Brush up your ethics

by Danny Battista, original submitted as an essay on the topic of ethics

Too often we are bombarded with what seems like a constant stream of reports of unethical behavior – reports about our lawmakers, public officials, religious leaders, educators, and those in the business world.  Indeed, unethical behavior exists everywhere in our world.

Ethics can be a very personal thing.  Ethics involve an intimate knowledge of one’s own values and limits.  It’s about people knowing themselves and having some basic principles about what is okay to do and what is not.  Some people see themselves as superior or above the law, and some people hold others to a higher standard. Sometimes, there is a double standard.

But, what is ethical behavior?  We don’t hear many reports describing how ethical and consciously moral people are behaving in our world.  Unfortunately, it seems to me that what constitutes ethical behavior in our culture is simply the absence of unethical behavior.  If someone is not doing something wrong, illegal, and immoral, everyone assumes all is well.

But ethical behavior requires more than that.  It requires an active, conscious way of living.  Not doing something deplorable doesn’t grant you model citizen status.  It doesn’t mean you deserve to be commended.  Many people lead honest, good lives.  A person may very well have their conscious clear of any actual wrongdoing personally, but what about the more ponderous tests that lie at the ethical frontier?

Given that a decent person is free of moral or legal offense, what do they say or do when something is wrong around them?  Do they struggle with themselves about what to do?  Do they automatically react and step in?  Do they keep their mouth shut?  Do they test the waters and carefully attempt to change something they feel is not right?  Do they choose to ignore anything that remains outside of their direct interests?  What if they are truly oblivious and are not concerned with or moved by the possibility of injustice or harm to others?

Actions can be described as ethical or unethical, but so can lack of actions.  In the sage words of Martin Luther King Jr., “there comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

In public life especially, ethics are increasingly important.  Not just important, but essential to the continuance and health of our democracy.  The trust that is supposed to exist between citizens and elected officials has deteriorated to dismal levels.   Many people choose not to be engaged as citizens or even aware of issues that affect them out of disgust for what appears to be, a circus of treachery and deceit.

It’s not just about prostitutes, cronyism, fraud, embezzlement, and scheming.  These are the things that we can all agree are despicable.  But there are the not-so-obvious things that do just as good a job at turning people off to public affairs and discourse.

We must expand our thinking and vision about what is unethical.  There is the increasingly commonplace practice of mischaracterizing legislation or using scare tactics in politics to muddy waters.  It seems every public policy suggested by anyone is quickly purported by an opposing party to be an attempt to undermine common sense and decency, and to destroy the fabric of our nation.   Perpetuating this kind of environment may be part of the process, and we may be used to it, but that doesn’t make it right or effective behavior to move the country forward.

It is bad enough to be subjected to attack ads, which focus on accusations and failure.  But when candidates employ clever editing, suggestive images and misrepresent another’s words or position, it poisons our democracy.

Many States in our union as well as the Federal Government are facing budget deficits of unprecedented magnitude with political turmoil that matches it dollar for dollar.  These deficits were not created yesterday.  The financial meltdown of 2008 certainly is a factor, and falling revenues from lower production and income taxes are compounding the problem.  But many states were doomed before the storm even hit them.

The notion that there is a lack of bipartisanship today is blind to the whole truth.  For years, both political parties have been extremely effective at accomplishing one thing together: agreeing through policy (and inaction) to sweep the financial realities and their social implications under the rug for some future America to deal with.  This is true at the State and Federal level.

Too many politicians are only saying what people are comfortable with hearing.   Who doesn’t want to be the elected official who says they continue to bring home the bacon, cut taxes, maintain and improve services, protect the country, respond to constituents needs, and produce results for the future?  Throw in some empty sentiments about values or families and a candidate is unbeatable.

Nobody wants to hear that we can’t really pay for the war in Afghanistan, now America’s longest war, because it would become part of the long-term, rational conversation about its costs and benefits.  Instead, our lawmakers prefer to forge ahead and send the bill to the American people later.

