I had a most interesting experience a couple weeks ago...
As a state employee, under the direction of our most ethical governor, Rod Blagojevich, I was required to attend the 2nd Annual Illinois State Government Ethics Seminar at the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago. It proved to be the expected litany of case studies and "What-do-I-do-if-this-happens?" scenarios. Nothing particularly relevant to most state employees.
However, the afternoon session opened with a panel of ethics "experts" (read: lawyers who deal with ethical/legal issues), one of which included Scott Turow, a well-know author of severl best-selling law / thriller novels, as well as a member of the Illinois Ethics Commission.
Anyway, the moderator opened by first asking the question: "What is ethics?"
Illinois' Chief Ethics Officer began by giving her blaise response:
"Ethics is about doing what's right and being fair to people."
However, one particular individual, whom I remember his first name being Matthew, gave a most intelligent answer. He pointed out that ethics carries both a legal and moral component. Case in point, slavery was considered legal for many years in the United States, but that hardly made it moral. Matthew also went on to point out that American law (especially at the foundation of American government) was based largely on the Bible and the idea that God established these laws; therefore, we are to obey them.
I was surprised. I hadn't anticipated such an advanced argument from a panel of lawyers. The moderator didn't challenge Matthew's arguments, but followed his logic with the question:
"So how do we enforce a moral code without appealing to theism?"
I was astounded. Never could a more relevant or pointed question have been asked in an environment that, by nature, was hardly given to asking such questions. This was, after all, a room full of lawyers and engineers employed by the State of Illinois government.
What's fascinating is that while the moderator asked the question quite clearly, it went unanswered. I'm certain if the moderator had given consideration to his question, he'd never have asked it. But the answers forthcoming amounted to little more than, "Well, we know what's right and we have the law and we just have to make the best ethical decisions we can with what we have."
But the question wasn't "How do we make ethical decisions at all?" but "How do we make ethical decisions without appealing to an authoritative higher power?"
The question was ignored and discussion moved on to the more mundane details of case studies and government employee benefits.
So how do we approach this question? I believe the silence of the panel tells the truth: there is no solvent answer. Yet exploring what lies behind the question, I believe, can prove to be most instructive.
Stay tuned for the next post.