web has given a platform to everyone from the bank
president to the blogger. Round-the-clock news networks like CNN and
Fox turn an unblinking eye on America's leaders and celebrities.
And when something goes wrong, people hear about it almost instantly -
and continuously. Today the event that precipitated the Watergate
scandal - a break-in at Democratic headquarters - would lead the
headlines on CNN every 15 minutes.
"Dirty laundry is not as easy to hide," says David Steingard,
assistant director of the Pedro Arrupe Center for Business Ethics at
St. Joseph's University.
Something else is different too, one expert argues, and it's not good:
Today, cheaters do prosper.
Kirk Hanson, a Santa Clara University ethicist, believes we've created
a winner-take-all society, a place where infinitely greater reward
flows from being just a little bit better than the rest. By, say,
hitting a few more home runs, or being first with a scientific
Back in 1988, Hanson writes in the San Jose Mercury News, the
best-paid baseball player earned $2.3 million. Last year the top pay
was $20 million. In 1980, CEOs earned 40 times the salary of the
average worker, but by 2000 they were earning 400 times more.
That's powerful incentive to get to the top, even if it means cutting
Others - including the convicted - argue that media saturation has
muddied the ethical terrain:
It's wrong to copy your term paper from the Internet, but no big deal
to skip the book and read the Cliff Notes. Shoplifting is a crime, but
nibbling from the bulk-food bin is just tasting. It's fine to take
home a company pen in your pocket, but don't walk out with a ream of
In an interview after his conviction in the pay-to-play investigation,
former Philadelphia treasurer Corey Kemp said no one ever told him
what gifts he could and couldn't accept. The jury found the evidence
overwhelming, and today Kemp faces prison for trading access to his
office for money and trips to the Super Bowl and NBA finals.
Kemp isn't the only one hurt by his malfeasance, ethicists say.
Citizens paid - in failed government, in damaged reputation. Commerce
Bank paid. The price of its stock immediately fell 6 percent when two
of its executives were convicted in the same case. Investors paid,
too: The drop in stock cost them $276 million in share value. Since
then the stock has largely recovered, although it hasn't regained the
momentum that once made it a favorite of brokers and investors.
These days, experts say, it's clear that the stakes are enormous, that
ethical breaches can generate cascades of repercussions, not just for
corrupt public officials but for hard-working, everyday people who
don't know they're going along for the ride.
Suppose you're rushing through the line at Wawa and the clerk
mistakenly hands you an extra $20 in change.
It might seem harmless to pocket the bill. But it's not, ethicists
say. The first harm is to ourselves: You have to help create the
society you want to live in.
"The daily things," Steingard says, "that's where you're made or
That's not just a nice sentiment. Lagging ethics incur costs for
society - for surveillance cameras, computer monitoring, drug tests,
security guards. There's evidence that poor ethics weakens
productivity, that output declines when workers don't trust one
Such real-world expense helps explain why many agencies, organizations
and companies are stepping up efforts to enforce ethical standards. In
government, scores of codes have been enacted since the Watergate
crimes of the 1970s, and more are being written today. In
Philadelphia, City Council has passed a package of bills that, if
approved by voters this fall, would impose more stringent ethical
standards on local government.
Does that proliferation mean we've become a less ethical society? It's
hard to know. One man's blatant violation can be another's
To Democrats, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is the embodiment of
seamy behavior, wrongly accepting overseas trips from lobbyists. To
Republicans, he's the victim of a partisan witch hunt.
Ethical questions that seem clear-cut in theory - I would never lie -
can become complicated in reality. Sometimes the ethical thing is to
"There are certain situations," says Filipino activist Baltazar
Pinguel, of the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia,
"where you decide in favor of life."
As a political prisoner of the Marcos regime, Pinguel was presented
with a false confession and a choice: Sign it or die. He signed.
Most of us never face such stark alternatives. But we do face dozens
of small ethical questions every day, and we answer most without even
knowing we've been asked.
The next time you belly up to the counter, deciding between a Big Mac
and a Quarter Pounder, consider this: Is it ethical to eat a cow?
Hindus believe it a holy violation. And groups like People for the
Ethical Treatment of Animals insist animals are not ours to use, even
If you can't swallow that argument, think about the bun on your
burger, and the buns at McDonald's everywhere: All that grain. All
those needy relief agencies. In a world of finite resources, which is
the greater good, their supplies or your lunch?
It doesn't stop there. How does the company treat the counter clerk?
Does she get fair pay, medical coverage, sick time?
It's a lot to consider when all you want is a Number Four Value Meal.
"I had a steak the other night at TGI Friday's, and I didn't think a
whirl about it," says Jack Hill.
And he's an ethicist.
But seriously, says Hill, who teaches at Texas Christian University,
living an ethical life is becoming increasingly complex. New sciences
such as cloning challenge the very nature of what it means to be
human. We maintain strong ethical traditions - stealing is wrong - but
ideals, like "truth," have come to mean different things to different
"The boundaries," Hill says, "are up for grabs."
When you heard that American Idol judge Paula Abdul had been accused
of sleeping with a contestant, you probably had the same reaction as
Who cares whom she dates? It's just a dopey TV show.
But here's the problem, experts say: Ethics is ethics. And a judge -
even one on TV - is presumed to be impartial. Theoretically, if the
better talent was axed by tainted judging, that singer lost an entire
career - record contract, riches, fame. He might even sue the network.
"If you can't reason your way out of the Paula Abdul thing," says
Steingard, the St. Joseph's professor, "how are you going to deal with
it when the guy hands you back too much change at the store?"
TEST YOUR ETHICS
A variety of quizzes are online at http://go.philly.com/ethicsquiz
Question 1: If you answered no, you are correct.
N.J.S.A. 52:13D-24.1 now prohibits legislators and members of their
immediate family from accepting anything of value from a governmental
affairs agent totaling more than $250 in a calendar year. The value of
a week at the Shore house would exceed this amount for the
assemblywoman and her husband. A pre-existing friendship between a
legislator and a governmental affairs agent is not an exception to the
ethics prohibition. Note: Such relationships are relevant in a
Question 2: The answer is B.
Sure, it might not solve the problem immediately, but then again, no
one knows for certain if there even is a problem. Developing a policy
with input from all will raise everyone's awareness of the issue and
serve as an implicit warning to some to change their Internet-related
Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at jgammage at phillynews.com or
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