Corruption and American Values: Turning Rottenness into Teachable Moments

A new “American values” survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) finds that Americans are pessimistic: 77% of us believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. A substantial minority think political violence can be justified. And 23% of Americans agree that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

This is a dangerous development. It can seem that everything is broken. In Congress, they are throwing elbows. The former president is on trial for fraud, defamation and attempting to subvert our democracy. The University of Michigan football team cheated. And war continues to kill innocents.

All of this can be overwhelming. When things grow dark, it is tempting to lose hope. But hopelessness is not warranted. Nor is it prudent. When hope evaporates, malice festers and violence appears on the horizon.

The ugliness of the moment is dispiriting. The worse things stink, the more it seems that everything is rotten. But it is better to smell the taint than to keep it hidden.

This is the paradox of our evolving moral sensibility. In the bad old days, corruption and iniquity were ignored or accepted as normal. In the 21st century, even minor misdeeds become magnified. But this can cause us to lose faith in humanity.

Consider the Kevin McCarthy elbow incident. The former speaker of the House supposedly elbowed Rep. Tim Burchert in the back. Burchert was one of the Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy as speaker. If the accusations are true, McCarthy behaved badly. Resorting to physical violence is always stupid and immature.

The “good news” is that as soon as the elbow was thrown, it was known. And folks piled on with outrage. Rep. Matt Gaetz called for an ethics inquiry. Gaetz was himself the subject of a prior ethics inquiry. His call for an elbow-inquiry prompted McCarthy to say, “I think Ethics is a good place for Gaetz to be.”

These tit-for-tat accusations are silly and sad. It can cause us to lose faith in wisdom and virtue. But again, the good news is when people behave badly, we see it — and rightfully condemn it. The McCarthy elbow incident shows us how not to behave. Something like this is also occurring with the Trump trials, the Michigan cheating scandal, and so on.

The moral lessons of the moment are clear. Keep your elbows to yourself. Don’t lie about your assets or about election results. Cheaters get caught. And violence is stupid.

The crises of the present are “teachable moments.” There are moral lessons and legal case studies all around us. This is an opportunity to remind ourselves about the need for honor, integrity, self-control and compassion.

These basic lessons are not a panacea. It is not easy to root out the rot. Bad things will continue to happen. It can take a long time to bring facts to light. But the process of shedding light on evil does happen. Sometimes bad guys get away with their crimes — for a time. But the slow wheels of justice and truth keep turning.

Seeing all of this rottenness can lead decent people to lose heart. So, we must guard against despair. Human beings can be wicked. But we can learn from our mistakes. We can reform our institutions and our souls. We can get better. Despair and violence only make things worse.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that humanity is constructed out of “crooked timber.” It is too much to hope that the warped wood of humanity can be made perfectly straight. But we can learn and improve.

The work of moral improvement is painstaking. Violence is appealing because it is spectacular and quick. But violence does not make anyone better. Instead of violence, we need virtue. We improve our humanity by holding fast to morality and by applying reason and ingenuity to our problems.

The process of improvement demands that we confront the corruption around us. We must call out evil and stupidity when we see it. But rather than dwelling in the mud, we should seek higher ground. We overcome despair by understanding our duty to improve our humanity despite the wickedness of the world.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article281997683.html#storylink=cpy

Ethics Lessons: Learning and Improving

October is global ethics month, at least according to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. The Carnegie Council has also declared the third Wednesday of October as Global Ethics Day. This October is busy for me in terms of public presentations on ethics. This month, I’ll be talking ethics with economic development professionals, folks working in healthcare, and educational leaders. I’ll also be speaking in Tennessee and Ohio on the ethics of war, and about ethical issues in political life.

As I’m reflecting on the common thread of these presentations, a few things come to mind. First, ethics matters for all human beings. It is especially important for professionals. Second, there are unavoidable moral conflicts. But there is also general consensus about what it takes to be good and to do good work. Finally, ethics can be taught and trained. We are not born knowing the difference between right and wrong. Rather, we learn this from mentors and role models. And even though we begin as novices in living well, we can improve. Let’s consider each of these points in turn.

Ethics matters for everyone including professionals

Human beings mostly want to be good, to do good, and to live good lives. There are some bad actors in the world: criminals and sociopaths exist. And some people may get a thrill out of being notorious, or have a strange admiration for bad guys (as I discussed recently). But for the most part, human beings want to be known for being good. And most people seem to understand that happiness depends in part on virtue.

