Ethics matter

by Dan Lucas

I was reminded recently of the importance of ethics. I was interviewed last week by a special investigator for Homeland Security in relation to a background check being run on a colleague who was applying for a sensitive government position. A few of the questions reminded me of questions I’d had to answer decades ago when I was getting my security clearance in the military. They told us at the time that they really didn’t care whether we’d done some of the things they were asking about – they just wanted to make sure we couldn’t be blackmailed about those things by the Soviets or anyone else.

The military and Homeland Security understand that even a person with the best of intentions can become compromised by something that appears to have no bearing on their job. For example, if someone had an extramarital affair that their spouse didn’t know about, they would be susceptible to blackmail. So even if the affair was with someone not at all involved with their military job and it was nobody else’s business, they could still be blackmailed into doing things that could harm the military – by threatening disclosure of the affair.

That’s a very basic example of why ethics matter. Ethical behavior prevents exactly the above situation. And acting ethically doesn’t mean that someone has to be perfect. Even the military decades ago didn’t expect that. Ethical behavior just means doing the right thing even when you’ve made a mistake. So in the above situation, if a person did have an affair, they’d need to tell their spouse and the appropriate military authority (if they had a security clearance) – so they COULDN’T be blackmailed. Doing the ethical thing isn’t always easy.

For some reason, the military and police seem to have one of the better understandings of the “moral physics” of ethical behavior. That ethical behavior isn’t just something that’s nice to have – it’s essential to someone being able to actually do their job. Ethical behavior protects them and their organization from being compromised. To be a police officer in Oregon, you have to swear/affirm, sign and follow the Criminal Justice Code of Ethics. It’s short and well worth the read. It states, in part “I WILL keep my private life unsullied as an example to all; maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn, or ridicule; develop self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others.  Honest in thought and deed in both my personal and official life, I will be exemplary in obeying the laws of the land and the regulations of my department.”

Unfortunately, ethics sometimes gets swept aside as merely an academic exercise or something that sounds nice but isn’t really rigorously applied. Another former colleague of mine, who shared my skepticism of some organizations’ “ethics mask”, sent me the ethics manual for Enron – the pinnacle of an organization with no ethics, but who still had to have an “ethics mask”.

Ethics do matter. If everyone in Oregon tried to just do just a little bit more of what’s in the Criminal Justice Code of Ethics than they do now, Oregon would be a much better place to live and every single organization in Oregon would work better for Oregonians.