Canada has recently suffered numerous demonstrations of the abuse of public money and the public trust. As Unitarians we are pledged to uphold democratic principles. Is there an irresolvable conflict between the workings of modern democracies and the personal ethics of those who work in the public sphere? What damage to our social fabric is caused by growing cynicism about government?
Mike Szarka holds a PhD in chemistry and has spent most of his professional career working for universities and other publicly-funded organizations. Mike has been a member of UUCD since 2005 and is passionate about science, truth, and the role of public sector institutions in the betterment of society.
The complete sermon can be read below:
Quotes About Helping Others (delivered prior to talk printed below)
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” - Charles Dickens
“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” - John Bunyan
If you lug your elderly neighbour's groceries up her steps, clearly it's good for her. But did you know that it's likely good for you too?
Research indicates that those who consistently help other people experience less depression, greater calm, fewer pains and better health. They may even live longer. - Mental Health America
Michael Szarka – "Ethics in Public Service and Life in General"
In the city of Prague, in the Czech Republic, there is a unique tour available to visitors. A company known as the “Corrupt Tour” company, takes people on a three hour bus or walking tour of the “monuments of corruption” scattered across the city. The walking tour is “The Best of Prague’s Worst” while the bus tour is known as “The Prague Crony Safari Tour”. The tours, while clearly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, highlight such sights as “the habitats of Cronies in the Wild”. It’s not clear from their website whether most of the tour highlights arise from the communist era, but recent Canadian news stories clearly demonstrate that modern democracies provide plenty of opportunity for our own Crony tours. A Canadian tour could highlight such places as Montreal ad agencies where bogus ad campaigns for national unity were paid for, the Canadian Senate where travel expenses and residencies have been shown to have a very broad range of interpretation, or Toronto City Hall where – well, I’m not quite what went on there, but I am confident that the continued efforts of the Toronto Star, the Toronto Police, and the Globe and Mail will eventually discover something nefarious about the disappearance of the alleged Rob Ford crack video.
Ethical failings of people in the public service are of many sorts. One can consider powerful politicians who lie or are on the take; people in public who embarrass themselves and their families through lapses of fidelity to their spouses; or mid or low-level public servants who call in sick when they are fine, or who fudge their expense claims.
Personally, I rarely rail against politicians for unethical behaviour, although I frequently rail against them for what I consider to be unethical policies. I don’t believe that most people in Western societies choose politics as a vehicle for personal enrichment; there are plenty of jobs that pay better, and where you don’t have a serious chance of getting fired every few years for reasons that have nothing to do with your personal job performance. Corruption in politics, at least in Western democracies, is something people slide into, not enter by design.
Thinking about ethics in the public service should prompt us to think about ethics in all walks of life, and to ask what our UU principles say about our personal ethics. Interestingly, none of the seven principles speak bluntly about ethical behaviour, in the sense of a big, flashing, “thou shalt not steal” or “thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife” or anything like that. They do talk about how we interact with others, since we have to function in the interdependent web , since we have a right of conscience, and since we must respect the inherent worth of every person.
Maybe ethical behaviour is seen as too obvious to spell out like that. But lest it be thought that Unitarians don't bother with ethics, there is a series of ten UUA workshops on ethics available on-line. They focus on such questions as the locus of moral authority, the collective good, cultivating a virtuous character, and so on. But in typical UU fashion, the workshops appear to create an environment for discussion, rather than a tidy prescription of right and wrong.
What is fascinating about ethics, is that it forces us to make choices. And it forces us to define absolute standards of behaviour, at least in some respects.
In my first year university philosophy course, the professor asked the class whether some things are absolutely wrong, or whether everything is context-based. The example she gave is whether it could be considered absolutely wrong to torture small children for personal enjoyment. I remember lively discussions with a close friend who did believe that everything was context-based, and nothing was ever always objectively wrong. As for myself, I personally have no difficulty with assessing cultures that condone honour killings, female genital mutilation and other barbaric practices as ethically inferior to contemporary Canadian values in an absolute sense with no ifs, ands or buts. And without such certainty, could we ever have any laws at all? The fact that Canadian values continue to evolve and evoke debate around thorny issues such as prostitution, right-to-die and marijuana laws does not deny the broad consensus we have developed around such issues as slavery, discrimination, and the death penalty.
