Why be ethical?

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I once viewed the assertion that we should all aspire to be ethical was a no-brainer, a universally-held social norm. I don’t believe so anymore. The election of a demonstrably-unethical businessman as president of the United States in 2016, supported despite his very public immorality by the most visible conservative, self-described religious voices, put the final nail in that coffin.

However, I wrote this series of blog posts (which began with my assertion of “the first ethical dilemma”), because I believe aspiring to being ethical is still very important to the survival of human society, even if we frequently fail in the attempt. Indeed, I think people still cast everyday human decisions into this “ethical/moral” category precisely because they fear, deep down, that the future of society depends on how the “hard questions” get answered.

I got started in this field through a formal academic study of accounting ethics in the late 1980s, after the Savings and Loan crisis hit both my accounting profession and my then-home town of Cincinnati very hard (see this post for more information on the Savings and Loan Crisis). People went to prison, including Charles Keating, the politically-connected chairman of one major S&L, for their financial crimes, and auditing firms were also punished for their significant role in the S&L failures. [1]

After the 2001 Enron scandal, the venerable CPA firm of Arthur Andersen, Enron’s auditor, narrowly escaped criminal prosecution, but it was nonetheless destroyed as a professional organization. By the time of the much bigger 2008 banking crisis, however, blame was deflected in so many different directions that it is hard to find any major players significantly punished for blatant violations of laws and professional norms.

One investment bank, Lehman Brothers, was left to collapse early in the crisis, but today most informed observers would say that they were, although not innocent, perhaps more “fall guys” than central causes to the crisis. Just recently, some ten years later, auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers was fined $625 million for their role in the collapse of just one Alabama bank. [2] There were far many more financial crimes by well-known names that went unpunished.

The deep corruption in Donald Trump’s financial history, including his Atlantic City bankruptcies and subsequent “funny money” cash purchases of real estate with no visible collateral, are still unfolding. But no matter what is found, legions of his supporters will go down defending Trump’s business acumen. The open “grifting” of several of his Cabinet secretaries, including Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke and Wilbur Ross, goes largely ignored by the political party in charge. Pruitt’s corruption was so blatantly stupid that he was forced out very recently, but it appears more for his embarrassing fecklessness than his actual corruption, still denied by the loyalist Trump press.

In the end, I still assert that the key to human survival is in keeping “the moral conversation” going, first inside your own head, letting all of the “moral evaluator centers” have their say. Then the conversation needs to always extend itself, through all the human cultural and technical languages, with others in your community, and with the strangers outside it, sometimes going around the “ethical circle” multiple times.

The Moral Conversation

The moral conversation

My assertion remains that the more times human beings traverse the circle of the moral conversation within themselves and with each other, the more the “odds” change around alternative outcomes. And when the probabilities change, the “throw of the dice” in many moral dilemmas become less random and more volitional, more intentional.

Because we have evolved “the moral conversation,” we are still here. Just as it is often said about biological genetics, if your parents’ society could not work together to thrive as a community long enough to procreate and nurture their young, then you probably won’t be able to get there either.

It is traditional in writing about ethics to grapple with the question, “Why be ethical?” but I dislike the premise of the question. The premise implies that we all really want to be “evil” if only we had the unpunished opportunity. The “Eden Narrative” dies hard. Very few people are so venal and greedy that they are willing to destroy civil society in order to obtain power and riches. I will admit, however, that I can think of a few exceptions.

The real answer is that “good people,” even when they disagree, want to survive and procreate the species. They want a good place for their children to grow and raise families themselves. Sometimes that means “doing good things,” and sometimes that has meant “doing bad things” as a last resort. My humble observation is that “doing good” had brought more success to the species than has the “bad” alternative, and that even some really nasty people do care about what happens to their families and their society. But since we are always dependent on the “unknown” of the other people who share our species, either action is always a bet.

In the end of all important moral conversations, you can’t escape rolling the cosmic dice, but you can, in this game, manipulate the odds. And the moral conversation continues…


Notes:

  1. The “Keating Five” was a bipartisan group of U.S. senators who tried to intervene in the case against Keating, tarring their reputations in the process. John McCain and John Glenn were among the five, which spurred McCain to champion campaign finance reform for many years.
  2. Dolmetsch, Chris. “PwC Ordered to Pay $625 Million in Damages Over Bank’s Audit.” Bloomberg.com, 2 July 2018.

Prior Dice

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