Nobody wanted to fund pension systems the way they needed to be funded for years because lawmakers preferred to put that money toward a pet project that shored up votes, or was deferred by generous tax cuts.  The dirty little secret was out of sight and out of the public’s mind.

Nobody wants to hear the ugly truth, but too many lawmakers are all too willing to sugarcoat and downright distort reality – the motives for doing so would fill many volumes.  But for whatever reason, it is unethical.

The managers of business and industry have plenty of room for improvement when it comes to doing the right thing.  A culture of greed and an obsession with the bottom line has earned many their “corporate fat-cat” reputation.  There is no shortage of evidence to show that doing what is right and doing what is profitable are often more aligned than most people may think.

Dozens of people were either asleep at the wheel, looking the other way, or actively exploiting and abusing power on behalf of both BP and the government leading up to the Gulf oil spill of last year.

It is painfully obvious that BP took feeble and superficial measures in policy, planning, and practice with regard to how they would respond to disasters such as the Gulf spill.

Their pathetic Gulf of Mexico emergency response plan included references to protecting walruses, which don’t even exist there, and listed the phone number of a marine biologist who died in 2005.  Their plan was nearly identical to Exxon-Mobile’s plan, and remarkably similar to others, which appear to have at least spent some time trying to hide the obvious truth that they were merely photocopying the same, worthless plan.

BP skimped on safety and on the emergency plan, and now, instead, has to pay into a $20 billion claims fund to meet its obligations as a responsible party in the Deepwater Horizon spill.  It is clear that if BP had invested in doing the right thing all along and hadn’t cut corners, they’d have even more billions of dollars than they do today.  Unlike most businesses, which would simply crumble after such a grotesque mismanagement and catastrophe of liability, BP ironically is able, after such an event to withstand the loss of billions of dollars and still have billions of dollars.  What does it say that a company is willing to gamble such large sums of money, taking such huge risks while wielding the ability to devastate so many?

Beyond that, the Deepwater Horizon was a public relations disaster for BP- one that matched the magnitude of the spill.  The still shell-shocked New Orleans and delicate Gulf ecosystem were dealt a blow that will have effects economically as well as environmentally for years to come.  If ethics had any influence at all on any of the parties involved over the past years, this great disaster might have been averted.

Though public sentiment for BP was definitely soured, it is ultimately unphased – through our demand for oil, literally at any cost.

Regulators working the BP Deepwater Horizon were “off duty” for almost a decade.  Since 2000, the Minerals Management Service or MMS (the agency that oversees the industry, now called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management: Regulation and Enforcement), ignored or failed at numerous opportunities to promote and ensure safety.

They approved changes to BP’s well designs that carried more risk of blowout.  They ignored reports recommending two blind shear rams on blowout preventers, which are the safety devices used to seal a well should a blowout occur.  They dropped the ball at the chance to strengthen cementing requirements, and allowed BP and other companies to play fast and loose with drilling procedures.  Aside from the reported shortage of scientific expertise at MMS in recent years, the critical task and responsibility they had were clearly not taken seriously.

Where there is smoke, there is fire.  In 2009, Donald C. Howard, the former regional supervisor of the Gulf of Mexico region for MMS, pled guilty and was sentenced to a year’s probation in federal court in New Orleans for lying about receiving gifts from an offshore drilling contractor.

In a Denver, Colorado MMS office, employees were uncovered to have broken government rules and created a “culture of ethical failure” by accepting gifts from, and having sex with, industry representatives as the Interior Department’s inspector general concluded in a 2008 report.

Our government can never truly be what it espouses to be, our businesses will never make the profits of their true potential and the world we live in will not be better until each of us brings the ethical question forward in our mind and expects the same from those around us.

SOURCES

Gold, Russell & Power, Stephen:  “Oil Regulator Ceded Oversight to Drillers”, The Wall Street Journal.  7 May 2010.

Schmitt, Julie, “Regulators share blame in BP oil spill, lawmakers say” USA TODAY. 20 July 2010.

Censky, Annalyn & Smith, Aaron:  “Lawmaker tells BP chief to ‘commit hara-kiri’”, CNN Money.com.  15 June 2010.

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