`Ethics' are leaving the building
I attended Notre Dame right before the British Invasion (the one with George Harrison and the Beatles, not the one with George the Third and the Redcoats). Some of my most stimulating philosophy and theology classes were in "ethics." The way things are going, I'm afraid ethics will soon be taught in the history department.
In a recent Observer article, College of Business dean Carolyn Woo (whose programs were recently rated first in the country for their ethical content) reported that "83 percent of the people [surveyed] said that they had encountered an ethical development issue [during] their careers." The article does not provide any details about the nature of who was surveyed, but it implies it was to an audience from the business world.
These results could have been characterized in a different manner: "17 percent of the people surveyed have NO CLUE about the ethical dimensions of their work!" How can a person have enough responsibility in his employment to be the recipient of a survey and not have faced decisions with an ethical dimension? Those 17 percent have no concept of the meaning and importance of ethics.
It doesn't take an MBA to conjure up ethical dilemmas which are routine in the business world. How about companies who lay off workers and send their jobs to other countries? How about deceptive product advertising? How about "acceptable losses" in product safety? How about CEO's who make short-term decisions to inflate stock prices (and raise their compensation), while hurting their company in the long run? How about planned obsolescence (seen any fins on a Chrysler product lately)? By the way, how's Michael Jordan doing, carrying out his pledge to check on the working conditions of the Nike plants in the Third World?
Politics is another field where ethics has left the building. A while back, a gentlemanly fellow was vilified as a sexual harasser, while facing Senate confirmation hearings for the United States Supreme Court.
This man was accused of some "naughty talk," by a former top subordinate. According to her testimony, this man neither proposed sex or asked for a date, nor ever touched her. Neither did she ever tell him that his occasional "naughty talk" was bothersome. And, no other employee could confirm these complaints. Despite this lack of evidence, a large group of feminists and left-leaning politicians heaped scorn upon this decent man (no person came forward to contradict that his life had been other than exemplary except for this hidden-for-a-decade charge of misconduct).
A nationally regarded expert on sexual harassment, an attorney, stated that she completely believed the solo complainer. When asked why the victim in this case had not come forward, and, in fact, had gone out of her way to remain in contact with the perpetrator, the expert said it was a classic case of a victim in an unequal power situation.
Fast forward several more years, and we have a political figure, from the other side of the political spectrum. This guy also engaged in "naughty talk" with a fellow employee. This guy eventually is forced to state that while he never had sex with the other person, she had sex with him. The woman in this case, unlike the victim in the former matter, did not have a Yale law degree. Nor was she the highest Equal Employment Opportunity Official in the land, like the victim in the first example. In fact, this victim was barely old enough to break curfew and at the lowest rung on the federal employee depth chart.
This impressionable woman was smart enough to save some evidence of her one-sided sexual dalliances, so, unlike the former matter, we have clear-cut proof of the nature of this relationship. When this evidence came to light, some of the same feminists and left-leaning politicians were asked to compare the two situations, particularly because of the relative youth and naivete of the woman in the second matter. "No comparison," they said. The second woman was involved in a private, consensual, "matter of the heart" (ignoring that Beret Girl told a friend she thought "the big creep doesn't even know my name.")
Where were the persons who wanted the head of the man in the first case — including Harvard law professor Alan Dearth-Of-Wit and the Congresswomen who stormed Capitol Hill for a photo-op? They and their ethics took a hike while an important concern facing many women in the workplace was sold out to partisan politics.
After the current occupant of the People's House was elected, he promised "the most ethical administration in history." A recent poll by a blue-ribbon panel of historians ranked his administration as lowest in "moral authority" (read-ethics).
As long as presidents are permitted to say "it depends upon what your definition sex is;" and presidential wannabees are permitted to gore the guts of ethics by saying "there was no controlling legal authority" (or, as Bobby Bowden says "it ain't no felony,") with almost no outrage expressed by the press, the future for ethics is not promising.
I'm proud of my alma mater for stressing ethics in the curriculum. I'm proud that ethics is frequently discussed here, even though some persons snipe at us when we fail to reach our own lofty goals. I hope that I don't happen to buy a car, a refrigerator or a heart valve, from the 17 percent survey respondents who claim they have not faced an ethical decision.
Cappy Gagnon is a 1966 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. His column appears every other Thursday.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Thursday, February 24, 2000