This is especially true in specialized fields and in the professions. Consider sports as an obvious example. Athletic endeavors have standards of excellence and rules that must be followed. If you value the sport, you ought to want to play by the rules. A person who “wins” a 100-meter race by tripping an opponent has not really won. Cheating defeats the very idea of winning and of excellence in an endeavor.

Now consider the ethical codes, rules, and standards of excellence that govern doctors, lawyers, journalists, artists, and other professionals including soldiers. These ethical ideals define what it means to be a good doctor, lawyer, and so on. To be an excellent member of a professional community, you have to do the right thing.

This is also true in families, friendships, and in life in general. A good mother, father, brother, or friend is honest, kind, courageous, and respectful. Ethics matters in our relationships. It also helps define your identity: what you are known for, and who you are. Some of this is specific to professional roles. But much of what counts as ethical is found in widespread and common ideas about human flourishing and excellence.

Moral conflicts exist but there is also broad general consensus

This broad consensus about ethics is found in typical lists of key virtues, characteristics, and behaviors of good people. Around the world it is widely held that good people are fair, truthful, and compassionate. Different cultures and traditions may emphasize different sorts of virtues, or connect them in different ways. But there is no culture or tradition that says that murder is noble, that we should break our promises, or that cowards are admirable.

This is not to deny that there are conflicts and that some values are relative to culture and history. There are genuine dilemmas in ethics such as the conflict between justice and mercy. Proponents of retributive justice think that justice requires “eye for eye” retaliation. Others call for forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. This is a genuine conflict.

But here is also consensus in addition to conflict. The challenging nature of ethical dilemmas may be why people often spend more time talking about conflicts than about consensus. It is a bit boring to say that everyone values honesty. It is more provocative to think about cases when honesty may not be the best policy—for example, in cases involving spies or when authorities lie to people for their own good.

We can learn to be ethical

Finally, let’s note that we are not born knowing how to be good. I tend to be sympathetic to the idea that human babies are born with a tendency toward prosocial behavior, and maybe even an innate sense of compassion and fairness. But those innate tendencies must be nurtured and developed. Ethical behavior among adults is learned behavior. As Aristotle suggested character is “second nature.”

Goodness is developed by emulating role models. It is further developed by “direct instruction”: by some code or teacher literally explaining to us the difference between right and wrong. We also need coaches and mentors, who encourage us and offer criticism. It helps to have structures of accountability (including rewards and punishments). And we need positive peer pressure: good friends help us be better.

Training and mentorship are also important in professional life. Professional organizations help cultivate good behavior by instructing, coaching, and reminding. They hold individuals accountable, reward good behavior, and punish the bad. Good organizations often have codes, training programs, and systems that reinforce values and ideals. All of that is important for what is called “professionalization,” which is the process by which people come to identify with the values of professional life.

The Value of Ethics Month

With all of that on the table, let me conclude by suggesting why it is useful to have a month and a day dedicated to ethics. It is easy to get lazy and take your eye off the ball. But if you want to live well, you need reminders and admonitions. We often take virtue and character for granted and simply assume that people will figure this out for themselves. Some folks may also think that some people are just good by nature, and others are irredeemably corrupt. But the truth is that we can improve. Reminders help, as do mentors and role models. It also helps to set aside some time—a month, a day, or an hour—to think critically and explicitly about ethics.  

Climate change, spiritual development, and the gates of hell

Fresno Bee, September 24, 2023

Climate change forces Americans to reconsider profit, greed, power and truth.

This past week, the Secretary General of the UN, António Guterres, described the climate emergency with apocalyptic language. He said, “Humanity has opened the gates of hell.” He called for quick action to avoid the climate inferno.

This call to action is not directed primarily at individuals like you and me. Individuals can drive less, for example. Or you could eat less meat. But the climate-friendly choices of individuals are less important than institutional and systemic change. To close the gates of hell, nations, states and corporations need to be transformed.

One interesting step occurred in California this past week. The state sued five major oil companies, claiming these firms lied about the climate impact of their products. The lawsuit alleges that the oil companies encouraged “disinformation and denialism” about the link between fossil fuels and climate change. This included a deliberate effort to “discredit” the scientific consensus about that link.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said, “For more than 50 years, Big Oil has been lying to us — covering up the fact that they’ve long known how dangerous the fossil fuels they produce are for our planet.” Attorney General Rob Bonta said, “Oil and gas companies have privately known the truth for decades — that the burning of fossil fuels leads to climate change — but have fed us lies and mistruths to further their record-breaking profits at the expense of our environment.”

