Elementary Ethics

Yesterday, I posted about generalized social trust–its importance, and some of the reasons for its recent decline. Today, I want to focus on the role played by ethical behavior–in this case, the lack of ethical behavior–in the distressing and accelerating erosion of social trust.

One of the most obvious ethical principles is avoidance of conflicts of interest. I believe it was John Locke who noted that a person (okay, back then he said “a man”) could not be the judge in his own case, and that is really the heart of the rule against conflicts. Elected officials are not supposed to participate in decisions that will affect them personally and directly.

If a state official approves a purchase of land for a highway, and that highway will run through land owned by members of his family, that’s a conflict of interest. If a United States Senator relies upon information not yet shared with the public to sell stock holdings before the news gets out, that’s a blatant conflict. (And yes, Senator Perdue, we’re all looking at you.) When a President refuses to divest himself of business interests that will be directly affected by his decisions in office, that’s a huge departure from ethical behavior.

It is hardly a secret that the Trump Administration has been brazenly unethical. Last year, Pro Publica noted that the administration itself had reported (quietly) numerous ethical breaches. The report noted that President Trump’s ethics pledge had been considerably weaker than previous pledges, but that the government ethics office found violations of even those watered-down rules, particularly at three federal agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the National Labor Relations Board.

Just one example: At the NLRB, Republican board member William Emanuel improperly voted on a case despite the fact that his former law firm, Littler Mendelson, represented one of the parties. (The firm represents corporations in labor disputes, and he also voted to eliminate regulations protecting unions.) Conflicts at the EPA have been widely covered by the media; numerous EPA officials chosen by Trump have come from fossil fuel companies and/or the law firms that represent them, and those officials have rolled back nearly 100 environmental regulations.

Then there’s former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is being investigated by the Justice Department’s public integrity section over allegations he lied to his agency’s inspector general’s office. There are also two separate probes by the Department’s inspector general about Zinke’s ties to real estate deals in Montana and a proposed casino project in Connecticut. 

As for Trump, there is at least one lawsuit charging violations of the Emoluments Clause still working its way through the courts–although the current composition of the Supreme Court doesn’t bode well for the outcome. 

The White House has refused to impose any sanctions for officials found to have committed ethical violations. That–as observers have noted–has sent a message of tacit approval, not just to the officials violating ethical standards, but to citizens who are aware of the breaches.

It isn’t just government. Cable news companies and social media giants routinely behave in ways that violate both journalism ethics and strictures against conflicts of interest. Facebook employs a rightwing internet site, The Daily Caller, as a “fact checker” despite the fact that the site is supported financially by the GOP. A story originally published by Salon reports that “The Daily Caller has taken tens of thousands of dollars to help Republican campaigns raise money while performing political fact-check services for Facebook.”

The Caller, a right-wing publication co-founded by Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, has also since 2016 sent dozens of emails “paid for by Trump Make America Great Again Committee,” a joint fundraising vehicle shared by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, according to Media Matters.

Media Matters also revealed that The Daily Caller has sent sponsored emails on behalf of a number of Republican candidates this year. Media Matters posted screenshots of the emails, from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C; Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio; the Senate Conservatives Fund; and the Bikers for the President PAC.

Asking the Daily Caller to fact-check political posts is like asking a wife-beater to evaluate spousal abuse cases.

When ethical principles are routinely flouted by a society’s most powerful institutions, is it any wonder that Americans don’t know who or what they can trust?


  1. A 2013 poll revealed its results concerning ethics in finance! This was just concerning the professionals who worked in financial institutions. Almost a quarter (24 percent) of respondents among professionals who work in finance believe that they “may need to engage in unethical or illegal conduct in order to be successful.” Sixteen percent admitted that they would commit a crime “if they could get away with it.” This number has increased exponentially over the past 4 years at least!

    I recall before I retired we had to test every single year on ethical behavior concerning every aspect of our business which was a major utility. The testing and recertification of ethical training was like clockwork. Not only workbooks and tests, there were also guests provided by the government that we would have to listen to either in person or online. If you didn’t complete the class or course, you could be terminated! There was a buy-in not only for management but the union also.

    From what I understand, this training has been eliminated since 2017. Wow, what a surprise?!

    When you have the fox guarding the and house, how would that be considered ethical?

    I remember talking to a corporate security representative who talked about cameras and other forms of surveillance on employees, his quote was, “these forms of surveillance keep honest people honest” in other words, folks who feel they’re being watched, would not engage in activity that could put them in jeopardy. But the criminal element really doesn’t care, they figure out a way to circumvent the rules.

