Monday, April 26, 2010

Thinking About Ethics

Toward the end of this trip we'll stop at a conference where I'm scheduled to present a paper.  So along with figuring out Euros and electrical sockets and public transportation in a new city (Berlin is in many ways a new city since I was here last) I'm also trying to get the paper written. 

Basically it's about public ethics and how we think about it.  The genesis of this specific paper comes from the Alaska political trials and their aftermath, but while they have stimulated my thinking on this, I realize that there is a lot more prior experience/thought/study that get me to the argument I’m making. 

There’s a lot of background to this so I’m not sure I can explain it clearly and succinctly.  The basic argument is this:

Modern public ethics stems from our move from feudal societies to bureaucratic societies.  In the former, public works (roads, bridges, water systems, etc.) were constructed by unelected rulers and their allies who were bound to them through loyalty based on many things including, often, family ties.   The modern world used the logic of science and rationality to structure organizations and societies based on the rule of law.  So we moved from human societies where social networks and loyalty within those networks were foremost to a much more depersonalized society where before the law, everyone is supposed to be equal.  Special favors to family and friends are forbidden. Conceptually anyway.

The ethics we teach today is based on that notion - the rule of law is the standard.  I’m a strong believer in the rule of law.  It is an attempt to use reason not favoritism to govern which should lead to a more equitable society.

But over the years as I’ve dealt with public administrators dealing with actual ethical dilemmas, with the Municipal Ethics Board trying to regulate ethics, and then these trials, I’ve come to realize that our conception of ethics does not reflect our basic humanity.  We’ve told human beings to divide themselves into public and private persona.  When performing their public roles, their personal interests, they are told, should not exist.  In pursuing the rule of law, we have banned human emotion and subjectivity. 

What I’m trying to argue in this paper is that means we are banning basic human instincts and behavior forcing people into all sorts of personal conflicts  We have to rethink our theories of ethics to acknowledge human subjectivity and find better ways to deal with it than we have now, which is to basically suppress it.  

The rules we have now are often mechanical which cause a great deal of inconvenience and possible technical violations that really are irrelevant to good government, yet allow serious ethical compromises.  Our laws tend to ban human civility and courtesy as potential ethical violations.  For example, as a volunteer  legislative staffer, I was told I would not be able to live in Juneau with an old friend without paying him, because I could not accept any gifts over $250.  This was despite the fact that he and his wife had often stayed with us in Anchorage.  So our basic social relationship as friends, if I had stayed with him, would have been forced into a business relationship.  Even more bizarre was the case of a legislative staffer who, if she lived with her mother in Juneau, would have had to pay rent because her mother was a lobbyist.  The fact that the staffer had a lobbyist for a mother was ok.  But if she lived with her, she’d have to pay rent. 

This is just a rough overview of the what I’m working on.  As you can see, spelling it out is not easy.  And I’m not sure what I can offer as an improvement in ethics overall other than recognizing explicitly that human beings cannot simply divide themselves into separate roles.  One option I’ve written about previously is to focus on the negative consequences of conflicts of interest rather than on the conflicts themselves.  The two key ones I see are undue gain (getting benefits that are not due the administrator through his contract) and improper influence (making public decisions using non-standard criteria (particularly criteria based on personal bias and/or benefit). 

So, I’m trying to squeeze a little more out of my brain each day to be able to explain this clearly - and also to understand it myself better.  The good part of this is that I can empathize with my daughter as she goes through a similar process to complete her dissertation.  I’m writing this after walking her to the Institute where she’s working on it. 

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