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Ethical Failures of Role Models

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

What happens when ethical role models commit moral failures?

What happens when ethical role models commit moral failures?

Role Models: Personal Responsibility and Ethical Failure

For those conflicted about ethical choices, it comes down to personal responsibility.

The major institutions of our society are always going to be flawed. Even with a number of upstanding individuals, these institutions still contain scoundrels that taint the entire bunch, and hitting on or pointing out the scumbags is often viewed as taking cheap shots.

However, there is the notion that society looks for its leaders to set an example for those whose sense of right and wrong might be a bit wobbly.

In This Article

  • Political Scandals
  • Religious Failings
  • Corporate Greed
  • Other Moral Failures
  • Where to Turn to?
  • Bonus Factoids

Political Scandals

Only the most naïve of us would look to the world of politics for ethical guidance. Its practitioners talk a good game, but the public doesn’t buy it. A 2015 survey in the U.K. found that politicians are the least trusted profession in the country. And no wonder when you consider the antics of Baron Sewel of Gilcomstoun.

In July 2015, the 69-year-old Deputy Speaker of Britain’s House of Lords was caught on camera snorting cocaine and cavorting in his apartment wearing the orange bra of one of the two prostitutes who were keeping him company. Lord Sewel (now known without affection by the British public as Lord Sewer) resigned from his House of Lords post, which was as guardian of the chamber’s standards of behaviour.

The shenanigans of Donald Trump’s presidency show a lowering of the standards of behaviour previously thought not possible. During his four-year term in office, he racked up some 30,000 false or misleading statements; that's an average of 21 a day.

He continues with the biggest lie of all, claiming that he won the 2020 presidential election "in a landslide" and that it was stolen from him through fraud. There is not the smallest scintilla of truth in that claim.

Religious Failings

For thousands of years, faith communities have set the moral compass.

No doubt, there are many religious leaders who are people of outstanding moral probity; sadly, there are many others who are not.

Thousands of priests and nuns have abused the trust placed in them by mistreating children placed in their care. Worse, their church hierarchies covered up their venal behaviour for decades.

Some imams preach a gospel of hate from their pulpits, such as Mullah Krekar, who was jailed in Norway for making death threats against officials and others and imprisoned again for praising the fatal attack on Charlie Hebdo.

Through their words, these religious leaders persuade young people it’s a darn good idea to strap on a vest filled with explosives and nails and go kaboom in a crowded market.

In August 2017, Indian guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh drew a sentence of 20 years in prison for raping some of his followers.

Or, we see members of the Westboro Baptist Church foaming at the mouth with loathing for whatever their target du jour is, usually something or someone connected with homosexuality.

What would Jesus do? Teach children to hate? Here's a photo of the moral leadership of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.

What would Jesus do? Teach children to hate? Here's a photo of the moral leadership of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.

Those televangelists sure guided us all along the path to purity and righteousness: Jim Bakker, convicted of fraud and admitted to adultery; Jimmy Swaggart and his serial lewd couplings with prostitutes; Earl Paulk engaged in “improper sexual relations” with women in his church; Vaughn Reeves was ordered to serve nine consecutive six-year sentences for fraud; and . . . but that’s enough.

Little wonder that a University of Chicago study of 30 nations found that “Belief in God has decreased in most countries . . . ”

Many of those in positions as moral guides reveal severe moral failings themselves.

Many of those in positions as moral guides reveal severe moral failings themselves.

Corporate Greed

Here’s another pillar of society that’s displaying shoddy behaviour.

The kill-or-be-killed imperative that drives many businesses often leads into a moral box canyon.

So we have a formerly revered company, Volkswagen, fudging emissions tests to gain market share.

The Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche was nominated as one of the 10 worst corporations in the world in 2008. It was cited for predatory pricing on an HIV drug and for the comment from one of its executives that “We are not in business to save lives, but to make money. Saving lives is not our business.”

Banking giant Goldman Sachs created its Abacus 2007-ACI investment fund. People buying into the fund did not know, although Goldman Sachs did, that the mortgages it held were doomed to fail.

Some of the biggest names at Fox News have been forced to resign over allegations of sexual harassment.

Widespread fraud has been uncovered at Wells Fargo. And . . . just as with malfeasance in the religious trade, that's enough to get the point across.

Morality comes down to personal responsibility.

Morality comes down to personal responsibility.

Other Moral Failures

A catalogue of people who should know better falling into an ethical swamp.

We have David Griffin being pulled over for driving under the influence. So? Happens all the time. Why pick on Mr. Griffin? At the time of the offence, he was the president of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter in East Prince County, Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Chris Spence was caught stealing someone else’s work to puff up his doctoral thesis at the University of Toronto. No biggie. Associated Press says a “study found that 56 percent of MBA students admitted cheating, along with 54 percent of graduate students in engineering, 48 percent in education, and 45 percent in law.

Well, it is a biggie because Chris Spence went on to become the Director of Education for the Toronto District School Board. There were consequences. Spence was fired from the school board, and the university took away his PhD.

We’ve all become accustomed to sports figures guilty of cheating―Lance Armstrong, Ben Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Carl Lewis, the entire Spanish Paralympic Basketball team of 2000, and pretty much every Russian athlete. So, it’s not much good looking to the world of sports about how to stay on the straight and narrow.

Role models in the sports world regularly show their moral and ethical failures.

Role models in the sports world regularly show their moral and ethical failures.

Al Jazeera tells us that “Out of 9,170 recorded police killings from 2013 to 2021, 153 police officers (1.7 percent) were charged with a crime and 38 (0.4 percent) were convicted,” and adds that “Black Americans are nearly three times as likely as white Americans to be killed by the police.”

The most egregious killing was that of George Floyd in Minneapolis, who died when officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.

Who else can we look to for strong moral fibre? Judges. Surely, gentlemen and women of the bench won’t let us down. Dang, here comes juvenile court judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. of Pennsylvania. He’s serving a 28-year sentence after a conviction for taking bribes. Then, there’s Judge Ralph G. Turco of Tacoma, Washington. He was kicked off the bench because he punched his wife at a church function.

In 1999, Judge Gigi Sullivan of Springdale, Pennsylvania, was put behind bars for appearing in court under the influence of narcotics, specifically heroin. And, in March 2017, Canada’s Justice Robin Camp resigned to protect his pension just prior to being fired for telling a sexual assault complainant she should have “kept your knees together.”

Where to Turn to?

Many of the institutions mentioned above knew there were miscreants within their midst and chose to pretend otherwise. For example, there’s a long tradition that cops don’t rat out a fellow officer.

The answer is that if we have to turn to someone else for ethical instructions, then our own moral compasses may be in need of a tune-up. And, there’s always the likelihood that for many dilemmas, there is no single right answer.

Morality is a tangled thicket of conundrums, but it can be simplified into “Treat other people as we would wish other people to treat us.”

Here endeth the lesson.

Bonus Factoids

  • Ethisphere is an organization that works to improve ethical standards among businesses around the world. Its 2019 list of The World’s Most Ethical Companies includes 3M, the American Association of Retired People, Volvo, Bank of Montreal, Sony, Nokia, and Kellogg’s.
  • “A man without ethics is a beast loosed upon this world.” Albert Camus.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor