What if every problem that besets humanity could be traced to a single root cause? We may be the authors of our own misery for one very simple reason – we behave badly.
We behave badly, because we think we can get away with it, that one more little instance of bad behaviour won’t matter and because everybody else is behaving badly, so that somehow gives us license. We believe in personal exceptionalism so strongly that we confect all manner of elaborate and Byzantine stories, lies and obfuscations to justify it to ourselves.
It’s so normalised, now, that few even recognise when they are behaving badly. It’s just business. Get with the modern way. Good behaviour is so quaint. We’re all just following orders, but strangely, they’re orders we make up in our own heads, yet claim they’re external, or objective truth or some kind of natural law.
The kind of bad behaviour I am referring to is unethical behaviour. Small ethical compromises, made often and by millions, accumulates to create a hellish landscape for everyone. The damage is cumulative. Everyone points the finger at other people’s unethical behaviour, but few acknowledge the fact that unless everybody behaves ethically, who else is there that will? Why would you expect anybody else to strive to act ethically if you won’t?
You can encounter small ethical transgressions every day. Take this article, for example. https://medium.com/cokeleak/the-new-faces-of-coke-62314047160f
It emerges that the Coca-Cola Company (and probably the entire soft drinks industry, in reality) has been trying to tilt health advice and research in favour of its sugar-saturated product for years, paying a variety of ethically-challenged professionals to deflect any connection to their products’ role in poor health outcomes and toward red herring factors instead. If the company were ethical, they would stand by their product, unless independent research showed it was harmful. A sustained, concerted campaign to rig professional opinion in their favour indicates that if their product were definitively found to cause harm, they would prefer to deny it, cause confusion and obfuscate, to maintain their profits, rather than make the health of their erstwhile customers paramount.
Their unethical stance is baked right into how they spend their research budget. Their actions actually prove they’d prefer the truth not to come out, even if that leads to the premature disability and mortality of millions of unsuspecting consumers. It’s the mindset of a predator.
The same can be said of the tobacco industry, the glyphosate pesticide manufacturers, the wider pharmaceutical industry, the plastics makers and anybody else with a product of dubious public safety that they wish consumers to consume. The pattern of ethical transgressions repeats almost identically.
Today, the United States is in the grip of a prescription opioid crisis. People are dying in alarming numbers using what is supposed to be a medicinal and beneficial treatment. How can that be? Knowing it is a highly addictive and potent substance, you would think it would be marketed and prescribed very cautiously and that strict controls would exist to govern its supply. You would be wrong, though.
If you read this article: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2018/05/insys-subsys-whistleblower-lawsuits/ you will learn that this “product” is marketed aggressively, using sex, cash and guns to incentivise over-prescription. Doctors with ethical bypasses willingly participate as end points of the growing supply chain, because it is personally advantageous to them to do so. Personal exceptionalism, coupled with ethical erosion, in both the doctor’s surgery and the pharmaceutical company. Dispensaries are equally content to provide this untenable quantity of opioids, without serious question. Nobody cares what happens to the terminally addicted – addicts they have methodically manufactured.
Here is an invitation to the Intercontinental Hyperlipidemia Academy, though it is typical of hundreds, if not thousands of similar meetings and conferences.
In the Tweeted words of one physician, this seminar represents, in essence, “University professors from 4 countries paid thousands of $$$ to hawk drugs to ordinary physicians. Legalized bribery + intellectual prostitution from academics = Good Advertising for Drugs”.
In a British Medical Journal opinion piece, written by Richard Smith, he said, “Most scientific studies are wrong, and they are wrong because scientists are interested in funding and careers rather than truth.” Ethics, clearly, play a distant secondary role to personal enrichment and advancement.
It’s not easy to remain ethical in the face of extreme intimidation. Take, for example, the recent revelations about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. In every one of his alleged assaults, there were people enabling his activities, or covering them up. Every single person that permitted his behaviour to continue is, unfortunately, ethically compromised, even if their defence is self-preservation. The only thing that could have stopped him earlier was somebody with sufficient courage and a strong sense of ethics. Indeed, what exposed him, in the end, were people with precisely those qualities.