That said, in ethics there are unavoidable grey areas and paradoxes. For example, the lifeboat problem - there are ten people in a lifeboat, and only nine can stay afloat. Is it ethical to throw one person overboard, and if so, on what basis do you decide to do so? I used to find these sorts of problems fascinating, but I have come around to considering most such questions as artificial, and really presenting a situation where all available choices are bad. What is more interesting, and more relevant to all of us, are the everyday questions that we, and those in public life, face each day. For inspiration here, I turned to some excellent on-line resources of the Mark Kula Centre for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. There is a quote from "The Leadership Compass", in which John Wilcox and Susan Ebbs write, "Moral behavior is concerned primarily with the interpersonal dimension of our behavior: how we treat one another individually and in groups — and, increasingly, other species and the environment." In other words, ethical behaviour concerns the "other". And I think this strikes to the heart of one of the greatest ethical challenges faced by politicians, civil servants, and ordinary people every day. That is, the disconnection between a behaviour and its victim. In a civil society, where we do many things collectively, a theft from the collective can be obscured to be seen as a theft from no-one at all - a "victimless crime", as it were. If I am a public servant and call in sick when I really just feel like goofing off, is that unethical? Who does it hurt if I only do it once in a while? If I'm less than rigorous with how I sort my garbage, is it a big deal? If I take home a few office supplies from a department with a budget in the millions, does it make any difference? The issue here, as you can all guess, is that no, our individual action has little impact, but if everybody did it, there would be a serious problem.
Late last spring when banking of sick days was eliminated for Ontario teachers, it was reported that there was an anomalous upswing in teachers calling in sick. Because there are a lot of teachers, something like that gets noticed. And it makes people angry, because teachers have what are generally considered to be secure, well-paying jobs with a great pension and generous holidays. So what appears to be abuse of that privilege rankles the average Joe and Joanne.
And so it is with a lot of public servants. There are a lot of reasons that civil servants are widely resented. One reason is that civil servants are one of the last groups to have maintained defined benefit pension plans. Another is the sense that public sector unions operate in a somewhat artificial environment for collective bargaining; the government can't go out of business so striking public servants are in a less risky situation than striking private sector employees who can end up standing in the cold outside a closed-up plant. So the scrutiny on ethical behaviour of public servants is higher. The other reason perhaps, is that we all feel like we are the bosses of public servants as we all collectively pay their salaries. It’s often argued that public sector workers have a sense of entitlement. Rather, I think it’s the rest of us who have a sense of entitlement in our view of the work ethic we expect of public servants. The fact that I have little choice but to pay my bank or my phone company doesn’t seem to engender the same scrutiny over the work habits of their employees.
Speaking from personal experience, I have spent much of my professional career doing business development work for universities and research institutions. In case you don't know, business development work involves building relationships with potential clients and sponsors, so as to develop the trust required to negotiate a business deal. This relationship building involves a lot of travel, a lot of social functions, and a lot of filing expense claims after the fact. And I can tell you, as someone with long experience, that the public sector people cling to the private sector people like flies at social events. Why? Because, we know that the private sector people are at much greater liberty with their expense claims than we are. The scrutiny I have endured over expense claims would make your head spin. Every time I see some civil servant's expense claims detailed in the Globe and Mail, whether it is for a coffee and donut or even Bev Oda's infamous $16 orange juice, I feel a sense of pity rather than rage. In case you don't spend as much time as I do in over-priced hotels, here's how the game works: you go to bed late, probably because you were at a social event the night before, and in the interests of time you head for breakfast at the hotel restaurant. As you are just pulling up your chair, they pour you a coffee and ask you if you would like a glass of orange juice. If you are like most people, you probably say "yes" without thinking too much about it. Then you look at the menu, choose the breakfast buffet that pretty much everyone gets, and find out later that the OJ is not included in the buffet price and is some exorbitant price like $16. I admit I haven't paid $16 for a glass of OJ, but if I recall correctly I did pay $9 once, and since then I always refuse the OJ. The breakfast buffet is usually around $20, and if you work for a university, you may only be allowed to expense about $12 on breakfast and have to swallow the rest. So while I am no fan of Ms. Oda, things are not always what they seem.
Is this apparent excess the sort of thing that we should be focused on in evaluating our politicians’ and public servants’ ethics? Running up expenses is one thing, and when it turns out that many tens of thousands of dollars have been mis-spent by Canadian Senators, whose usefulness to our government apparatus remains rather inscrutable, it surely does rankle.
What about immoral behaviour? Do we care what the Anthony Weiners and Bill Clintons do when their wives aren't looking? That stuff gets a lot of headlines, but is this the sort of ethical lapse that should concern the public? Do we care that Justin Trudeau smoked a joint? What is the sort of ethical behaviour we should really be focused on?
