I’m sure my friend and colleague Bob Stone will forgive my picking on a casual phrase he used in a comment on the previous post, for it is the inspiration for this one, and it involves the important issue of forced virtue.
Bob alluded to Speaker Nancy Pelosi finally doing “the right thing” when, as reported in the morning media, she told House Ways and Means Committee Chair Charles Rangel that he had to resign his post because of multiple ethics violations. Pelosi, we now know, had avoided this for as long as possible, first ignoring Rangel’s actions, then making the dodge that the Ethics Committee first had to make its ruling (Rangel’s egregious violations have never been in doubt), then suggesting that the violations were not significant (knowing that among them was a failure to pay taxes on $75,000 of income as well as acquiring hundreds of thousands of dollars of unreported—that is, hidden—income, all on the part of the reigning chair of the committee that oversees tax legislation) because the country wasn’t “jeopardized” by them. But now the press is calling for Rangel’s head, the Republicans are making accusations that seem, for once, reasonable, and other Democratic House members have joined the chorus demanding that Charlie must go. And this is all occurring as Pelosi is trying to martial her House majority as she attempts to ram the latest health care reform package past the nation’s gag reflex.
In short, Pelosi isn’t really doing the right thing. She’s doing the only thing. When one had no intention of doing the right thing when it would have demonstrated responsibility, courage, leadership and integrity, and then only does the same thing later when the consequences of not doing it are unpleasant, devastating and embarrassing, the act no longer qualifies as “ethical conduct.” It is expedient conduct that just happens to be the right thing as well. No credit is due, no accolades have been earned. When virtue has to be forced on someone, ethics is irrelevant. It is a coincidence, nothing more.
Other examples of when “doing the right thing” doesn’t count:
- Tiger Woods did not “do the right thing” by giving up his 457 mistresses once his multiple infidelities had been disclosed and threatened to destroy his career.
- Roman Polanski is not “doing the right thing” by finally facing the legal system after decades of avoiding punishment for admitted child-rape, because he had to be arrested first.
- New York Governor Patterson will not be “doing in the right thing” when and if he finally resigns in the wake of proof that he personally pressured a victim of violent domestic abuse to drop charges against one of his aides. Patterson had raised his hand and sworn that he never abused the power of his office, “not now, not ever.”
- D.C. City Councilman Marion Barry, recently censored by the Council for, among other things, accepting a kickback from the salary paid to his ex-girlfriend, whom he installed in a city job so she could pay back money he owed her, wasn’t “doing the right thing” when he apologized for his actions, which he still says weren’t unethical because “they weren’t illegal.”
On a larger scale, this is what is desperately wrong with our entire approach to government and corporate corruption and misconduct. There are constant calls for more ethics regulations, more Codes of Conduct, more ethics committees and more specific and harsher sanctions. This is compliance, and compliance is not ethics. Compliance is “doing the right thing” only because there is a gun to your head, and that isn’t doing the right thing at all.
When we build corporate and government cultures that embrace compliance rather than ethics, we get Jeffrey Skilling, Charles Rangel, “Scooter” Libby, Bernie Madoff, Nancy Pelosi, AIG, Tom DeLay, Dennis Kozlowski, Allen Stanford, John Murtha, Toyota, Jim Moran, Ted Stevens, and thousands like them. They’ll do the right thing, all right, when they absolutely have to…or else. The rest of the time, they will try to find a way to do what accomplishes their objectives, honest or not. They’ll do the wrong thing as long as they think they can get away with it. You don’t have to force virtue on ethical leaders.
Society has to start insisting on leaders who don’t wait until virtue is forced on them before they decide to do the right thing. A good way to start is to refuse to give credit to the Nancy Pelosi’s among us, whose embrace of ethical principles is as sincere as the devotion in a shotgun wedding.