COMMENTARY: The Peculiar Concept of “Ethics Laws”

Cynicism about the ethics of elected officials may be at an all-time high, continually fueled by new stories of outright corruption or bad judgment. At every level of government there are politicians who can’t seem to recognize or resist conflicts of interest, inappropriate gifts, improper use of the power or property entrusted to them, or the discrediting impact of shameful private conduct.

Thus, it’s no surprise that news media are continually shining light on real and perceived improprieties and putting the heat on federal, state, and city legislatures to pass new and tougher ethics laws to restore public trust.

The phrase “ethics laws” is peculiar because it marries two very different concepts. Ethics refers to standards of right and wrong, how a person should behave according to moral principles such as honesty, fairness, responsibility, and respect. Living ethically is a matter of conscience. Unethical conduct results in shame and perhaps criticism, scandal, or disgrace.

While ethics is about should, laws are about must. They prohibit or mandate specific conduct. Obeying the law is a matter of compliance, and illegal conduct results in sanctions including fines and imprisonment.

Ethics laws meld the two concepts. They both require conduct such as open meetings and disclosure of financial interests and forbid transactions that could compromise the integrity of government. Because of a high tendency of those regulated to evade the spirit and purpose of such laws, statutes have become more complex and technical.

Historically, legislative bodies have been reactive rather than proactive, doing only what they absolutely must. Thus, existing laws often are a hodgepodge of regulations designed to prevent reoccurrence of specific past improprieties. That’s a big part of the problem.

What we need is nonpartisan statesmanship and visionary leadership willing to face up to the fact that relying on the individual judgment of each elected official is a failed strategy that guarantees a continuous flow of scandals that discredits their institutions and even the enterprise of democratic government itself.

While I wish more emphasis was placed on character rather than compliance, the raw reality is that voters do not consistently demand scrupulous integrity as evidenced by the re-election of people severely stained by scandal.

It’s often said you can’t legislate morality. This is true. But we can require moral conduct. Ethics laws don’t make people ethical, but they do deter unethical conduct. And that’s an important first step.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

Comments 6

  1. This goes for everyone – in your professional life, in your personal life. I really think the downfall in this country began when parents quit parenting.

  2. It’s interesting that you talk about shame. I was an Marriage and Family Therapist intern for 5 years and one of the reasons I gave it up was because I had so many issues with the profession. As therapists, we seek to understand people and remove feelings of shame, differentiating it with guilt. Shame is about who you are and guilt is about something you’ve done. The problem is that most people do not differentiate the two (actually, neither do a lot of psychologists) and by removing guilt, we also absolve poeple of responsibility for their actions. Where is the impetus to behave ethically when it has become popular not to judge or hold people responsible? In fact, the word, “judgment” has become a pejorative. We, as a society, have replaced character and morality with greed and popularity and, in my judgment, are the worse for it. Bless you, Michael, for trying to stem the tide.

    And Jean, you are right but it is much more than just parenting issues. The more tools we have been given to communicate, the worse we actually communicate. How many movies glorify bad behavior vs. the ones that are inspiring and uplifting? Kids’ TV shows (including Disney) celebrate kids who are underage yet seem to live alone in expensive apartments, making their own shows and having no one to have to listen to. My daughter’s high school gives her detention for tardies but she doesn’t have to serve them unless she wants to? That’s crazy! As a society, we have allowed the inmates to run the asylum.

    Sorry – I could rant on about this for a long time!

  3. We are human but ongoing character traits that show a pattern without morality and resolve for better and strength of character re-tooling in light of mistakes is critical to growth and true integrity. I see and sense a larger growing tide of the just to campaign for character and heaven help those false leaders and public figures (and private ones too) lacking in moral strength & resolve who stand in the path of mercy and faith. It’s time is dawning.

  4. Michael – I love your columns and I am a big fan. I met you in Boston after 9/11. But you surprised me when you ended your column by pointing out that legislating morality is a deterence and is an “important first step.” I respectfully disagree. We have laws all over the books at the national and state level and they have deterred very little. Witness Eric Holder lying to Congress for one, and he’s the head of the justice department! We are in dire need of steps 2, 3, and more, NOW. We continue to loose our country!

    The US that was conceived by the founding fathers and existed for the most part in the 19th century is already gone. We are not in danger of loosing it…it is a distant memory. The work ethic, the civility, and repect for others are no longer attributes of American society. Americans are living in fear, keeping their doors locked, afraid of home invasions.

    Government is in charge now. Lincoln’s famous quote should read: A Government of the government, by the government and for the government shall not perish from the earth. Government is run by trading political favors for cash. Anyone who doesn’t see this is miopic. Both political parties play the same UNETHICAL game.

    I sense that many of your readers by their comments have resigned themselves to being observers as our country spirals to new levels of mediocrity. But don’t we have a moral obligation to fight for our own freedoms? The rights of individuals…”among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Let’s rally the thinking individuals to action!

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  5. I am Brazilian and I face this sad reality every day. Unfortunately, our culture was founded over corruptive practices that have molded the way politics and public services are seen and done. I understand that I have a mission to help my brothers and sisters from my nation see character profoundly and act according to principles and values that last forever. I am privileged to have the chance to work with Character Counts in our school and influence my son to see things in Brazl differently.

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