We have Senate expense scandals; Brian Mulroney's envelope of cash from Carl Schreiber; the Liberal-affiliated ad agencies who got paid for doing nothing; and numerous other abuses and abominations that represent an abuse of the public trust. These things do matter. But do they matter more than the individual who calls in sick when they are not?
There are over 100,000 teachers in Ontario. Let’s assume it costs about $250 to get a replacement teacher for a day. Then if each teacher fakes a sick day once per year, the cost to the system is $25 million. Now it can certainly be argued that a calculation like that is misleading, but ethically, we shouldn’t do anything that we wouldn’t want others in our situation to do. And if we assume what would happen if everybody did what we do, we have a better appreciation of its impact. It makes the Senate scandal look like nothing at all.
People in positions of power and authority have more ability to be corrupt, because they have control over larger sums of money. But they also have a lot of people watching them, and there aren’t very many of them compared to the “regular guys” like you and me.
So rather than focusing on our indignation about others, let’s look at all the decisions we each make that add up to something much bigger.
Why do we not always make the ethical choice? A lot of reasons. First off, nobody likes to feel like a sucker when “everyone else will do it if I don’t”. “My small effort won’t make a difference”. “Nobody wants to be a killjoy”. But imagine your child giving you those sorts of excuses. Would you just nod your head in agreement, or would you tell them to show their independence and strength of character by doing the right things anyhow?
Still, just knowing what to do, like quitting smoking or getting active, is not enough; we need help knowing how to do it. The Mark Kula Centre for Applied Ethics has developed a systematic approach of five questions that we can ask ourselves daily. These questions deal with what they refer to as “everyday ethics”: Is it right to keep my mouth shut when I know a neighbor's child is getting into real trouble? How should I decide when it's time to put my parent in a nursing home? Do I release software I know isn't really ready? When's the right time to "let go" of my child? Is it right to be chronically late for meetings because I'm busy? Do I laugh at a sexist or racist joke? How ought I to love my spouse in the first year of marriage? In the 60th year?
Here are the questions they suggest we ask ourselves:
Did I practice any virtues today? Was I, at least some of the time, a person who showed integrity, trustworthiness, honesty, compassion, or any of the other virtues I was taught as a child?
Did I do more good than harm today? Or did I try to? Consider the short term and long-term consequences of your actions.
Did I treat people with dignity and respect today? All human beings should be treated with dignity simply because they are human. How did my actions today respect the moral rights and the dignified treatment to which every person is entitled?
Was I fair and just today? Did I treat each person the same unless there was some relevant moral reason to treat him or her differently? Whom did I benefit and whom did I burden? How did I decide?
Was my community better because I was in it? Was I better because I was in my community? Consider your primary community, however you define it--neighborhood, apartment building, family, company, church, etc. Now ask yourself, was I able to get beyond my own interests to make that community stronger? Was I able to draw on my community's strengths to help me in my own process of becoming more human?
[Break for group discussion of five questions]
It’s very hard to be ethical all the time. We’re human, and there are many forces encouraging us to be selfish or unfeeling or merely apathetic at any given point when we have to make a decision. But the next time you feel indignant about the ethical lapse of someone in public or private, I hope you can do so with the satisfaction that you have done your best that very same day.
There’s another reason to keep perspective on the ethical lapses of public servants. If we lose faith in our public institutions, we will be less likely to work together as a society for many features of the common good. Those with an agenda to reduce expenditures on social services, environmental protection, public education and public healthcare would have no better way to start than by using the media to convince people that all government employees and politicians are lazy and crooked.
On the contrary, Richards and Corney found that private sector employees had a clear tendency towards egotism and less critical judgment on ethical issues compared to public sector employees.
Frank and Lewis did a large survey study and found that “Despite the strong cultural stereotype that government workers are lazier than those in the private sector, nearly two thirds of the public servants in the GSS reported doing the best work they could, even if it sometimes interfered with the rest of their lives. They were more likely than those in the private sector to report working this hard despite having lower pay, fewer advancement opportunities, and greater job security.”
So the best available research indicates that people who choose public sector work are more highly motivated and more ethical than their private sector counterparts. I think we can all stop worrying quite so much about who is “on the take” and ask ourselves whether our own ethical behaviour is up to the standards we expect.
Our time together ends.
In the days before we come together again,
May our actions match our words,
May our thoughts be filled with love,
And may we truly make a difference in the world.
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