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Our Ethics Mess

This is a guest post by Linnea B. McCord, JD, MBA, Associate Professor of Business Law

We are only just beginning to comprehend how bad an ethics mess we’re in—but it’s likely to be a real doozy.

Failing CEOs walk away with more than $100 million and Wall Street investment bankers pay themselves many billions of dollars in bonuses even as investors’ returns plummet. State and federal politicians with little or no money when they enter public life are worth tens of millions of dollars just a few short years after leaving office. All of this is against the backdrop of the worst housing downturn since the Great Depression, a massive credit crunch that threatens to wreak havoc on our financial system, mounting layoffs, the possibility of millions losing their homes, rapidly declining state budgets, crushing personal, corporate and federal debt and jihadist Islamic groups that wish to destroy us.

While our first inclination may be to blame “them” for all of our current ethics fiascoes—and there are plenty of “thems” to choose from these days—as a free nation and a free people, we bear the ultimate responsibility for allowing ourselves to get into this ethics mess.

How did we do this you might ask?

The answer is simple—by allowing ourselves to become so ethically confused over the past forty years.

In the late 1960s as the rebellious baby-boomer generation came of age, many of our universities began to adopt “new age ethics,” espoused in such books as “Situation Ethics: The New Morality” written by Joseph Fletcher in 1966. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, situation ethics is “a system of ethics by which acts are judged within their contexts instead of by categorical principles.”

Relative ethics appeared at a later date as multiculturalism became fashionable in American universities. This theory argued that since each of the U.S.’s supposedly multiple cultures has its own cultural norms, there were no absolute moral standards that applied to Americans as a whole.

I was living and going to school outside the U.S. at the time, so I watched the changes in American universities via international TV satellite. As I watched the protests and sit-ins at American universities and listened to what American university students were saying from the vantage point of living overseas, I was struck by how oblivious my fellow American university counterparts were to how wealthy and privileged they were compared to the rest of the world at the time.

It was obvious to me that only a generation raised in such unparalleled peace, prosperity, and privilege as existed in post-war America, could so naively disdain ethical certainty, preferring situation and relative ethics to the tried-and-true absolute ethical standards of their depression and war parents.

What is happening in our financial markets, our political system, our society and our economy today should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to our continual downward ethical slide over the past forty years. The “ethical chickens” are now coming home to roost and it looks like we may be in for a long bout of serious pain before this current ethics mess gets sorted out.

The only thing that can save us now is ethical clarity.

Several generations of Americans are about to re-learn very painfully what prior American generations who survived extreme crisis already knew:

Contrary to popular belief, the rules of ethical conduct in the United States are NOT situational, NOT relative, NOT unclear, NOT hard to teach, and NOT optional.

Let’s hope we re-learn that ethics lesson in time.

Related in the Graziadio Business Report

Businesspersons Beware: Lying is a Crime by Linnea B. McCord, JD, MBA, Kim Greenhalgh, JD, and Michael Magasin, JD

Graziadio Faculty Discuss Ethics by Linnea McCord, JD, MBA, Mark Mallinger, PhD, Kurt Motamedi, PhD, Steven M. Sommer, PhD, and Ray Valadez, EdD

Avoiding Ethical Misconduct Disasters by Robert C. Chandler, PhD

Author of the article
Linnea Bernard McCord, JD, MBA, Associate Professor of Business Law
Linnea Bernard McCord, JD, MBA, Associate Professor of Business Law
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