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Ethics Matter

Jan 25, 2017

Ethics. The word itself sounds vaguely clinical and certainly old-fashioned. What are ethics? And why now, right now, is it vitally important to know why ethics matter?

I’ve got some ideas.

First, ethics are essentially societal rules that everyone agrees to follow for the benefit of the community, country and humanity as a whole. Ethics provide the infrastructure of human civilization. We can and do agree to live by the same ethical systems while having very different ideas about morals. And certainly very different ideas about politics.

For example: To believe you should marry before having sexual relations is a moral choice. To abide by a legal contract is an ethical choice. To drink alcohol or smoke marijuana is a moral choice. To pay taxes is an ethical choice. To follow a vegan diet is a moral choice. To use public office to enrich yourself is an ethical choice. To own a gun is a moral choice. To abide by international human rights law is an ethical choice. To abort a pregnancy is a moral choice. To pay child support is an ethical choice.

Morals are beliefs that inform our personal decisions and thus the actions that impact our own bodies. Ethics inform how our lived lives impact everyone else. Ethics guide our behaviors for the purpose of avoiding negative impact on others—all others—our family members, neighbors, co-workers, fellow citizens, and indeed all inhabitants of the earth.

When we say someone is unethical, we mean they are willing to put others at risk (emotionally, physically, financially) in service to their own self-interest. Any means whatsoever are “on the table” as long as they serve the individual, first, foremost and perhaps entirely. Unethical behavior is by definition antisocial. In extreme form, it’s criminal; behavior entirely lacking in moral responsibility or social conscience.

Most of us tell “white lies” on a regular basis, while being essentially trustworthy and truthful people. Similarly, most of us engage in just a little bit of unethical behavior now and then while behaving as good law-abiding citizens most of the time.

For example, speeding. Speeding puts others at risk. We justify speeding because 1. We’re late, and 2. We believe we’re good drivers and so the added risk to fellow drivers is minimal. In other words, our intentions are good. Most of the time, everything works out fine. Nonetheless, it’s still unethical to speed.

Perhaps we’ve not accounted for cash income on our tax returns. That’s not ethical. We justify it because 1. We need the money, and 2. We believe the taxes we’re avoiding are not going to hurt anybody, while keeping the money in our pocket certainly will help us. Again, our intentions aren’t bad, but that doesn’t make the action ethical.

Perhaps, a time or two, we’ve cheated on a test. We might justify cheating because 1. We just didn’t have time to properly prepare, and 2. After all, we’re only hurting ourselves by not learning the information. But tests of all kinds, from 4th grade spelling to the MCAT depend on a level playing field to be meaningful. Cheating undermines the value of all results. And that’s clearly unethical.

The reason traffic generally flows, the government continues to function, and most doctors are in fact competent is that most people engage in ethical behavior most of the time. Or put another way, everyone doesn’t engage in unethical behavior at the same time. Why don’t we? We don’t because, by and large, we recognize the value of these ethical behaviors in others. We don’t want to be killed on the interstate, so we appreciate it when others drive safely. We don’t want the government to shut down, so we appreciate it when others pay their taxes. We don’t want an incompetent surgeon to remove our appendix, so we appreciate it when doctors don’t cheat on tests.

I believe that our American democracy is anchored by the presumption that most people will act ethically most of the time. And when people act unethically, as we all do from time to time, we won’t all do it at once. I contend that NYC works not because New Yorkers are rude, but because most New Yorkers are polite most of the time. How do millions get on and off a tightly-packed island every day? By abiding by the rules, not by shredding them.

Which brings me to the present moment.

Ethical behavior is critical to the maintenance of societal norms and institutions. Ethical behavior builds trust, which begets more ethical behavior. When we buy a product and it arrives as advertised, we’ll shop from that company again. When we deposit our paycheck in the bank and find it’s still in the bank next week, ready for us to withdraw, we’ll keep depositing our paycheck. When we have a positive surgical outcome, our belief in science is sustained. When we get on an airplane, and with rare exceptions, the airplane lands safely, we’ll keep flying.

All of these experiences depend on the ethical behavior of others and at the same time reinforce the value of ethical behavior by us. We appreciate it when others mean what they say and say what they mean. We appreciate it when we are not swindled, stolen from or taken advantage of. We appreciate skill and expertise. We appreciate accurate information, whether in the form of a map or a cancer screening. When others act in good faith, we’re more likely to act in good faith. Ethics create a positive feedback loop.

But what happens when the most powerful person in any feedback loop decides not to act in good faith? When the president of the manufacturing company tells his advertising department to make false claims, how does that impact his employees? When the principal of a middle school falsifies test results, how does that impact the students? When a safety expert allows an untested consumer product to enter the marketplace, how does that impact the consumers? When the CEO of an investment bank encourages risky trades, how does that impact the economy?

Best case, trust is destroyed. Worst case, people die.

