The Journal Gazette
Friday, October 22, 2021 1:00 am

Ethics and our unconscious

Rules needed to deter self-serving decisions

Abe Schwab

All ethics ordinances and policies are inadequate.

This is not because they have been incompetently written, though some surely have been. And it's not because they lack the teeth of enforcement, though some likely do.

Ethics ordinances and policies are inadequate because they cannot tell the individual exactly what they should do.

When they are written, all ethics policies and ordinances, like any rules governing behavior, confront the horns of a dilemma. On the one horn, if we make the rule specific enough to give crystal-clear direction, it won't cover very many cases. We then have to make more and more rules, such that the rule book becomes too large and too vast for easy and meaningful use.

On the other horn, if we make the rule general enough to cover all cases, it will have to be written so broadly that it won't give us specific directions on what to do. Individuals will have to make judgments about how the rules apply, and sometimes these judgments will be corrupted.

Even though all ethics policies and ordinances will be inadequate in one way or another, they could still be better than they currently are.

Take for example, the ethics rules governing U.S. representatives and senators. They do not prohibit lawmakers from owning stocks in particular companies.

Unsurprisingly, representatives and senators of both parties have made use of their insider information to make untold millions of dollars in the stock market based on the votes they know they are about to make. And they make those millions off the rest of us.

This could be solved simply enough by a prohibition on the owning of any specific stock.

Instead, lawmakers should be required to own only funds that follow the ups and downs of the market as whole.

Or take the ethics rules governing state legislators in Indiana. They are all part-time legislators and so have businesses they are employed by or run. And yet, the ethics policies and rules do not prohibit these public servants from introducing bills that directly affect their business.

Unsurprisingly, we have had developers introduce bills changing the regulations governing developers. And we've had vending machine operators introduce bills changing the regulations governing vending machines.

No one needs to be an expert on conflicts of interest to know that the possibility of making millions on inside stock trades or making it easier for your business to make money by changing the regulations will corrupt an individual's decision-making. And, in fact, research in cognitive psychology tells us that these interests will affect their decision-making whether they like it or not.

It's not only about the temptation, it's about the way the human mind works on an unconscious level.

While all ethics ordinances and policies will always be, to some degree, inadequate, it's about time we start taking the simple steps we can to limit the corruption of our public servants.

Their financial interests corrupt their decision-making whether they like it or not, so we need to eliminate the possibility that their decisions will be corrupted by these temptations and their unconscious effects.

Abe Schwab is a professor of philosophy and director of Ethics Across the Curriculum at Purdue Fort Wayne who specializes in applied ethics.

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