    Right now, we live in a lawless society, even though there are laws on the books, there is no enforcement! And, if, society fails to enforce laws concerning ethical behavior, or refuse to do so, how is there any moral high ground? Because ethics are directly related to honesty, integrity, and morals!

    If we look at the past 4 years, how much honesty have we seen? How much integrity? What about moral behavior (morals)?!?

    Not only has this current crop of leadership including the religious aspect of it, been responsible for doling out the permission slips for people to act on their basest desires! They support criminal intent. How do one’s Christian values allow them to act dishonestly? Or, without integrity? Or, worshiping amoral behavior?

    There are no guardrails left, they’ve been removed so one can easily detour off of the road and over the precipice! Again, it’s the sign of the human condition, imperfection X imperfection = lubricious or lasciviousness! A definite lack of, or the desire for appropriate conduct!

    Sheila mentioned the fish rots from the head, there is absolute truth in that statement! No doubt, this four-year term that has been governed by a rotten fish, has contaminated the entire body politic! Principles and morals and ethics be damned. But this is not without precedent in history, history is loaded with times such as this, and history tells you, there’s a bad Moon rising!

  2. Long ago I read a definition of the term “ethics” is to do the right thing when no one is looking. The world has watched the past FIVE YEARS as ethics and trust in our government has steadily been worn away to a nub. The blatant lack of ethics, democracy, Rule of Law, flaunting disregard of the Constitution and just plain lack of humanitarianism when Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” has now been activated in an effort to keep him in office. The Electoral College has not yet posted it’s final vote on the issue of this chaotic presidential election.

    The conflict of interest in business deals made by government at all levels is often based in profits for for both sides. Somewhere in Trump’s denials of the possibility of coronavirus becoming epidemic or pandemic in this country, profits were to be reaped at higher levels in loss of human lives, leading to financial profit in the still “possible” cures being rolled out this morning to our hospitals. Trump’s level of profits on ventilators and personal protective equipment has not yet been figured because it continues with no end in sight. Consider the profit levels in funeral and creamation businesses today which is not yet in the news. “The Donald” had no ethics for 40 years before the Republican party foisted him on this country as their presidential nominee and they continue fighting to maintain his control is a “conflict of interest” and total lack of ethics ignored by their entire party to also keep McConnell as their “leader of the pack”.

    Is the Electoral College membership an ethical group or will they repeat their 2016 “conflict of interest” decision for the Republican party? Their vote is to be posted tomorrow; what will the morrow bring?

  3. In Trump World ethics and morals are for suckers and losers. So, at least 70 million voters said that was O.K. America, 2020… Perfect.

  4. Ethics in the USA – ‘our past’ and present. About 50 yrs ago I worked for a small US company with an international market that comprised 40% of the corporate sales. Product was a non- weapon low profile item. The sales were made through an agent to avoid US trade laws regarding bribery. Wondered latter on why GE did not sell jet engines through an agent to avoid their issues with bribery. Many 3rd world country governments were directly involved with these transactions.
    A compilation of countries that practice/don’t practice ethics exists. The USA used to be in the top 5 or 6 countries-the last list I saw, the USA was in the low 20s. This was prior to the trump administration. Ethics have gone the way of buggy whips, the New Golden Rule reigns. As the economic system goes more and more into an international oligarchy, not only will the US middle class shrink, but the country will approach economic 3rd world status for living conditions.

  5. corprate Americas laws,fundamentals and goals. we witnessed the real life of how the monied faction lives and breathes.did you really find it repungent? how many court cases and decisons were based on one sided greed to endure at any costs in the last 40 years? and at whos cost? trumps farce is just that,he was the loser,in his own game. all others spit on him as nothing more than an insult on real gains by the monied factions. now he (as his whole lot of his admin)used us as his welcome mat to show us how it works,enjoy.

  6. Just as distressing as the continuous stream of ethical lapses in Washington is the blasé acceptance of conflicts of interest, and profiting on them, at the most local levels of government: cities, towns, counties, utilities, libraries, airport authorities, school corporations and even neighborhood associations. But the granddaddy and grandmommy of all local institutions for potential corruption have to be Redevelopment Commissions and Economic Development Corporations.

    These legal entities merely institutionalize crony-capitalist graft by encoding into law the practice of handing out special favors. One can debate whether they’ve done any good, relative to their original intention of revitalizing economically disadvantaged areas, called Tax Increment Financing Districts (TIF’s). For example, one such TIF is the entire downtown arts and entertainment area of Carmel in Hamilton County. SOME distressed area! 