Activists have called out this bad behavior for a long time. But the California lawsuit puts teeth behind the accusations by aiming to punish the oil companies. The proceeds of any settlement will establish a fund that would be used to respond to climate emergencies and to pay for mitigation and adaptation efforts. All of this is occurring at a time when gas prices are high, cars are expensive, and auto workers are on strike.

Could this be the beginning of a radical shift in the fossil fuel infrastructure? Maybe. But while lawsuits aimed at corporations could be part of the solution, the long-term solution must be cooperative rather than hostile. The oil companies should stop lying. But greed, power, and short-term self-interest are not easy to overcome. And so, while punishment and blame are on the table, the ultimate solution requires a change of culture and moral development.

Consider the moral and cultural shifts that have occurred in prior movements for social change. The abolition of slavery in the United States required a war. But that war was accompanied by a shift in moral thinking, which held that slavery was simply wrong. The movement for women’s rights required a struggle in the streets. That struggle was paralleled by a shift in our understanding of women and men. A similar process unfolded in the civil rights movement.

There is a chicken-or-egg question in these movements. Did the moral shift come first, or was it a result of struggle? There is no simple answer here. There are layers and phases and feedback loops in these cultural transformations. Antagonism is part of any struggle. But the long-term goal is moral development. Cultural shifts ask us to re-conceive our humanity, to reorder our priorities, and to respond in new ways to the world.

One hundred and fifty years after slavery was abolished, it is no longer imaginable that any human being would be enslaved. A hundred years after women gained the right to vote, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would have denied that right to half the population. That’s the kind of change that is needed to solve the climate crisis. We need to create a world in which it would be unimaginable for powerful corporations to lie and profit while spewing destructive chemicals into the atmosphere.

Secretary General Guterres said that we have opened the gates of hell. That’s a metaphor with religious resonance. It points toward the need for a spiritual solution to the climate crisis. To close the gates of hell, we need structural change, but also moral transformation. Lawsuits will help. But in the long run we need to change the way we think about profit, greed, power, and truth. In short, we need to rethink what we value, and we need to re-imagine the world we hope to leave to our grandchildren.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article279653924.html#storylink=cpy

What makes good people good?

Fresno Bee, September 3, 2023

I have had the good fortune to meet a number of good people. As director of Fresno State’s Ethics Center, I help organize an annual ethical leadership award, in collaboration with Fresno State’s Lyles Center and the Better Business Bureau. This year we are recognizing Pete Weber, a man who has dedicated much of his life to service. Among his contributions is his work founding the California Bridge Academies, an organization dedicated to lifting families out of poverty.

This is significant work. But what I am interested in here is the personality of people like Pete Weber. What makes good people tick? There are lots of good people in the world. What makes them good? And how can we learn to be like them?

These questions are ancient. Socrates puzzled over them. He suggested that goodness depends on knowledge. But if we don’t already know what’s good, then how do we know which teachers to listen to, or which models to follow? Maybe we are born with a kind of innate knowledge of the good. Socrates says that critical thinking can help reveal this. But he also hinted that we might need divine intervention to point us in the right direction.

Christians would likely agree. A Christian account of moral education tends to hold that we need God to give us the moral law. And because we are sinners, we also need grace, the support of a good religious community, and forgiveness when we fail. This idea can be traced back to Augustine, who suggested that human souls are fundamentally disordered and in need of the grace of the Christian “inner teacher” who guides us toward the light.

All of this is complicated by the fact that people, cultures and religions disagree. Those who think we need help from the gods to be good may still wonder which gods we should turn to.

A different approach is more concrete and intuitive. We might begin by consulting our own experience of the good people we know. If you think about your role models and mentors, you will likely discover some common truths about good people. They are stable and sincere, patient and kind, generous and caring, courageous and truthful.

We can look at moral exemplars and generalize from their model. Good people exhibit virtues like loyalty, honesty, and compassion. We can list the character of good people, and then follow their example.

But there is also something mysterious in the presence of goodness. Good people have a kind of aura or charisma. Their goodness can be felt, even if it is difficult to describe.

This sense of the other person’s goodness is intuitive. We respond to their goodness spontaneously. Their presence resonates with us, and leaves us feeling inspired and energized. It’s hard to explain. But we can feel the presence of moral excellence.

Philosopher Ruth Grant puts it this way, “It is exceptionally difficult to define goodness or the good life, but it may nonetheless be possible to recognize it when we see it.” This may sound mysterious and even incoherent. But it also seems right.

And yet, our intuitions are limited and sometimes confused. Some people admire cult leaders or are seduced by wicked deceivers. This is why we need to go beyond intuition and think critically about goodness. In our complicated world there are diverse experiences and manifestations of the good. And charismatic liars can pull the wool over our eyes.

