The Ethics of Unethical Ethics Teachers

An essay by lawyers Joel Cohen and Katherine A. Helm begins with this story:

Noted ethics philosopher and Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell once was questioned by the Harvard Board of Governors about having an extramarital affair with a student. When faced with the hypocrisy of being an ethics professor engaged in immoral conduct, Russell argued his private affairs had nothing to do with his professional duties. “But you are a Professor of Ethics!” maintained one of the board members. “I was [also] a Professor of Geometry at Cambridge,” Russell rejoined, but “they never asked me why I was not a triangle.”‘

The authors use the anecdote to explore the issue of whether proven ethics miscreants like Eliot Spitzer, Rod Blagojevich and disbarred class action lawyer William Lerach ought to be lecturing, speaking, or otherwise being listened to in regard to their opinions and advice on ethics. After all, acting teachers are often indifferent actors, and the best baseball managers weren’t much as players. Why should ethics be any different? 

Like so many other topics on this site, the question comes down to what we mean by ethics. If we only mean teaching a set of  rules and how to identify, understand  and follow them, then Russell was right: one doesn’t have to be ethical to do this, or even to do it well. If, however, the objective is to create a more ethical culture by building a community that values ethical conduct, the unethical ethics teacher is of dubious value. Just as I would not care to be given flying lessons by a pilot who crashes frequently, just as I wouldn’t want to hear marital advice from Tiger Woods, John Edwards or Jesse James, the ethical wisdom of an ethicist who has no use for his or her own teachings in real life has neither credibility nor sincerity, and the force of the ethics message is diminished by the realization that the messenger doesn’t respect it.

Cohen and Helm write: “The willingness of an institution of higher learning to extend an invitation to speakers who have demonstrated rogue pasts gives too much “credibility” to their way of thinking.” Their way of thinking is almost always: “Don’t get caught.” That is the ethics lesson they learned the hard way in their own careers, and that is what they will teach: “Learn these ethics principles, and break them at your peril, because you can see what happened to me.” Their ethics alarms didn’t work before, and they aren’t working now. Their wisdom, therefore, has its greatest value for people just like them—and there are plenty—in business, law and government. They all epitomize Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “bad man,” the immoral, unethical citizen who nonetheless obeys  laws because he doesn’t want to be punished. The unethical ethics teachers preach compliance, not ethics, because that is all they really understand and endorse. Compliance is better than nothing, but we know from bitter experience—Enron, waterboarding, the  Wall Street financial meltdown, the health care reform bill— that when all the emphasis is on complying with rules rather than being ethical, unethical people will find ways to be unethical without technically breaking the rules, or at least to try.

So Rod, Eliot, Bill,  Tiger and John may have some limited use teaching what they call ethics to those who already have defective ethics alarms. For anyone to listen to them  who aspires to more than mere compliance, however, is a waste of time, or worse: a compliance mindset and an ethical one are not compatible. While making unethical students more compliant, these unethical teachers may make ethical students less so.

In the end, unethical teachers can only be trusted teach unethical people that it is safer to obey the rules than to break them.

5 thoughts on “The Ethics of Unethical Ethics Teachers

  1. I think people have misunderstood the usefulness of such people. They are useful as ‘visual aides’ in ethics instruction, not as instructors themselves.

    “For those of you who still doubt the necessity of having such ethical principles, I give you exhibit A, Tiger Woods…”

    Society has abused the idea that the ‘sinner is the best teacher of the sin’ that there are students who wanted to be preachers or counselors but wouldn’t do it because they didn’t want to become alcoholics or drug addicts first. This is also tied in with the cult of the reformed addict as a ‘hero’.

  2. There’s another rule on my ethics wish-list that this brings to mind, though it’s doubtless unenforceable. Public slimeballs (or worse) shouldn’t be allowed to quote inspiring poetry when the going gets rough for them. The real reason for wanting this rule, of course, is that they debabse the artistic currency of the nation. A secondary and almost as important reason is that they usually get it wrong, quoting lines that they’re not really smart enough to understand.

    So please — no more “If” or “Ulysses” from Rod Blagojevich, and no more “Invictus” from Timothy McVeigh. The few of these types who find true remorse and genuinely seek forgiveness and reformation can stay with Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” — but, cynic that I am, I doubt that few qualify.

    “Ah! Happy they whose hearts can break
    And peace of pardon win!
    How else may man make straight his plan
    And cleanse his soul from Sin?
    How else but through a broken heart
    May Lord Christ enter in?”

  3. might you have a source for the Bertrand Russel triangle story? I am trying to find its origin. The link to the article you quoted is dead. Thanks so much for your help.

    • The authors of the article cited are lawyers, both still active. I’m trying to track down the article, but you might contact one of them directly. Thanks for alerting me to the dead link. Now all the links to that story come back to ME…

  4. The Ethics teachers in my uni are a cluster of probably the most horrible people. They lie blatantly and it’s really worrisome that they lack logic,

    I couldn’t get them to understant that a code of ethics couldn’t be based on principles named and defined 30 years later. They also gave me the definitions given 30 years later for those especific concepts they offered as options when I asked for a clarification of my “mistake”. They have long names and were defined altogether in a especific well known text. Maybe low IQ is also to blame. They laughed at me for chosing “None of the above”.

    They laughed at me, said I had no point and the key and distracters were obvioulsy perfect.

    But at the request of the some (for the answer that most got correct by the way) they said they were accepting all multiple choice answers to a particular question because they argued
    all the options were correct and they “asked in the stem which one was correct” even though the last option was “all of the above are correct”. (which they had previously considered the only correct answer).

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