Interview with Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein about the Jack Abramoff Scandal
from the UND website, original link: http://www.und.edu/faculty_qa/01202006.html

 

 

 

Jack Russell Weinstein, Ph.D, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion
1/13/06 | Abramoff Scandal Underscores Ethics Crisis in American Politics

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 together?

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 game."

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 on others.

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 responsibility?

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 legalistic.

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.

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