Loss Of Ethics?

Ethical behavior seems at times a much sort after characteristic. Most everyone prefers to think of themselves as “ethical”. All to often, however, individuals confuse ethical with legal (I’m for law and order) and continue to act on the belief that what they are doing is both correct and legal, not considering that while not illegal, their actions may be highly unethical. Hmmm.

In the 1980’s General Motors along with the other major American car manufacturers designed and made automobiles which performed poorly, lacked durability, and were often unsafe, yet were highly marketed, promising the buyer years of great performance. Independent automobile evaluations (side by side comparisons) told a different story and slowly but surely, consumers weighed in favor of competition from Europe and Japan.

In the period 2000 to 2008, financial institutions told clients (such as pension funds) to buy certain securities, especially mortgage backed securities knowing full well that the securities’ credit rating was false. Compounding this terrible behavior, these financial firms used depositors money to purchase credit default swaps betting that the securities they had just sold would subsequently fail.

Now we are looking at a Congress that is determined to reduce healthcare coverage for those who are most vulnerable, yet claiming their plan offers “great” healthcare. This same Congress is proposing to undertake tax reform which will translate into a huge tax cut for the wealthy. Hmmm.

In each of these situations, those involved acted lawfully and as requested by their superiors. In each of these situations, their actions’ consequences were hurtful to others. Their behavior was unethical.

One hears everyday from company X, Y, or Z, or from Chief Executive A, B, or C, that the basis for complaints (even law suits or indictments) were “unfounded”, that their product or service met (or exceeded) applicable standards or regulations, that their product or service when used according to manufacturer’s recommendations, were completely safe, and when confronted with overwhelming evidence that consumer complaints were genuine, these executives and companies claimed “no law” was broken.

One is left with the impression that all types of conduct are “ok” unless specifically denied by law or regulation. Where has the importance of ethical behavior gone? Where has the importance of ones word gone? How can our schools and universities “educate” so many, so highly, yet produce graduates so absent of ethical skills?

The Columbia University Cannon, which requires students to relive history from the perspective of past great minds, at least exposes students to critical thinking. But how many other colleges or universities can say the same?

Other institutions such as churches, law enforcement, and public office holders once provided visible examples of a well lived life. Americans could look to their pastor, their policeman (the policeman is my friend), or their Mayor, Governor, or Congressman for a model of what was right or wrong. No so today.

Church leaders argue over whether certain naturally occurring life styles are acceptable while preaching love they neighbor (but maybe only this type of neighbor). Policemen have morphed into a junior version of soldiering and in the process too many have lost the perspective of the public they serve. (Shoot first, ask questions later). And probably the most devastating has been the self serving, money talks nature of politics. Rare, instead of expected, is the public official who chooses that profession to “serve”.

So, one is left with the question, have our institutions failed us and lead to the apparent loss of ethical behavior, or has a broader, more pervasive cause infected every corner of American life, including our institutions?

What type of pervasive cause could move America to deny global warming or take any responsibility to find a remedy? What would cause Americans to accept healthcare where 25 to 50 million fellow Americans will be unable to access basic healthcare? And, what would make educated and well off Americans push so hard for tax cuts which shift more of the tax burden to those less able to carry it?

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