Nancy Pelosi and Forced Virtue

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.

9 thoughts on “Nancy Pelosi and Forced Virtue

  1. Compliance vs. Ethics. Two different things. Not hard to figure out. Marshall is right. Doing the right thing when you have a gun to your head is NOT the same as doing the right thing as soon as you find out something is terribly wrong. To allow this “terrible wrong” to continue because (1) you don’t care; (2) you are involved in it; (3) you are protecting a friend or business partner or party member; or (4) you know you have done similar things and don’t want to find out is simple rationalization, and terribly, terribly unethical. When it moves beyond your control and you and others are found out, THEN you take steps to right the wrong. That is COMPLIANCE, not ETHICS.

    Get your terms straight. Pelosi is about as ethical as a tyrannosaurus. She just does what she does. But she’s not a dinosaur with a pea for a brain. She has to take responsibility for her actions, AND her inaction.

  2. Brilliant point, relating the very late and forced virtue to compliance ethics. I HATE compliance ethics, which is all that officialdom cared about when I was in government, and all that many corporate ethics chiefs care about today. Nothing to do with ethics. Hmmm, remember the old lines from the ’60s (which I never bought into): Military justice is to justice as military music is to music.

    • This kind of reminds me of the J.C. Watts quote:

      Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. There are too many people who think that the only thing that’s right is to get by, and the only thing that’s wrong is to get caught.
      — J. C. Watts

      That’s what we have here, in condensed form. Pelosi demonstrated no character, or ethics, by doing the right thing after everyone demanded it.

  3. I like military music too–especially the West Point March. S&S Forever isn’t bad either. My last word on l’affaire Pelosi-Rangel: doing the right thing when you get exposed gets you no credit for ethics; still, it’s better than continuing to do the wrong thing.

    • EB, isn’t that like giving somebody credit for doing the job they are paid to do to the minimum level of proficiency?

      It would be hard to argue, given the circumstances, that she distinguished herself either as a taxpayer employee or majority leader.

      But then again, how could I make an argument that finally seeing the light is a bad thing, no matter how many guns were pointed at her? I can’t seem to muster one.

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