It’s a pity he was able to destroy people’s lives, dreams and careers for as long as he evidently did. The lack of anybody willing to confront him about his aberrant behaviour, if anything, emboldened him to act even more unacceptably and fuelled his self-belief in his own personal exceptionalism, it appears. The ethical erosion, if proven, led to what are undeniably tragic accumulated consequences. For his part, Weinstein still denies the charges.
The software development industry has several serious ethical voids at its very heart, but they haven’t been challenged in any serious way, as yet. It is a commonplace for software companies to organise themselves as low-pay programming sweatshops, exploiting off-shore, third-world developers and naive, enthusiastic youngsters alike, to work extreme hours, under unconscionable stress, only to be summarily discarded once burnt out or too old (meaning past 35). This isn’t accidental, it’s policy. Company owners are openly willing to destroy the physical, emotional and mental health of their developers, while simultaneously denying them a reasonable home life and the important relationships that ordinarily accompany a good home life. They don’t care even a small amount about the welfare of the talent their organisations critically depend upon.
Another surprising ethical void in the software industry is the lack of adequate budgeting for software maintenance and evolution. Projects are funded on the basis that the software will be written once, completed and thereafter milked for profit. This is unrealistic, because software always requires refactoring, as the context it operates within changes, as the range of uses the software is put to expand and as the authors of the software learn more about how to make their software do what is demanded of it. It’s organic. If you’re not maintaining it, the software is becoming less relevant and fit for purpose daily. You can’t stand still.
Where the ethical dimension intersects with software maintenance is that, in lieu of adequate budgets and resources to keep the software relevant, the reputations of the original coders are trashed, while the current team is expected to do maintenance work “off the books” (meaning for free, in their own time, after working on new projects all day). This sustained, additional pressure, the result of not budgeting for software maintenance, manifests as an extraordinarily high burnout rate and slander about the professional reputations of the developers and their immediate managers. Careers have been prematurely broken by it. The root cause is a game of “just pretend”, where nobody alerts the CEO to the need to fund maintenance, or explains the reality of the nature of software, or else the CEO fully ignores it. All of these acts are tremendously ethically deficient.
Eventually, to relieve the pressure, programmers adopt an attitude of “just tell me what to programme.” They disengage with customers and with doing their best work. Thereafter, they suffer a loss of purpose and meaning in their lives, but keep going until there is a liquidity event at the company, whereupon their shares vest and they exit. They no longer care what their product does or whether it helps or harms those that come into contact with it. This is why we have surveillance capitalism and software monopolies that make people’s lives hellish. Developers give up caring about any of that, waiting for their ordeal to simply be over. Ethical considerations don’t figure at all, in this tragic melee.
The recent report into the causes of the great loss of life, in the Grenfell Tower inferno, reveals a veritable shit-show of penny-pinching, cost-cutting, cosmetic building changes that compromised or completely negated fire safety measures, death-trap design, naked profiteering, fraudulent misrepresentations about product safety and testing, lack of adequate maintenance, suppression and intimidation of resident complainants warning of the dangers, cover ups and not giving an actual damn about the safety and welfare of the low-income residents of the building. The true scandal is that this pattern has been repeated nationwide, in low-income housing everywhere. Thousands of people are today living in properties that put their lives in direct jeopardy. It’s a cavalcade of ethical failings, from almost every quarter, that remains largely unaddressed.
In the UK, recently, a family-run cosmetics company called Lush ran a campaign which drew attention to already married, undercover policemen who had duped left-leaning, idealistic young women into sexual relationships, many of which resulted in offspring, in order to infiltrate their activist organisations. These campaigns had spanned decades. On behalf of moneyed interests, who didn’t want their activities curtailed or scrutinised, these willing foot soldiers embarked on serious, sustained campaigns of deception and betrayal. The lack of ethics involved in ordering these reprehensible acts and of perpetrating them is monumental, yet Lush’s campaign was met with outrage, staff intimidation and threats of consumer boycotts for daring to suggest that elements within the police had acted in atrocious faith. There seemed to be a crazed adherence to the authority of those police officers, rather than a sober examination of the yawning ethical vacuum involved. It is indicative of a much wider ethical black hole in the general public at large.
Ironically, a universal ethical upgrade in all members of society would mean there was nothing terrible to organise against, so no need to infiltrate these now non-existent protest groups. Undercover officers would therefore not be necessary to do the infiltration. In other words, if the rich and powerful behaved impeccably, none of the rest of this sordid mess would have had a reason to exist at all. Little comfort to those children (from both mothers involved n each case) born of absent, duplicitous, deceptive, abusive, unethical tools of power and money, though.
