I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
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.
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 his House of Lords post, which was as guardian of the chamber’s standards of behaviour.
Far less entertaining but no less hypocritical is the conduct of Dean Del Mastro. A member of Canada’s House of Commons, Del Mastro was convicted in 2014 of fraudulently financing his election campaign. He was also the Conservative Party spokesman on parliamentary ethics before his resignation.
The shenanigans of Donald Trump’s presidency shows a lowering of the standards of behaviour previously thought not possible. After three years in office, The Washington Post listed all his false or misleading claims and logged 15,500 of them.
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 2012 in Norway for making death threats against officials and others and imprisoned again in 2015 for praising the 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.
And, 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; in 2010 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 …”
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.
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. So, it’s not much good looking to the world of sports about how to stay on the straight and narrow.
How about guardians of the law? Eight Quebec provincial police officers have been suspended, accused of forcing aboriginal women to have sex with them.
In December 2019, 34 West Virginia prison guards were fired after they appeared in a photograph giving the Nazi salute.
The Guardian in the U.K. has an infographic that keeps count of the number of Americans killed by police officers. The body count for 2018 was 996 for the year. Context please. Okay, that’s a rate of 30.4 per 10 million people. The rate for the United Kingdom is 0.5, and for Australia 1.7.
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?
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.
- 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.
- “Britain’s Most Distrusted Professions Infographic.”
- “Lord Coke: Top Peer’s Drug Binges with £200 Prostitutes.” The Sun on Sunday, July 2015.
- “President Trump’s List of False and Misleading Claims Tops 1,000.” Meg Kelly et al., New York Times, August 22, 2017.
- “Beliefs about God across Time and Countries.” Tom, W. Smith, University of Chicago, April 18, 2012.
- “The Hall of Shame.” Famous TV Evangelists, undated.
- “The System Implodes: The 10 Worst Corporations of 2008.” Robert Wiseman, Multinational Monitor, Nov/Dec 2008.
- “10 Great Moments in Corporate Malfeasance.” Josh Clark, How Stuff Works.
- “MADD President of P.E.I. Chapter Resigns Over Impaired Driving Charge.” CTV News Atlantic, August 5, 2015.
- “Higher Education Sees Rise in Dishonesty.” Justin Pope, Associated Press, May 19, 2007.
- “The Counted.” The Guardian, November 12, 2015.
- “The 2019 World’s Most Ethical Companies” Ethisphere, 2019.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on September 14, 2017:
I'm not sure where we lost our way, but it seems society has. It is hard to believe that people who were looked up to a generation ago, now often deserve disgust. (ie: US president)
Glen Rix from UK on September 01, 2017:
Well, nobody can argue with facts. The problem is that the pervasive lack of trust in the Establishment is having bad knock-on effects - witness crazy decisions recently made by the electorate. The principle 'let your conscience be your guide' is a good one to follow but, sadly, many people seem to lack a conscience. I can't help feeling that what some call the death of God has contributed to a complex problem - I'm not a believer but I do think that belief may, in the past, have provided a frame of reference and put the brakes on unacceptable behaviour. At the end of the day all I can do is put my trust in a belief that the vast majority of people are decent human beings. The judicial system needs to be strengthened to deal appropriately with the minority who aren't.