Nobody is perfect. Anybody can be weak when the opportunity presents itself. Even habitual offenders against prevailing mores can be treated with indulgence; after all, they are only human and besides, they happen to be amusing or admirable in other ways, or they have a difficult background to contend with, or… Some people feel like that about the temperamentally and ethically unstable Mel Gibson; enough Californians voted for Arnold Schwarznegger to make him Governor, knowing his Hollywood approach to love and marriage; and Dominique Strauss-Kahn seems to have be notorious for his womanising long before European bigwigs made him head of the IMF.
So why do the moral lapses of the Gibsons, Schwarzneggers and DSKs continue to make front-page headlines and cause public conniptions, high-level investigations and — often — resignations? Are these public figures doing worse than countless ordinary citizens do? Than one might have expected them to do? Partly, it’s titillation, because editors know full well that, no matter how much above such hypocrisy they themselves (ahem) might be, there is an insatiable appetite amongst the public for scandal about the high and mighty.
It is also a political game. With elections coming up next year, hardly a day goes by in the United States that some contender or rising star does not have his sins rehearsed in public; this week it is Democrat Anthony Weiner; last month (Christian) Republican Senator John Ensign was forced to resign as investigations relating to an earlier extra-marital affair proceeded. Strauss-Kahn’s friends allege that political opponents were out to get him by setting him up with a hotel maid — even though his sexual behaviour seems like the last thing that would lose him popularity in France itself. And the current criminal proceedings against Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for under-age sex have the look of a last-ditch attempt to pin something that sticks on the extraordinarily powerful and unaccountably popular politician.
It would be foolish, though, to see all such exposures as cynical political manoeuvres. Sometimes people just get fed up with the unfairness and arrogance of certain powerful figures. This seems to be the case with the FIFA bribing scandal that came to a head this week. You don’t have to know a lot about soccer to grasp how much power the president of the World Cup body holds and to understand the temptation to hang onto the job — by fair means or foul.
Again, while there may be a certain amount of envy and political schadenfreude behind reports exposing lavish spending by politicians and officials, extravagance is an injustice — at least when one is using other people’s money, and especially when dealing with a cash-strapped citizenry or with poor and struggling people in developing countries. While the ink is barely dry on stories about the IMF boss’s swanky hotel suite in New York, the British are fuming over the profligate spending of the European Commission on jets, parties, resorts and all the rest of the trimmings — £8 million over the last few years — and its demand for a budget increase.
The message of this moral indignation is that — celebrities aside — we do expect more of our public representatives and officials than if they were characters in the sitcoms on television or in movies about power-crazed dictators; we expect them to measure up to an ethical standard. But what is that standard?
Well, it seems to include virtues like moderation in the use of funds, sexual restraint and honesty. As we know from the scandal over Catholic priests who sexually abused minors, if there is one thing on which there is a public consensus it is the inherent wrongness of molesting children. The offenders knew that already, of course, because the Catholic Church is the world expert on moral rules which, based on the Decalogue and the Catechism, leave no-one in doubt. But since there is little consensus on sexual ethics in secular society, other organisations really have to spell out the rules themselves, and not only about sexual behaviour.
Politicians usually have their boundaries well-defined, at least in countries like the US and Britain, but things are not so transparent when one gets into the corporate world or international agencies, and the further up the hierarchy the more obscure the ethical accountability seems to become.
The IMF, for example, has a two-tier system, with one set of ethics guidelines for the rank-and-file staff and another for the 24 executive members who oversee the organisation. Under the staff code of conduct, complaints about sexual harassment, intimidation or aggressive behaviour can be investigated, detailed in annual reports and lead to dismissal. At board level, however, as a 2007 study found, the rules are vague, and although an ethics committee was established in 1998, by 2007 it had “never met to consider any issues other than its own procedures.”
Strauss-Kahn’s contract has the staff code written into it but he seems to have been answerable only to the board. As the New York Times reports: “In 2008, not long after Mr. Strauss-Kahn assumed the top post, the fund was compelled to investigate him for having an affair with a staff subordinate. In that case, the fund hired an outside law firm to handle the inquiry because the ethics officer was not authorized to investigate at that high level. Although Mr. Strauss-Kahn was found not to have abused his position, he was publicly reprimanded by the board for showing poor judgment, and he apologized.” It seems he did not learn much from that slap on the wrist.
The board’s code speaks in generalities like maintaining “the highest standards of integrity” and treating colleagues and staff “with courtesy and respect, without harassment, physical or verbal abuse,” but clearly, people like Strauss-Kahn require more detailed instructions about the meaning of “courtesy” and “harassment.”
The rest of society, however, will have to give outfits like the IMF a hand. Organisations (democratic ones, anyway) are only as good, ethically, as the people they represent. There is only so much mischief that one person can do by himself, so it’s the people who elect the Schwarzneggers and Berlusconis, the governments that promote the Strauss-Kahns, that we should worry about. And on that ethical front there is a lot of work to do.
A new Gallup poll on moral issues shows that, while large majorities of Americans are opposed to extra-marital affairs (the harm is too personal to ignore), there is considerable tolerance of behaviour which harms marriage and the family — including pornography and unmarried sex and parenthood. Moreover the tolerance for these things is greater among young adults than in older age groups. It is doubtful that things are much different in the other rich countries.
It is also difficult to see how we can have leaders with high ethical standards when the ground on which they are standing is crumbling away.
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