Magazine article USA TODAY

Do Ethics Promise Too Much?

Magazine article USA TODAY

Do Ethics Promise Too Much?

Article excerpt

ETHICS AWARENESS are the buzzwords today, as everywhere we encounter shenanigans of one sort or another. Professional and business organizations are complaining about the lack of honesty in our society as, nearly daily, some new scandal erupts. We have had enough of such bamboozling with college athletic departments using slush funds to recruit prospective star players. Not uncommon is the throwing of wild parties for them, complete with alcohol, strippers, and, at times, even prostitutes.

Neither the local, national, nor international stage is exempt from unethical conduct. Bribes are standard in Third World countries as a vehicle for doing business. Jack Abramoff was a master at such tactics with Congress, only his bribes were called lobbying. The taking of prohibited steroids by athletes enhances their performance--in the Olympics as well as professional sports--producing an unfair advantage over competitors. Yet, it not only is at the highly public level that ethics violations are taking place. At a lower stratum, every office experiences the pilfering of supplies, using the telephone and computer for personal services, double-dipping on expense accounts, and so on. In schools, cheating is rampant, as any student will tell you. Moreover, teachers have been caught cooking the books on exam grades, so that they themselves look good.

The public seems to think that the panacea for this type of behavior is the teaching of ethics in some formal way to all concerned. Hence, there is a plethora of ethics seminars for business, medicine, fund-raising, the environment, etc. These seldom are effective--for a number of reasons. The main one is the lack of a fundamental enquiry into the nature of ethics itself. A first-order question is, "Why should I be good?" If the answer to that is unknown, all discussion is meaningless. Ethics, itself a "soft" discipline, seldom produces the kind of certitude that science offers. To summarize Aristotle's point of view in the vernacular, "One cannot squeeze blood out of a turnip." At best, it merely produces "moral certitude," which means only a kind of probability.

Moreover, whose system of ethics do we teach? Aristotle believed in an ethics that sought happiness on the part of the practitioner. The problem with that is: What constituted happiness? Was it sensual hedonism? The practice of virtue? Intellectual contemplation? John Stuart Mill, the English political theorist and advocate of women's suffrage, wanted an ethic that led "to the greatest good for the greatest number." Immanuel Kent, the 18th-century thinker, maintained that an individual is acting ethically only when that person's action is performed out of a sense of duty. If reward or pleasure is its motivation, the act is not necessarily wrong, but those motivations vitiate the act as ethical.

Despite the fundamentalists, an ethic need not be in conjunction with the idea of a God or heaven, as Marxism has a strict secular ethic. Theoretically, it calls for social justice. The state would ask "from each according to one's ability, and distribute to each according to one's needs."

It should be noted that culture often enters into the matter of what is ethical as, for example, the Plains Indians thought it wrong to steal from members of their tribe, but praiseworthy to do so from enemy tribes. …

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