That Quaint Thing Called “Ethics”…

A recent article in New America Weekly argues that we Americans need to clean up our understanding of corruption. We tend to think of corruption as the sorts of outright bribery encountered in many other countries, where “doing business” has often required greasing the hands of public servants. If no money has changed hands, Americans tend not to see an ethical problem.

The author of the article—a social anthropologist— argues that we need to expand our definition of corruption to include “rigged systems.”

According to Gallup, the notion that corruption is widespread has gained enormous traction in recent years. With results like this, it’s not hard to see why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have so much appeal. When so many people see the system as rigged and corruption as endemic, citizens are naturally attracted to outsiders, because they themselves feel like outsiders in a game they were set up to lose.

This state of affairs—with so many people self-defining as outsiders in a democratic society—makes it all the more urgent that we redefine corruption. Because unlike communist and many post-communist countries, where few believe(d) in either the system’s version of itself or its ability to deliver on it, the United States has traditionally been a country of believers—where people largely bought into the promise of their system. That is how it should be in democratic society.

The article lists several examples of systemic corruption—from the banking practices that cratered the economy, to the conflicts of interest of military figures who sit on corporate boards while advising the Pentagon on procurement—and the failure of mechanisms to insure accountability.

We need to understand how corruption manifests itself in America in 2015. We need to ground accountability in the ethics of the broader society. Democratic societies run on trust. A civic society can flourish only when the public believes the system is accountable in a real, not performative, way. Without that trust, perception of corruption will only worsen and the ranks of outsiders will swell.

As I have repeatedly noted, a major contributor to this lack of accountability is the current absence of genuine journalism, especially what we used to call “investigative journalism,” and particularly at the local level.

When local media report only on the “what” (new parking meters, new development projects, new public purchases) and ignore the “who” and “how” (dealmaking, cronyism, procedural shortcuts)—when columnists and reporters dismiss legitimate concerns about the “how” as partisan bickering unworthy of investigation—we fail to hold our elected officials accountable, and we feed the growing distrust that acts like sand in government’s gears.

Rigged systems are complicated, and a lot more difficult to combat than bribery and other, more blatant forms of self-dealing. It’s easy to shrug and conclude that “this is just how things get done.” But the integrity of the democratic system is ultimately far more important —and its absence far more consequential—than individual acts of dishonesty.

Quaint as it may sound, ethics matter. And ethical public behavior requires a culture of ethical accountability. “Trust me” doesn’t cut it.


  1. In this discussion today let us not overlook the role that religion plays in our understanding of ethics and morality. It doesn’t take much to see the corruption of religion in the United States and the results of that corruption. Supposed ministers of “God’s word” publicly proclaiming that the reason that they have to travel by private jet is because God speaks to them there. Or the Catholic hierarchy snowballing their followers into thinking that it was only a few priests who molested children and that they as parishioners are in no way responsible if they knew and kept their mouths shut or continue to put money into the collection plate knowing that some of it continues to go to pay off victims and all of the lawyers. Or the evangelicals who believe that their interpretation of the Bible pre-empts the law of the land and the rights of others. Or the thousands of pseudo pastors who set up their lives so that they do not have to pay taxes. And the televangelists who spew hatred and bigotry over the airways always asking for your “love” donation to the cause.
    If the news media is partially responsible for this country’s lack of ethics due to its omissions, then the religions of the country are responsible for this country’s lack of ethics and morals due to its commissions.

  2. Ms Bowers I understand your anger and frustration with churches/pastors who abuse their position, but you have fallen into the trap of one bad/all bad. There are hundreds, no thousands of small churches who do none of the things you rail against. These churches cannot even afford to pay their pastors a living wage and so rely on trained lay ministers to fill their pulpits. I know. I have served as a lay pastor for nearly 17 years. Not only do I not have a jet, I pay my own travel expenses. When I officiate at weddings and funerals for members I take no additional fee. My housing isn’t provided and the IRS requires that I pay both my portion and the churches portion of SS even though I am 67 years old and retired from my lay job. Our congregation gives support to local and international missions in far greater proportion than to most, if not all, mega churches and they are a caring loving wonderful group of people. We don’t preach politics, we don’t seek extra offerings, but our small congregation (30) does provide to local food banks, free medical clinics, needy families, provides more than 100 shoe boxes to the Christmas shoe box ministry, et. al,, etc. Please, please, when you rail against the abuses of some do not throw all into the same bag. For every one shoddy pitchman/pastor there are thousands of us who do what we do for the love of Christ and in service to our congregations and the community. Thank you for your time and consideration.

