Ethics vs. professional ethics

Another one bites the dust

Another one bites the dust

And another one gone,

And another one gone . . .

--John Deacon of Queen

Another public official here in Arkansas has decided not to be one any longer. Or rather public opinion pretty much decided the matter for him after his campaign finance reports were examined. A leading state senator, Paul Bookout, has resigned his post after he was found to have violated four (4) laws once the state's ethics commission investigated. And concluded that he'd commingled his personal and campaign funds. At first he said he'd just reimburse his contributors and stick out the rest of his term. But he soon thought better of that bad idea after pressure mounted for his resignation.

Shortly thereafter, Arkansas' lieutenant governor, Mark Darr, who'd been planning to run for Congress, decided not to -- after questions were raised about the accuracy of his campaign finance reports, too. He decided to stay where he was. In order to spend more time "focused on my family," which has become the usual formulation in these embarrassing matters.

Call it Ethics 2, Politicians 0.

It's been a bipartisan scandal: Sen. Bookout is a Democrat, Lieutenant Governor Darr a Republican. Who says our political parties don't have anything in common?

These two had something in common besides problems with their campaign funds. Both were exposed not by their colleagues but by outsiders. A liberal blogger and lawyer went after the Republican; a conservative activist filed the formal complaint against the Democratic senator. Which figures. Members of the same club don't tell on each other. It's the politician's version of Omertà.

Call it professional ethics -- a term not to be confused with real ethics. Add a qualifier to almost any noble concept and it may no longer be so noble. Consider social justice, which may not be justice at all to the individual whose rights are considered secondary by those intent on erecting the country's latest system of racial discrimination known as Diversity.

The same thing happens to ethics when it becomes an in-house specialty. Ethics might be defined as obligations beyond those required by law. But it undergoes a transformation (or maybe just disfigurement) when it becomes the subject of a code of ethics on the statute books, or is left to an official commission. And society comes to depend upon law rather than conscience for its ethics. Ethics ceases to be a moral imperative and becomes a legal technicality. It is not an improvement.

. . .

Early in another century, a philosopher and all-around sage named José Ortega y Gasset warned against the coming "barbarism of specialization" -- and it's still going on. When ethics becomes a specialty, any resemblance between it and the real thing may become only coincidental.

Just put the word "professional" before almost any perfectly respectable term and it becomes a pejorative, as in Professional Christian or Professional Southerner. It was not an advance when we began to leave ethics to the ethicists. A law above the law was demoted to a specialty.

. . .

Beware when conduct all of us have a duty to uphold becomes the specialty of a few. And when we question some of the practices they condone, or even promote, we may be told to stay out of it, and leave these complicated matters to the specialists. (Consider the specialty known as bioethics, with particular attention to modern "advances" like permissive abortion and human cloning.)

Politicians aren't the only ones who may develop ethical practices that aren't.

A professional sociologist might be better equipped to explain this phenomenon than a newspaper columnist, who's only a generalist. Let's just say that every group tends to develop its own customs and habits, ways and means, and soon enough comes to resent criticism from outsiders.

I remember being approached by a critic of the press with a complaint, and my immediate reaction was: "He just doesn't understand how we do things at the newspaper. He's not a professional." Uh oh. As soon as I had that thought, I realized: I've taken the first step to perdition. I've started to think not in terms of ethics but Journalistic Ethics, a whole different species. One of the reasons I've always resisted thinking of newspapermen -- excuse me, journalists -- as a profession is because I remember an observation attributed to George Bernard Shaw: "Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity."

Journalism ought to be a conspiracy for the laity. Ditto, politics. Instead, politics, law, journalism, you-name-it . . . they can, any of them, become only a power game, an insiders' club. They shouldn't.

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

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