    But the more insidious aspect of RDC/EDC’s is the extent to which they have bred cynicism and deep distrust of local government in our communities who find themselves permanently pitted in zero-sum competitions with other states and communities to lure businesses to locate a plant or office, or make an investment in equipment that they would have made anyway, all so a pile of property-tax revenues can be accumulated on the side and then carefully dispensed under the cloak of darkness to pay back political favors.

    I assert that RDC’s and EDC’s aren’t just potentially corrupt. They are inherently corrupt and should be abandoned as one of the worst ideas foisted on us by neoliberalism over the last 40 years.  All they have really done is transfer the burden of local taxation from some (but not all) business owners lucky enough to hit the local lottery and then the incremental revenues are spent on things that do not benefit the people who live in the taxing area.
    Further enabling local conflicts and corruption is the vanishing local press. Our little twice-weekly county newspaper has just been acquired by a regional publisher that I expect will struggle to earn a fair return on its investment if the spend money on salaries for beat reporters and copy-writers.  Like many other such acquisitions the paper may likely become even further removed from the actual goings-on of our local government than it is today.  It MAY, however, become more objective as its previous publisher/owner has been a pillar of the local GOP monopoly on government for decades.

    But throwing more light on the subject is only half the problem – the other being to get people to read or listen to it and then ACT on it if something smells rotten in the state of Denver (thank you Archie Bunker for that one). This gets back to education in civics and civic responsibility in our schools and families and now we’ve reached the center of the atom. MORE people have to be more CURIOUS and also CARE enough to ACT! 

    So, Fish may rot from the head but if you catch all the bad minnows there won’t be as many big fish to worry about (I know, terrible extension of the analogy). Cheers

  7. Two quick points:

    1. Lots of research on what stops illegal behavior – NOT punishment, YES likelihood of getting caught – nuff said

    2. US has slipped each year since 2017 in world contry rankings of corruption from 23rd to 26th.

  8. Yesterday the leader of the Proud Boys toured the White House and arrests were made during the night. 2 of them stabbed 2 black men and others tore down a Black Lives Matter banner. We are in for a rough ride.

    I hope Biden finds a way to use intelligence services to weaken domestic terrorism.

    Needless to say Trump has emboldened all these far right hate groups. He wants a white oligarchy to continue to intimidate and harm people who oppose this.

  9. Like John, I worked for a big utility for a time. The only real training we ever got was on ethical behavior. I suspect that unlike John, the Utility I worked for was owned by a big multi-national company and they owned utilities in all around the world. AND I suspect that the only reason we got that bit of slick training we did, is that the company got caught under the US bribery laws and as part of the settlement, all employees were required to do the training. I do know based on occasional comments from foreign employees that used AES as a green card factory, that in many foreign countries, AES encountered more operational resistance than some of their competitors did. It was a pretty hypocritical situation because it was the only slick company wide training we ever got.

    Even if the GSA has an ethics training video, I suspect that all of the politicians at the Federal level have exempted theirselves and their staff from the training.

    The Indiana legislature is a particularly cringeworthy example of this kind of exemption. When a sexual groping scandal broke, it was no surprise when even though the state government has an entire HR department with policies and procedures already outlined, it turns out all of the elected officials were exempt and they had to “grope and fumble” their way through the whole ordeal.

  10. It really doesn’t matter if you’re likely to get caught or not if there’s no downside (punishment) That’s been happening quite regularly in this administration.

    If Biden is not willing to punish the Trump transgressors, from top to bottom, he won’t have credibility and he won’t have trust. And he won’t win in 2024 …. likely no Democrat will. Likely the end of the road for the American experiment.

  11. Terry Franzman @ 10:45 am posted:

    If Biden is not willing to punish the Trump transgressors, from top to bottom, he won’t have credibility and he won’t have trust. And he won’t win in 2024 …. likely no Democrat will.

    I would agree with this statement, “moving on” without some judicial action against the corruption of The Trump Regime should not be an option. A start would be to bring Trump’s long “audit” by the IRS to a conclusion.

  12. When I first saw Sheila’s topic this morning, the name John Locke immediately sprang to mind, and sure enough, there it was – in her second paragraph. Ethics has no independent existence; it is a learned experience. Thus we read that ABC, Inc. cheated on a contract with the local sewer company. No, it didn’t. A corporation is a piece of paper; it does nothing; it’s the powers that be who run the corporation who committed the ethical breach, but it is a handy vehicle to have “the company” pay the fine and leave the true perpetrators free to attend church and Rotary meetings and have their pictures taken in the local paper giving a $500 check to the Boys & Girls Club. (Gotta help the poor, you know, even if we are largely why they’re poor.)