  3. Nancy,

    “Marv, what are your thoughts on the info that Aging Girl posted?

    Since I don’t have the money for a voyage to another planet. I was seriously thinking about finding an offshore island somewhere. Would you like to join me? Anyone else?

  4. Pastor McCalester,

    “For every one shoddy pitchman/pastor there are thousands of us who do what we do for the love of Christ and the community.

    No one is minimizing what you do and many others like you. But, unfortunately you’re very much in the minority. And I know the pain you must endure when you attempt to look at the state of Christianity in today’s America.

    I’ve quoted Walter Cronkite before. He said it best: “It’s white supremacy masked in Christianity.”

  5. Mr. McCalester, You miss the point. While your little church, and the other churches like yours, practice a form of kind and loving Christianity in obscurity, the major religions and the mega churches either practiced a kind of political and materialistic worship or are silent on those actions by other denominations. Whichever, they are complicit in the moral and ethical decay of this nation.

  6. How is Bernie an “outsider”? He’s the only constant I see in the whole race, (Hillary is next). The ones on the other side (Rethuglicans) are one the side of the rich period.

  7. Wray; Ms. Bowers referred to “those who are” she did not in any instance accuse all religious based people at all levels as being “bad”. I left organized religion long ago for personal reasons; knowing full well that the many who truly believed were being misled but needed to discover that for themselves. The lack of ethics were based in racism, bigotry and demanding weekly payments in the form of tithing no matter the financial situation of congregants. There were and are those who are aware but accept the status quo and use what is beneficial to their own belief system and ignore the rest. That obviously takes a stronger person than myself.

    I watched the political ethics system of the Mayor Bill Hudnut administration be quickly and systematically destroyed by Goldsmith. Mayor Peterson was left with the shambles that remained; Ballard brought in some of Goldsmith’s former cronies and began the destruction by heading in a different direction…let’s fill the city with sports arenas and sell or lease off everything else while allowing education, public safety and the infrastructure to decline. Now Mayor Joe Hogsett will try to repair, restore, replace and hopefully lead us into a future which will provide a safe and sane place to live for all residents…not a chosen few.

  8. Remember that unethical and immoral do not necessarily equate with illegal. That makes it impossible for our public servants to go after big banks and big churches for violations of trust. As consumers, we vote with our feet and with our pocketbooks. It appears most of us are happy with the unethical and the immoral.

  9. Ms Green, In re-reading Ms. Bower’s post I did not see “those who are” anywhere in the text. Perhaps I missed it, and if so I apologize. I did see, however, “If the news media is partially responsible for this country’s lack of ethics due to its omissions, then the religions of the country are responsible for this country’s lack of ethics and morals due to its commissions.”

    Ms. Bowers, I do not think I missed the point. There are many progressive Christians speaking out against those who pervert religion for financial or political reasons. However the media, and those to happy to criticize all religions ignore them. The point is that “religions” are not responsible for the country’s malady, but those who misuse and misrepresent them are. For the greatest part the same bigots who attend/support the problem churches are the ones who elect such ignorant and bigoted representatives.

  10. Theresa: ” ……..or are silent on those actions by other denominations. Whichever, they are complicit in the moral and ethical decay of this nation.”

    The silent ones in both Christianity and Judaism are more dangerous than the perpetrators in my estimation (for the most part). They end up acting as shields for the perpetrators whether consciously or unconsciously. Both religions are seriously tainted. And because of this, are extremely dangerous at this point in time.

    Because of this phenomenon, I can’t afford to completely trust Christians or Jews (for the most part).

    They both have jettisoned ETHICS (for the most part).

  11. Wow ! It has been a couple of weeks now since Sheila has posted something I agree with.
    “Ethics ” is something that is very broad and encompasses virtually all parts of human relations . Now that it includes corporations that have been deemed ” humans ” by the SCOUS , it includes – systems – designed to run those corporations i.e.: Washington , DC , an incorporated principality since 1871 .
    Now, I am going out on a limb here , but L.R. Hubbard pushes ethics all through his early works. They are worth reading.

