Jack Russell Weinstein, Ph.D, Associate
Professor of Philosophy and Religion
1/13/06 | Abramoff Scandal Underscores Ethics Crisis in American
EDITOR'S NOTE: Jack Russell
Weinstein, Ph.D. is Associate Professor in the UND Department of
Philosophy and Religion. He received his doctorate from Boston
University, and has taught at numerous U.S. and foreign
universities. Weinstein, a widely published author, focuses on the
intersection between the history of philosophy and contemporary
political thought. He is particularly committed to making scholarly
work accessible to nonspecialists and lay audiences. (1600 words)
Q: The collapse of Jack
Abramoff's career as a leading lobbyist in Washington has been
in the news for weeks; it continues to be a big story, with a
Time magazine cover early in the new year. Abramoff's lavish
influence-peddling tarnished the reputations of many people on
Capitol Hill and sent many others scurrying for cover. What does
this scandal tell us about the media, ethics, and politics?
A. It is no surprise that the media
lives off of scandal. Day-to-day government is boring to most
audiences—try watching C-Span, for example. Media outlets want
and cultivate scandal; it attracts people which in turn attract
advertising dollars. Politicians respond to the attention and
focus their energy on whatever is in the news at that moment. So
for awhile, lobbyists will be a target, just like, for awhile,
affairs with interns were center stage. This is why lobbyists
exist in the first place; they are paid to get legislators to
think about things that are not the subject of media attention.
They play a necessary function.
The consequence of media attention, however, is the profound
effect it has on people's attitudes and actions. For example,
after the movie "Babe," millions of kids turned vegetarian—for a
while, anyway. My best friend, a sergeant in the New York State
Police, tells me that police and prosecutors are having a hard
time these days because juries want the kind of evidence that
appears on CSI even though the technology on the show doesn't
really exist. Since the media wants scandal, scandal becomes
synonymous with fame. It becomes appealing. To be famous, we are
told, we have to do something wrong, not something right.
Q. Are ethics and politics tied
A. They certainly are. Everything is
tied in with ethics, politics is no exception. We should always
be concerned with how we judge ethical behavior and this
includes how it fits into the systems and societies we
participate in. When judging the morality of a system we have to
pay more attention to the norms than the exceptions.
It is often useful to think of politics as a sport: it's bound
by certain rules that everyone must play by: the "rules of the
A virtuous player will play within those rules, but will often
push them to the very edge, walking a fine line while still
technically following them.
This changes the interpretations of the rules, which, in turn,
obligate us to ask whether this new understanding makes the
rules inherently corrupt. Consider the debate in baseball about
the designated hitter rule: the American League has it but the
National League does not. Does this make National League players
"better" because they are more well-rounded? Analogously, is a
person who works successfully within a moral system a "better"
person than one who succeeds in a system that is corrupt? Maybe.
During the last presidential campaign, while he was pushing for
election reform, John McCain was asked whether he abided by the
rules that he recommended. His answer was that he abided by the
current law and that he would only abide by the reforms if and
when they became law. From a certain perspective, he was right
to insist that he be bound by the same rules as everyone else.
From another perspective, however, he may have been acting
immorally by subscribing to rules that he knew were corrupt.
Q. So what is at the core of the
current ethical crisis as signaled by the Abramoff scandal?
A. The first issue is whether the
system itself is corrupt. But, more deeply, we have to
understand what ethics means.
The study of ethics, to my mind, took a dangerous turn. For the
last two hundred years, ethics has been concerned with the
morality of individual acts. Focusing on the Immanuel Kant's
"ethics of duty" and John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism,
philosophy has asked us whether one judges an act by its
intentions (Kant) or its consequences (Mill).
But this is a problematic departure from the classical Greek
notion that ethics is about the character or personality that
chooses particular actions.
We have been asking "what ought I to do?" instead of asking "how
ought I live?"
Thankfully, the last 30 years has seen a rebirth of this
approach under the moniker "virtue ethics."
Q. So, the Time cover story about
Abramoff suggests that he was a bad apple. What do you think?
Does he have a bad character?
A. Sure, they said he was a bad
apple. And he likely was.
But there's a serious danger in demonizing him. He's probably
not all that different than you or me, or those people whom he
works with, but in singling him out as the bad actor, you make
him the exception. It's his problem, this attitude says, rather
than looking at what's wrong with the system that facilitates or
even encourages such behavior. We no longer have to consider
ourselves in the process.
It's like pinning the whole Holocaust on Adolf Hitler.
Blame it all on Hitler, the bad guy, but dismiss everything else
that made a Hitler possible, that facilitated his rise to power.
We thus disavow collective responsibility and the flaws in the
system. Of course, I am not comparing Abramoff to Hitler, I am
only suggesting that the method of ethical consideration is
subject to the same dangers.
I believe that Abramoff thought that the power structure he was
involved in would shield him, that media attention would focus
Like many in his position, he figured he was tied into the
aristocracy, and, thereby, entitled, immune, invincible. He
regarded himself as "a special case."
Why he might have thought this is uncertain. Was he born this
way? Did society do it? Did his parents? Where is his own
There's a long debate in philosophy, going back thousands of
years, about whether people knowingly do wrong. Plato said that
immoral behavior was the product of ignorance, that the person
doing wrong simply doesn't know any better. Plato and Aristotle
asked: "can virtue be taught?"
Q. Abramoff is just the latest in a
series of scandals underscoring a seeming lack of ethical
standards. This is politics, some people say. But not too long
ago, a number of business scandals rocked the country, including
Enron and Global Crossing, which financially impacted hundreds
of thousands of people. Any connection between such corporate
and political scandals?
A. Well, first off, this is further
evidence that the news media focus on one event at the exclusion
of most others. Why isn't Enron still in the news? Why aren't
the Tsunami victims still in the news, for that matter? Those
people still suffer.
Media is a business, too, although they do have special needs,
given the nature of what they do. The problem is that ethics in
both business and politics has become compartmentalized and
Business and political leaders now often tend to ask about the
legality rather than the morality of what they're doing. They
want to know how to avoid lawsuits and not how to cultivate
ethical employees and practices.
Q. What, then, does the Abramoff
scandal suggest about modern ethics?
A. Like the Enron scandal, Jack
Abramoff’s is tied to the nature of business education and
education in general. Ethics is, like I said, compartmentalized.
We tell our business or medical students to take one or maybe
two courses in ethics and we leave it at that. This makes
morality an afterthought. We should, instead, provide an ethical
foundation for everything we teach them in every class.
Another major factor is the nature of business culture and
American culture in general.
We are told to push, push, push, to get as much as we can for
ourselves and to stop only when someone or something forces us
too. There is little discussion about knowing when we have
enough—quality of life versus quantity of goods. Why are two
televisions better than one? Why is a double cheeseburger
“better”? These are classic questions, questions that a good
ethics class—that a good philosophy class—deals with, but
questions that people should encounter more often.
When we “ghettoize” these questions, we chip away at our own
humanity, and we ignore the role that we all play as citizens.
We have to care for others as well as ourselves, and that means
we are obligated to behave ethically for our own sake and for
the people around us.