If politicians acted ethically there would be no protesters or dissenters and hence no need to infiltrate them. It is for this reason that standards of probity in public life are so important, yet so many politicians engage in highly unethical practices, appealing to personal exceptionalism by way of justification. It’s self-serving, masquerading as public service and hence fraudulent.
The measure of a good cop is how many bent cops he brings to justice. But what are their score cards really like? It’s a very simple metric.
There are ethical deficits that don’t even make sense. They defy all rationality. For example, cleaning up Flint, Michigan’s toxic water supply would be an investment in the health and productivity of future Flint residents. Allowing their children to be poisoned by metallic neurotoxins guarantees, instead, that they will grow up impaired, disabled and debilitated. Caring for their needs will cost orders of magnitude more than cleaning up the public water supply (assuming they’re not just left to suffer and die unaided). Indeed, fixing Flint’s water would cost less than President Trump’s proposed vainglorious military parade.
Of course, Flint isn’t unique in having unclean water. Unethical acts in many municipalities means entire populations will wind up damaged. This is tantamount to grievous bodily assault resulting in permanent harm. Who will bear those costs? Are they even bearable?
For decades, now, airlines have known, with certainty, that cabin air is often toxic, laced with airborne organophosphates (which cause irreversible nerve damage) as a result of contamination by byproducts of engine lubricants burning in the plane’s jet engines. It’s an aircraft design flaw. Cabin air does not need to share the engine air intake (and in more recent designs, it doesn’t). Nevertheless, cabin crew and passengers alike have been permanently injured and even killed by toxic cabin air, despite decades of accumulated evidence. Under what ethical calculus can this be deemed acceptable?
The vast majority of the plastics ever produced have ended up in the oceans and waterways of our planet. As they break up, they become microplastics, which enter the food chain. All living beings, ourselves included, are consuming micro plastics in our food, with unknown consequences to animal and human life. Yet, we all blithely continue to use throwaway plastics and single use plastics. We know where “away” is, now. It’s in all of us and our children. We’ve turned ourselves into plastic waste containers. Where are our ethics?
Goaded on by the baying of an ignorant crowd, British politicians have embarked on a cynical campaign of “cracking down” on benefit fraud. It’s good for votes and they’ve been at it for the best part of a decade, now. The problem is that the actual incidence of benefit fraud, relative to the government deficit, is negligible, so in order to perpetuate the policy, the non-fraudulent have to increasingly be accused of fraud and made to prove their worthiness for continued community support. It’s a way of unethically manufacturing the appearance of widespread benefits cheating.
Even the word “benefits” denies that these payments are actually earned entitlements. In the process of trying to save money lost to fraud, the government has actually spent more on the additional administration and policing of the benefits system than they’ve saved. It costs more than it saves! As a society, we have spent money persecuting and further harming (and actually killing) people who were not, in fact, defrauding the system. We are paying for unethical cruelty, because it panders to people’s mistaken prejudices and keeps the politicians willing to oversee such a nasty and hostile regime in power, supported wholly by the votes of the wilfully ignorant. Choosing ignorance and turning a blind eye to the needless suffering imposed is an ethical failure of the highest order.
Politicians, you see, hold the keys to our metaphorical silverware cabinet – the one we’ve built up as a society, over generations, but they’re raiding it to stay popular, doing favours for their supporters with the public’s wealth and stealing simply because they can – because they hold the keys. Who’s to stop them? They exercise no self-control or ethical consideration. There is no ethical oversight.
How about artists? Are they ethically sound? Hardly!
Legion are the tales of debauchery and treachery, associated with musicians. They’ve blundered around, hurting people, for years. “Musical differences” are usually about one or more band members being shafted on the royalties. Their teatment of groupies (especially underaged ones) is exemplary only in its unconscionable excess. The death toll within the music industry is staggering. Manifold are the ethical lapses.
Are painters any better? A brief reading of the biographies of Picasso or Monet, for example, will reveal severely questionable behaviour, on occasions, toward other artists, their muses, their partners and children and to other adoring people in their entourage. These people were not saints, despite their genius with paint and canvas. There has also been a litany of painters using their art as a cover for their misogyny or paedophilia. Paedophiles are not child lovers at all; they’re child abusers.