  12. Wray, bless you for reminding us about what true Christians stand for.

    Marv, Trieste, Italy and Ottawa, Canada are both relatively inexpensive, low crime cities with a high quality of life that I’m considering

    I’ve been researching some options in the case of a Trump presidency, lol.

  13. Wray; “those who are” is my terminology regarding your comment “you have fallen into the trap of one bad/all bad”. I apologize if I confused you.

    You did miss Ms. Bowers point; religious are minds often fixed in stasis.

  14. Mark,

    “…..but L.R. Hubbard pushes ethics all through his early works. They are worth reading. ”

    Many thanks! Sometimes I forget Hubbard’s influence. He’s about ETHICAL DESIGN. That includes systems, both corporate and especially the political systems they now control.

    As Mark said, “They (L. R. Hubbard’s works) are worth reading.” Our problems are very deep. Our political system has been corrupted. We can’t even start to change things, without ENVISIONING an ETHICAL political system.

  15. Culture appears to all humans as just the way that people like us think and do things. It’s undeniable that American culture has changed over, say, my lifetime. There are myriad causes and effects, and the changes cover the entire spectrum from dysfunctional to functional.

    Media technology coupled with brand marketing have changed culture from slow changing and a product of natural causes to that plus a component that’s rapidly evolving and purposeful – a product “sold” for the purpose of creating advantage – in other words power.

    I maintain that a very dysfunctional purposeful component is best summarized by Reagan’s “government is not the solution; it is the problem”.

    We’ve been sold that belief by brand marketing, and bought it culturally, pervasively, where it is no longer even questioned by many – it’s the way that people like us think and act.

    When I lived in Mexico it was understood that bribery was de riguer there. People in power considered that part of their compensation, and everyone accepted that power as a “right” of wealth. Our exposure to it was local. If a cop stopped you for speeding, or a customs agent found something in your luggage then it was appropriate to settle the issue personally and locally rather than support the obviously stacked against the people “system”.

    Their culture.

    Reagan’s culture is aimed at creating power for business and wealth and has been brand marketed by them to that end – like soap and cars and vacation and clothes.

    So we are here and it is now and that culture has been accepted blindly among a normal distribution of our population. That’s reality for us.

    That culture will define democracy unless a campaign to recreate our former culture – that government serves and defines freedom – overtakes it.

    Obama has done his part and Sanders is doing his. We in turn have to do ours. This place is a small skirmish in that war, very important to participants but only a tiny contribution to success.

    As soldiers we have to move on to the bigger war – and be relentless.

    Freedom demands it.

  16. Some of L. Ron Hubbard’s words may well be right, many of Hitler’s were too, but they were directed at the same culture change as Reagan’s. Trust only me (us). Don’t trust government and law.

    He was part of the problem but is none of the solution other than the Art of War’s “know your friends but know your enemies more”.

  17. @Pete

    “This place is a small skirmish in that war, very important to participants but only a tiny contribution to success.”

    You contribution might be “tiny” but don’t be so quick to judge the other participants. As you have mentioned before, you’re pretty knew at all of this. Most of us have been concerned about the fate of our country long before you finally woke up.

  18. Thanks Sheila!
    yet we all understand that ‘Ethics’ was made illegal in Indiana’s by last years state legislature in relation to family business and that was tested and upheld beyond a doubt by the Mayor of Indianapolis and no-bid contracts.

    I think we should start asking for simple honesty and work up to any ethical discussion with our one party system. But that would take a press that understood what honesty was.

    Always a catch 22

  19. In understanding how media and access to true journalism has changed, just drive down any neighborhood street in the early morning and see how few homes have a newspaper delivered. In my own neighborhood with a good mixed of ages and race, few if any get any newspaper at all.

    Among my younger neighbors, many will tell you that they don’t watch or listen to any news reporting and don’t “waste” their time trying to follow any reporting other than sports or infotainement.

    Older neighbors who do read, watch or listen to news usually have Faux News, Rush, Hannity, O’Reilly, et al., to confirm their closely held beliefs or gawk at the latest sensationalized catastrophic event (and blame its cause on the President).

    I have stopped talking to many of my neighbors about anything newsworthy. When I try to engage them in discussions of local problems, their disinterest and cynicism are most apparent. I have to agree with JoAnn. When they look around and see the wealthy and connected powerful few repeatedly get deferential treatment, access and funding while the city’s infrastructure is falling apart, its services sold off to private companies who skim the cream and leave the dregs, the indifference to much needed regular maintenance, public schools being dismantled in favor of religious or private institutions, it is small wonder they think government is the problem.

