Is it just me or is America slipping in its ethical standards? Recent events have me wondering.

But first a bit of history — I worked for the United States federal government for over 33 years. Almost every year all employees had to complete some type of ethics training. I can remember how most of us saw the training as a distraction – it took time away from our “real work”.

The agencies that I worked for sought different ways to complete their mandate for this staff education. As I recall, throughout most of my early career there would be a day when our unit would all gather together in a conference room while some outside consultant “covered” the necessary ethics material. In later years, my agency invested in an “online training” program that we did individually on our own schedule. We would print out a completion certificate when finished and give it to our boss.

Even though I had some variation of this training for many years, I don’t remember too many specifics of what was covered. I do remember thinking at the time that most of our “ethics training” simply presented certain commonsense ways of acting. Of course, it’s been often said that commonsense is not all that common!

However, here are some of the things I do recall. We were not to give preferential treatment to any person or company over others. We were not to accept gifts or favors from any of our customers or contractors, being very mindful of any perception of conflict of interest. We were to recuse ourselves from any decision involving anyone related to us or with whom we had had a personal or business relationship. There were specific lengths of time after starting to work for the government during which we could not be involved in any manner involving a former employer. After we left the government there were specific lengths of time during which we were precluded from working with a company in a capacity that involved our former agency. Again, all good common sense.

I don’t remember many ethical issues coming up. People seemed to make good ethical choices the vast majority of the time. Yet, looking back I can see that things could have been slipping in recent years and I just was oblivious to it. For example, I now realize that the instructor led group training was more effective than the computer-based method. The group discussion caused us to actually think about how we would act in certain hypothetical situations anchoring the ethical issues in my mind more deeply than did the quickie computer ones.

In addition, the computer-based training intentionally or unintentionally deemphasized the importance of the ethics training. The invisible message we all received was that our completing this program simply allowed the agency to “check off the box” that they had done their mandated training. I can imagine some bean counter somewhere had run a calculation comparing the cost of traveling consultant trainers around to our various offices combined with the cost of staff time to sit in these classes against how much more “efficiently” we can meet our ethics training mandate by investing in a computer program that we would use over and over each year – a program that took much less staff time to complete.

Yes, this was much more efficient – but was it effective? My reflections upon this ethics training came to mind recently as I have been reading a couple of books which raised my initial question about the state of ethics in America these days.

The first book is entitled The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi. The author juxtaposes two trends evident in our judicial system over the past decade or more. The first trend relates to our corporations and their doing what every it takes to drive profits — even if it is unethical, immoral or illegal. And– much of the factors that led to 2008 market downturn can be tied to such behavior. This fact coupled with our country’s unwillingness to prosecute companies and individuals within them who defraud the public or the government is simply disturbing.

Over and over, Taibbi shows how we idolize the wealth and status of large corporations and their leaders to the degree that when they do something wrong, we generally look the other way. And, if we do investigate the matter and find wrongdoing, we generally reach a financial settlement and never pursue any criminal charges. It’s as if these corporations can do whatever they want and consider any fines imposed by the government as simply a cost of doing business.

As a part of this trend, Taibbi also details the revolving door among individuals who work for these corporations, spend time at the government leading the “oversight” of their former employers before returning to the private sector and frequently the same business. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think about my years of ethics training and how such behavior flew in the face of what we had been taught was ethical.

The other trend Taibbi documents is at the other end of the economic spectrum — the increasingly punitive nature of our judicial system for individuals with little money, especially those coming from non-white racial groups. The stories he shares of individuals who have been wronged by the tactics of “stop and frisk” or private prisons and their financial incentives to hold on to prisoners or the fallout of our politicalization on the immigration issue time and again broke my heart. I was left wondering about where we have traveled ethically as a nation to treat people with such a lack of compassion. Know that I love this country and hold such a high vision for what it can be, yet such mistreatment of people in the name of “justice” shows me that we are not currently living up to such a vision.

The other book that I have read is Glenn Greenwald’s book on Edward Snowden and his disclosures of privacy abuses by the NSA entitled No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State. It’s a fascinating account of our now familiar story. Yet, this tale also points to how America’s ethical standards seem to be built on sand rather than bedrock. According to the material disclosed by Snowden, somehow our leaders have used our fears around terrorism to put in place both illegal and immoral invasions into our personal privacy. Moreover, they did this silently behind the scenes without any democratic debate as to whether the majority of us agreed that the benefits in fighting terrorism were worth the cost in our loss of privacy.

Yet Greenwald’s book also highlights in my mind how power can corrupt. The more data that we collected and analyzed in the name of “securing the homeland”, the more our intelligence agencies wanted. Ultimately, his book shows how our use of the data has been frequently diverted away from combating terrorism and more and more towards giving the United States a political and financial upper hand in their dealings with others. Just because we can access data on the leaders of other countries or US citizens who have done nothing wrong, doesn’t mean we should. Somewhere along the line, the line as to what was proper and ethical shifted while we weren’t watching.

Both of these books are well worth reading — not to dwell on the negative, but rather to allow us to see where we have slipped up and how we can each lend our voices to righting the course. In addition, recent PBS Frontline episodes will give you similar info on the Greenwald/Snowden/NSA issue — here is the link.

Next time, we look at some ideas for shifting us as a country back on morally higher ground.

Mark Gilbert

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Check out all of Mark Gilbert’s books—available at Amazon. Click here to visit his Author Page. This includes his recent one Our Spiritual Rights and Responsibilities. In this book, he offers what he suggests are the 5 basic rights we all possess by virtue of our being these spiritual beings on planet Earth — and our 2 responsibilities we all hold in relation to one another! Check it out!

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