    There is also the problem of the identity of those who breach. For instance, even without Sherman we instinctively know in a supposedly competitive capitalistic economy that monopoly in the marketplace leads to higher prices and poorer quality in the absence of consumer choice, but not so if you are the King of England. Thus while India was colonized the Crown bestowed a monopoly on the East India Tea Company for all trade with such colony (with a generous cut for the Crown, of course). That sense of untouchable royal identity carries over today where corporate executives and especially CEOs of investment banks and companies have several layers of buffering non-liabilities between them and decisions they either make or make with others but for which they have cover.

    Ethics is for the other guy, the other guy who gets a year for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving children while the CFOs of the giant corporations (the corporations who take the rap if caught) cheat the IRS (and thus you and me) out of zillions (or pay off politicians who make it possible via changes in the internal revenue code and thus arm such thieves with similar protection given to old English royalty but sans the divinity conferred upon the latter by God.

    The wrong people are in the streets, so pitchforks, anyone, or has “the market” decided to keep our attention diverted from its ongoing thievery with its soft response to the presidentially-approved Proud Boys and Nazis? We’ll know more about this following January 20. 2021.

  13. Let’s face it, it has been true for, well, ever that the one rule of business was to make more money now regardless of the impact on any others, ever. What Republicans have done over several decades and through all kinds of means is to convince themselves and others that business following that one rule was the ethics standard for the country and that the government was the opposite. It used to be that the government, as our standard for ethics, policed business. Now business blames the government for interference in their making of money.

  14. Change the word “money” to ‘votes and money” and what emerges from the one rule of business is the one rule of the GOP.

  15. Of course, politicians are part of us and are subject to the same cultural forces as the rest of us so they have been reduced now to following the created shared public belief that making more money now regardless of the impact on any others, ever is their ethical standard too.

  16. Here is the shortest explanation that Google came up with for what ethics should mean.

    “The five main principles of ethics are usually considered to be: Truthfulness and confidentiality. Autonomy and informed consent. Beneficence.”

    Can Biden/Harris and whoever we end up with in Congress and the Supreme Court lead us back from “make more money now” to Truthfulness and confidentiality. Autonomy and informed consent. Beneficence?

    I think that it will take a lot longer than they probably have.

  17. Trust boiled down to one word is Credibility. As long as one complains of trust issues, as long as one believes that trust — an effect, never a cause — is the condition that is causing problems, hopelessness will dominate the chances for resolving the problem.

    Ethical behavior, however, is an element of credibility and holds some hope of solving the problem…as well as creating trust.

  18. I think we’ve all heard the phrase, “don’t take it personally, it’s just business.” This is heard after some poor soul has been ruined financially or socially, with no recourse.

  19. Excellent comments today one and all!

    It seems everyone hit the nail on the head.

    Hey Dan, did you find the ethics training as much of a joke as I did? I just saw not too long ago, my former boss was arrested and charged with corruption, along with many of his higher-ups, and my former boss was one of the senior vps, lol! He was the one that would send us the information for the ethics training, lol! Go figure.

    I’ve been in contact with my local PBS station in Chicago WTTW (window to the world)

    They told me that if you petition your local public broadcasting station, you will be given time as long as you’re not peddling conspiracies. That seemed pretty logical to me, although, I don’t think I would do that here, but there are several individuals already doing that here. That would be something that I think you could parlay into a local news emporium from different areas around where you live. And promote that around the state or so. You would have to contact the local public broadcasting station to see if they have those times and such, available for community service. And, they should be able to accommodate!

  20. I think that ethical behavior requires a commitment to honesty, and consideration for others. these have been long absent, especially on the right side of DC’s aisle. Not that others (democrats) are incapable of unethical behavior, but as the U.S.has leaned further, and further, toward the concept of “Me, ubber allies!,” ethics has taken one blow after another. I lay a goodly portion of the blame on a past POTUS, someone the Republicans look upon as a saint: Ronald Reagan, and his “You can have it all!”

  21. Every year, my company makes me take an online business ethics course (also harassment) –
    I just zip through the slides and take the test based on what is the “right” thing to do – basic ethical behavior – so I always ace the test and return to work.

    I wonder if a test like that would have any effect on the sort of people who populated the Trump administration. Somehow, I doubt it.

  22. John, Our ethics training was the only thing I think AES did right. It was produced at the corporate level by an outside company and was pretty thorough and it seemed to have structures and policies in place to make it meaningful. The thing that made it so laughable, is that we did almost no other training at all, not even sexual harassment. The company was serious about safety too. I think in the US it was expensive to kill or maim workers, so one time I got some useful training on workstation ergonomics.

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