    What they forget, willfully or otherwise, is that the government is US. At least, it is now. If we continue to opt out of our governmental duty (informed voting), we may find ourselves in an authoritarian system with few options for acting in our own and the general public good.

  20. Last week, I had lunch with a friend. She said that her granddaughter was going to major in journalism and asked me what I thought about that. I never studied journalism formally, but I told her that the days of Woodward and Bernstein appear to be over for good, so if she just wanted to write, she might like it, but not if she wanted to investigate and expose corruption and so forth. I had a friend who was a journalist. He said that after a major newspaper chain took over his local newspaper, reporters were told, in advance of going to a legislative session, for example, what their piece would say. He also said that younger journalism majors didn’t understand what was wrong with this.

    Your comment about lack of journalism is right on point. News media, be they print or otherwise, are corporations which exist to make money. Stepping on toes is antithetical to the mission of making money because there can be repercussions for reporting the truth.

    Indianapolis used to have 2 major newspapers, one morning, one evening, and they had different political bents–one conservative, one liberal, one Republican, one Democratic. That served as checks and balances on reporting events. Those days are over, but I hope not forever.

  21. Ms Green, A careful reading of Ms. Bower’s post will see that she blames religions, and I quote: “the religions of the country are responsible for this country’s lack of ethics and morals due to its commissions.” She does not say those who misuse religions. She did not say those who distort religions, she did not say “some” who do those things, she said “religions” without qualification. In her response to my comment she did qualify her original position. Howevere still insisting I missed the point. I did not. The meaning of her original post was clear, and, in my opinion, quite wrong.

  22. The stacked deck or the rigged system has probably been with humanity since we went from hunter gathering to an agricultural society with all the bureaucracy necessary to run the state. This corruption has permeated all phases all our institutions. The old saying to the victor go the spoils was not some meaningless phrase.

    Boss Tweed and Daley the Elder are some recent manifestations of a patronage-spoils system. Pete, as a Boomer I grew up in the Chicago area and I can tell you the bribery system was very much alive in well in Chicago. The traffic police were out in force whenever the steel mills paid the workers. $10 was the usual “fine” by the policeman and then you could avoid a ticket.

    The Press here in Indianapolis has dedicated it self to press release journalism, just copy and paste. Investigative Reporting is simply not done here especially if it might expose political corruption. The Press here in Indianapolis is like the old Pravda of the Soviet Union, they exist to tell us how well the “system” works.

  23. Honest Gil Fulbright, the politician who’ll sell you out to your face. He’s the best that money can buy. He’s also a faux candidate, a spoof, sponsored by Represent. Us, a nonpartisan group dedicated to eliminating corruption, both overt and covert, in political campaigns.

  24. Wray; below I have copied and pasted Ms. Bowers’ last paragraph from which you cherry picked an excerpt to use out of context. Out of context is obfuscating the original point of a comment meaning you must have missed the point.

    ‘If the news media is partially responsible for this country’s lack of ethics due to its omissions, then the religions of the country are responsible for this country’s lack of ethics and morals due to its commissions.’

  25. Ernest,

    “How is Bernie an “outsider”?

    One reason he was labeled an “outsider.” is the fact that he was elected to Congress from a state that only 17% of its constituents profess to be church goers. The least number in any state in the Union.

    That’s not to exclude other factors that make him an “outsider.” Like being a Socialist, which according to Louie a few days ago, is slowly morphing into being a Communist and which will eventually morph even further.

  26. Marv,

    I would have believed your level of consciousness to have been somewhat higher. You have accomplished the first level: Give a dog a bad name. We can predict your next step.

  27. The most profound changes in humanity have come from our ongoing discoveries of alternative capacities to do work, which is the very definition of energy, from beyond what we’re born with, our muscle fueled by food.

    We went from ourselves only to animals to slaves to workers and machines and from food to largely fossil fuels in order to multiply our ability to move things; and from fire from life (wood, peat, manure) to fire from ancient death (fossil fuels) to heat things.

    (Most people don’t know or care that energy is merely the management of kinetics (motion) at some scale; atomic scale for heat, electrons for electricity, molecular for chemical, or macro for larger masses – all the same stuff – and the the amount of kinetic energy (momentum) in the universe is a fixed quantity.)