Critical thinking provides a remedy. Careful reflection shows that there is a common thread of goodness in the world. This involves the kinds of virtues discussed above: kindness, truthfulness, and the like. Good people serve others and build them up. They are modest about their achievements. And they are honest with themselves and others.

To discover these truths about goodness, it helps to meet good people. We can study their stories, and learn from them. No one is born knowing how to be good. We need mentors, models, and teachers.

Of course, we also need to think critically. No human being is perfect. We all have flaws. And we can improve. We do this by seeking out good folks, learning from them, and then looking carefully in the mirror.

Fresno State’s annual Celebration of Ethics event will be broadcast on KSEE-TV at 7 p.m. on Sept. 6. More information: https://www.celebrationofethics.com/

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article278870059.html#storylink=cpy

The Trump Indictment: On Lying, Fraud, Incompetence, and Delusion

Fresno Bee, August 6, 2023

Trump’s indictment spotlights the nature of lying and duties of leadership 

The recent Donald Trump indictment should cause us all to worry about the stability of our democracy.

The leading Republican candidate for president is charged with three conspiracies: to defraud the United States, to obstruct official government proceedings, and to deprive people of their right to vote. It is undisputed that Trump actively attempted to overturn the 2020 election. But Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said in response, “President Trump did nothing wrong!”

The indictment claims that Trump “knowingly” lied in the conspiracy to overturn the election. The indictment uses the word “knowingly” 36 times. It declares that Trump’s claims of election fraud were false, and that “the Defendant knew that they were false.” The indictment is full of examples purporting to show that Trump knew he was lying, or should have known. Among these is an interaction in which Trump said to Vice President Mike Pence, “You’re too honest.”

I have no idea whether Trump will be convicted, or what will happen in 2024. But the case prompts difficult questions about lying, leadership, and the future of our country.

Lying involves deliberate deception, which assumes that the liar knowingly tells falsehoods. But if an accused liar is confused, stupid, or out of touch with reality, is he really lying? The most convincing liars never flinch. Some liars lie to themselves. And pathological liars believe their own lies.

It’s not really lying if a person is brain-damaged or brainwashed. Mentally deficient folks lost in delusion are not lying. Nor are those caught up in conspiracy theories or cults really lying. These dupes inhabit a self-reinforcing web of falsehoods that sees the truth-tellers as lying enemies.

Punishment is misplaced for people lost in delusion. It also seems cruel to punish a brainwashed cult member. We might forgive these folks and offer them compassion. But we should not put them in positions of power

We expect our leaders to be intelligent, honest, and virtuous custodians of truth. There are no guarantees that truthful people will be elected. That’s why we have a system of checks and balances, and regular elections.

The Trump indictment accuses the former president of subverting that system. But what if he really believed the election was fraudulent? If Trump knew the election was legitimate, then he is a liar and a danger to democracy. If it was not legitimate, then Trump is a heroic truth-teller and champion of democracy.

Many loyal Trumpians believe that the election was actually stolen. Recent polls from Monmouth and from CNN show that about a third of Americans, and two-thirds of Republicans, believe the 2020 election was fraudulent. This explains why Trump’s defenders think the Justice Department has been “weaponized.” Trumpians do not think Trump is lying about the election. They see the current indictment as an anti-Trump conspiracy.

The indictment shows how claims of fraud were systematically refuted. So, it seems obvious that Trump is wrong to claim otherwise. But the Trumpians won’t believe the facts laid out in the indictment.

And what if Trump believed his own lies because he is pathological, delusional, or brainwashed by the right-wing echo-chamber? This question is important both because it is connected to possible punishment and because it tells us something about the character of the man who is likely to be nominated for the presidency by the Republican party next year.

If Trump lost, but he really believed the election was stolen, then he did not knowingly lie — and there is no deliberate fraud. Maybe he just couldn’t believe he lost. Maybe he is a pathological liar who believes his own lies. Maybe he was caught up in a cult-like world of right-wing conspiracy. Or maybe he is a senile old man, unable to discern the truth. But these excuses mean that Trump should never be elected again.

If Trump knowingly lied, then he is corrupt and culpable. If he didn’t know he was lying, then he is deluded or incompetent. And in either case, if we assume that the 2020 election was legitimate, Trump seems to lack the virtue and honesty we expect of our leaders. Trump loyalists see things otherwise, which is why our country is on the verge of disaster.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article277966113.html#storylink=cpy