Considering Professional Ethics: January 2024

Who's on First; the Ethics of Participating in a Democracy?

Comments from David Goldman (FASPE Chair) 

In 2024, voters in 64 countries representing nearly one-half of the world’s population (over 60% if we eliminate China from the denominator) will be electing their countries’ leaders. The percentage decreases only a few percentage points if we include only free and fair elections, thus eliminating Russia from the denominator.

Quite a responsibility! Along with enormous potential for good (or not so good). 2024 is truly a consequential year for democracy, for basic geopolitical, cultural and democratic considerations.

I am reminded of two of my friends. One whose political views I generally share, one maybe not so much. Let’s call them “Abbot” and “Costello”; we can each decide who was on first, which was on second. 

I had a continuing argument with Abbot during a recent senatorial election. One of the candidates (let’s call him “Jacob”) was a member of our party of choice, his voting record was almost always as Abbot and I favored. But, both Abbot and I knew, for certain, that Jacob was objectively corrupt; irrespective of this or that acquittal (yes, he had been prosecuted), we both knew that he was corrupt and unapologetically so. Abbot insisted that “we” must vote for Jacob. “Yes, ok, he is corrupt,” Abbot would say, “but we need his vote in the Senate; and, more, we might lose the majority in the Senate if he loses.” Abbot insisted that his vote for Jacob was the right thing to do because of Jacob’s voting record and because of the implications around the balance of power in the Senate.

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I reminded Abbot of a recent election in another state where the candidate (let’s call him “Stewart”) of the “other” party was credibly accused of seriously improper behavior; and Abbot had then made the argument that a vote for Stewart was cynical and unethical. Politics and partisan issues, Abbot had then told me, must be subservient and secondary to ethics. Hmm. How does Abbot distinguish voting for Jacob from voting for Stewart? Simple, he said, “the political stakes are too high.” So much for the primacy of ethics? 

My other friend, Costello. Costello was vocal, and he was rich. A vocal, and huge financial, supporter of candidates of the “other party.” Always. We would argue about his political views and his candidates, but I could never convince him of the errors of his ways. Then came an election, a very big election, where the candidate of Costello’s party (let’s call him “John”) was objectively unethical, dishonest, and even undemocratic, in ways that everyone recognized. And, John’s opponent was an individual (let’s call her “Diane”) whose politics were absolutely abhorrent to Costello. On every issue, Costello’s positions were diametrically the opposite of Diane’s, more aligned with John’s. 

Here is what Costello publicly stated after refusing to provide any financial support to John, words to the effect of: “John is X, Y and Z [all pejorative commentaries of John’s character and morality]. I will not vote for him. Our Republic will survive four years of Diane.” 

My question: what had happened to my friend Abbot’s soul, to his understanding of fundamental right and wrong, good and bad, ethical and unethical? How could someone on “my side” be so duplicitous and someone on the “other side” care so much about ethics? 

Our civic responsibility is not just to vote, but to vote in a responsible and ethical manner. 

The protagonist in Kazuo Ishiguro’s brilliant Remains of the Day is a proper English butler of the early and mid-20th century. He speaks at length throughout the book about what is the most important fundamental characteristic of his profession; he concludes that the answer revolves around the overriding concept of “dignity.” Ishiguro’s butler labors throughout the book over the meaning of dignity. And, that is fine. 

By analogy, we at FASPE often remind our friends that we are not the ethics police. Our goal is to urge that the influencers, the professionals, behave ethically as they define the term. All we ask is that ethics be top of mind, that it be part of the equation.

When it comes to democratic voting, we are all influencers. And, again by analogy, I am not the “dignity police.” None of us should pretend to play that role. However, we fail as a society if each of us fails to take dignity, if we do not take ethics, into account when we are in the voting booth. Fundamentally bad things can happen when we are led by people without dignity, without an ethical North Star.

Our political leaders are at the top of the pyramid of professionals, i.e., those with influence. If they do not have an ethical North Star, if ethical behavior is not top of mind for them every day, then we, the public, are at risk. Put differently, hyper-partisanship cannot take precedence over an alternative that threatens our fundamental ethical responsibilities and values.

Ultimately, we must have leadership that is ethical, that embodies dignity. Otherwise, how can we be comfortable with the predictability that ethical behavior, regardless of partisan politics, survives intact, that we are an ethical and dignified society.

Costello was right, he knew who was on first. 

"Considering Professional Ethics" is a monthly essay shared in the FASPE e-newsletter.
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