    Nevertheless we’ve gone from our lives dependent on other life, food, to money to buy additional energy, as the “fuel” of life. We live on money. We turn the energy that we buy into thoughts and actions that others pay us money for so we can in turn buy what their thoughts and actions create.

    Very simple and very complicated. We are naught but billiard balls but in a game of infinite balls and table.

    The next step, if there is to be one, is to move off money as the fuel for life, to empathy, life connection, purpose, as the fuel for life. This was not formerly but is now possible because machines can pseudo and usefully think as well as act, do work, manage the universe’s kinetic energy.

    Imagine, everybody with enough, nobody with more than they need, and all free to move life from survival to fulfillment. Some would say the fulfillment of Faith’s eternal promise.

    It’s hard to imagine but the future alway is.

  28. Earl,

    “You have accomplished the first level: Give a dog a bad name. We can predict your next step.”

    No, I’m worried about the other side and their next step. Have you checked out the last Report from the Anti-Defamation League a couple of months ago. See who is out there “giving a dog a bad name.”

    POSSIBLY Earl, my level of consciousness is higher than yours on this point. It PROBABLY comes from the fact that I’m in a more sensitive position than you are on this one. You can’t argue with that, can you?

  29. In other words ancient us wandered in search of food and water which gave us energy to wander for food and water.

    Then we found that agriculture worked better than wandering and, with the addition of cooking, left us with extra energy to invest in helping each other.

    Now we have discovered virtually unlimited cheap energy in the ground to supplement what’s on the ground and therefore needed money to handle sorting out and distributing all of our excess energy for moving and heating things.

    The future adds thinking to machine doing and will further free us to our highest ability, thinking.

    I predict a very bright future but not a guaranteed one.

    Others are more pessimistic.

  30. Of course unleashing an optimistic future requires getting off energy from underground and instead harnessing above ground energy limited only by our eternal and daily supply from the sun.

  31. Pete,

    “…..getting off energy from underground and instead harnessing above ground energy……”

    You’re right. That should be our #1 priority for an optimistic future—-but, unfortunately, it isn’t.

  32. Ms Green, Please examine the statement once again: “IF the news media is PARTIALLY responsible for this country’s lack of ethics due to its omissions, THEN the religions of the country ARE RESPONSIBLE for this country’s lack of ethics and morals due to its commissions.’ (Capitalization mine for emphasis. Ms. Bowers made a very clear if/then statement in which she DID assert ALL religions were responsible. The quote wasn’t cherry picking as the previous discussion she and I had did not involve the media. My point was and is correct. Your reading of her statement is wrong. This will be my last post on the subject as time enough has been wasted. I wish you well.

  33. If “trust me” doesn’t cut it than how is it that Hillary Clinton has even one of your lily livered liberal ears. This commentary is in large part pathetic.

  34. Theresa and Wray,

    “……..then the religions of the country are responsible for this country’s lack of ethics and morals due to its commissions.”

    As a former trial attorney, I would have been willing to take either one of your cases. i would have felt free to give it my best shot either way.

    For example: Were all the Nazis individually guilty of exterminating the Jews? Verdict: No. The Nuremberg trials answered that one.

    However, is National Socialism guilty of exterminating the Jews? Verdict: Yes. That’s history’s verdict.

  35. Wray; I took Theresa’s comment as a comparative statement such as; “If you think Donald Trump is smart; I am Albert Einstein!”

    I liked Marv’s comparisons.

  36. Marv, Thank you for offering to take the case. But it seems to be mute at this point due to Wray’s withdrawal. Should have known you were trained in the law. You would have written my ideas better than I did. Still, I stand by my remarks. And thanks also to JoAnn for her support on these ideas.

  37. Wray, for what it’s worth I agree with you. Faith is an important part of many lives and very often a consequence of that is the choice to live morally.

    While I think that religion and spirituality are different faces of that same coin, I never object to anyone’s choice to live morally and ethically no matter what motivates it.

    Is morality spiritual? I believe to some it is and others it may not be.

    But it always enhances empathy and collaboration which is the well spring of human progress.

  38. Theresa,

    You said it better than I could. However, it is a very sensitive issue—–almost impossible to find common ground.

    Recently, I’ve had to deal with it in my extended family. And I have to admit, it hasn’t been with much success.

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