Ethics in Congress: From Individual to Institutional Corruption

By Dennis F. Thompson | Go to book overview
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Purposes of Legislative Ethics

No one learns his ethics in Congress. . . . No one needs to be told by his colleagues what is right, fair, and honorable.

In his testimony before a House Task Force on Ethics, former Representative Otis Pike cited the best-selling book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten to drive home his point that members learn their ethics very early in life.1 Some critics might be tempted to respond that too many members have indeed learned all their ethics in kindergarten--and in an especially unruly classroom. They need to go back to school to learn the basic moral lessons they have forgotten. Challenging Pike and his colleagues on grounds of the weak moral character of members, however, misses the more important problem with his view: his conception of legislative ethics. Along with many others, he assumes that ethics in Congress requires only that members act on basic principles of personal ethics. The good legislator is morally equivalent to the good person.

This is a common but mistaken view of legislative ethics--and of political and professional ethics in general. Certainly, any kind of ethics requires some basic moral dispositions and presupposes some fundamental moral principles like those Pike had in mind. But personal ethics and legislative ethics are quite different creatures, and confusing them does neither any good. The first step in discovering what kind of ethical standards are needed to deal with institutional corruption is to understand the differences between personal and

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