Ethical behavior must be modeled from the top of any organization, from the family to the United States government. Otherwise, ethics simply can’t be sustained for the long haul, regardless how ardently people down the food chain might actually want to act ethically themselves. When any leader puts their personal interest above all else, then the positive feedback loop, where ethics beget more ethics, fails to materialize. In its place, we have every man for himself. Anyone who has participated in such a system knows its brutality. In such a system, individual survival is prioritized above all else. Any means, regardless how unethical, is justified for personal gain. Those who are willing to “do anything” accrue ever more power. Those who insist on ethical behavior become weaker and increasingly marginalized.

Human history is replete with unethical leaders, authoritarian power, and the often ghastly ends to such regimes. It’s not necessary that the United States follow this path. We have, as so many writers and thinkers, expats from authoritarian regimes, keep telling us: strong democratic norms and institutions. Yes, we do. But I would argue that the survival of these norms and institutions depends entirely on our response, as citizens, to the manifestly unethical behavior of the President.

Bowing to the President’s behavioral model, will we allow unethical behavior to become the norm through which power is obtained, retained and exercised? Or will we resist?

Ethics is the sine qua non of this moment. An ethics-based government is the essential condition for a stable, strong, resilient democracy. Without it, we citizens won’t have the luxury of arguing over policy positions regarding health care or human rights or climate change or education or immigration or anything else. We’ll be cut out of the loop completely.

Absent an ethical foundation, democracy can’t be sustained any more than a company can be sustained. Sooner or later, unethical systems go down in flames. Our fledgling and deeply flawed democratic system (just 240 years young) depends for its survival on the positive feed-back-loop engendered and sustained by ethical behavior from the top. Our American experiment has succeeded to the extent is has because we have, for the most part, chosen ethical leaders. At the very least, we’ve chosen leaders who have been willing to give lip-service to the notion that ethical behavior is important and should be honored as intrinsic to the American spirit.

Unique in our history, our new President is not cut from this cloth. His lifelong record of bad behavior has been catalogued at length. In just a few days, he’s made crystal clear he’s not about to change his modus operandi now that he’s the titular Leader of the Free World. Quite the contrary, his behavior indicates he’s doubling down. He must “win” every encounter regardless how trivial, heedless of the cost to the dignity of the office he holds, the security of the country he leads and the future of the world entire. In service of a highly personalized definition of “winning,” he has proven himself willing to employ manifestly unethical tactics, all of which disqualify public servants of far lower office than President of the United States.

While an essentially ethics-based system as vast as the federal government can’t be dismantled overnight, the new President’s swift actions should concern Americans of every political affiliation. It’s unprecedented for an incoming President to target science-based agencies, freezing their ability to act, gagging their interaction with the public, and discrediting the data that is the essence of their work.

It’s unprecedented for a President to refuse to divest from myriad foreign and domestic business entanglements that are a clear and present conflict of interest both in terms of his personal finances and his ability to govern “without fear or favor.” Every administration, since the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) was created in the aftermath of Watergate, has worked with the OGE to avoid conflicts of interest on the part of the president. In recognition of how even the appearance of conflict has a corrosive effect on democracy, every president since Nixon has worked with the OGE and divested their wealth. This President has refused to meet with the OGE. Instead, he has targeted the independent office and its director as having partisan motivations. His actions indicate that the President is entirely unwilling to put the office of President above his personal interests.

The President says he is engaged in a “war with the media.” He continues to label mainstream news outlets as “fake news.” Needless to say, all presidents run hot and cold in their relationship with the media. Yet, it is important to note that in the modern era, no President has declared himself at war with the Fourth Estate, nor engaged in a full-throated declaration that he has a right to present “alternative facts” as superior to empirical facts.

This behavior will continue to chip away, inexorably, at our democratic norms and institutions. With every vengeful tweet and staged press conference, with every deal done by his sons and civil rights law repealed the beneficial ethical feedback loop upon which our democracy depends will become just a little less vibrant and our trust in each other as Americans will become just a little less strong.

But our democracy won’t cease to exist unless we let it.

To be sure, the President was elected. After 18 months spent as candidate and President-elect undermining the essential infrastructure of our democratic process in word and deed, he was elected just the same. Yet, even he can’t finish off American democracy without our acquiescence. Our democracy will cease only when we stop believing ethics matter. This is the point of most critical resistance.

Unethical systems are sustained by fueling belief in scarcity, in the zero-sum-game, in the assumption that everyone does (and in fact must) lie, cheat and steal to survive. In the assertion that success is otherwise impossible. The unethical leader exclaims: Only suckers play by the rules.

Not in my America. In my America that’s what most of us citizens do, most of the time. We play by the rules. We act ethically because it benefits everyone. We play by the rules because we sense, even if we don’t say it, that doing so is our patriotic duty. The union preserved in the Civil War depends upon our doing the right thing, even when we may not want to do it.

In the days ahead, acting ethically ourselves, demanding ethical behavior from our representatives at all levels, and raising hell every single time our President behaves badly will be our most personal and patriotic work.