Ethical behaviour is not, I regret to report, a hallmark of the artistic tradition, unfortunately. It’s exceptions only serve to prove the rule.
How about the establishment and the institutions we hold to be the authorities? Cover ups and serious ethical deficiencies are apparently everywhere. Read this account of the British Jeremy Thorpe affair, in which a powerful politician was tried for incitement and conspiracy to murder his erstwhile homosexual lover: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/02/thorpe-scandal-legacy-law-new-statesman-jury-service-secrecy?CMP=share_btn_fb
Not even Thorpe’s defence barrister, the reputedly dubious George Carmen, and the presiding judge escape with their ethics intact. This episode has all the hallmarks of a gross miscarriage of justice. The police, other politicians, the secret service and the media all experienced grave ethical failures. Many of these people retain power and influence, even today. It’s very sordid.
A former chancellor of the exchequer, who was once considered to be a candidate to be the next prime minister, now openly trades his influence and editorial integrity to the highest bidder: https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/james-cusick/george-osborne-s-london-evening-standard-promises-positive-news-coverage-to-uber-goo
In so doing, he has transformed the paper he edits into an advertorial pamphlet, rather than speaking truth to power and holding the ruling elite to account. Yet, he still expects advertisers to support his publication and ordinary people to read it, as if it had integrity. Why should they? It is an ethics-free zone. The architect of austerity is now the defiler of objective credibility.
A considerable amount is now known about the permanent, debilitating, character-changing consequences of repeated concussions to the head and the brain injuries that result from them. Yet, boxing, American football, heading balls in soccer – contact sports which have one consequence – repeated head injuries – are still promoted and supported as if none of that evidence existed. People demand their entertainment, even if the ethics of the situation are that it dooms the participants to live diminished, damaged, foreshortened lives. They’ll cheer at these brain damaging “sports” while tutting at Roman gladiator spectacles. It’s both hypocritical and unethical.
Bullfighting still finds an audience yet the same people abhor bear-baiting and cock-fighting. What’s the actual difference? Horse doping is still a commonplace, as is match fixing. Ethical purity is not to be found in these sports.
Sometimes, the people whose jobs depend on ethical suspension reach a point where enough is enough and a backlash results. Here is a passage from “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” by David Graeber, about digital photoshopping and the people paid to enhance images daily:
“We also work on TV shows and music videos. We reduce bags under the eyes of women, make hair shinier, teeth whiter, make pop stars and film stars look thinner, etc. We airbrush skin to remove spots, isolate the teeth and color correct them to make them whiter (also done on the clothes in washing powder ads), paint out split ends and add shiny highlights to hair in shampoo commercials, and there are special deforming tools to make people thinner. These techniques are literally used in every commercial on TV, plus most TV drama shows, and lots of movies. Particularly on female actors but also on men. We essentially make viewers feel inadequate whilst they’re watching the main programs and then exaggerate the effectiveness of the “solutions” provided in the commercial breaks.”
For those whose livelihood relies on sustained ethical compromise, it’s soul-destroying. Many of these people now contribute to a website called Adbusters, which seeks to tell the truth about what the media is actually doing. It’s their attempt to redress the balance and gain a modicum of absolution. Here is a passage I copied from the Adbusters site:
“Almost all the so-called “military correspondents” acted like army propaganda agents. Day by day they helped the army to spread lies and falsifications. The public had no alternative but to believe every word. Nobody told them otherwise.”
The same is true for almost all other means of communication, program presenters, announcers and correspondents. They willingly became government liars. Probably many of them were ordered to do so by their bosses. Not a glorious chapter.”
The media, too, it seems is an ethical graveyard – quite literally. The only hope is that some people on the inside will call it out. Better still, they should stop contributing to relentless ethical erosion. As a society, there’s precious little ethical behaviour left.
This has been a very difficult essay to write. In fact, it has been a slog. The injustices are stomach churning and there is no shortage of examples. Worse, though, is the litany of damage that ethical indiscretions leave in their wake. Ethical erosion is the root cause of much that is wrong with the world today and we’ve all played a part. If the political and economic systems we believe in and uphold impede ethical behaviour, or incentivise unethical choices, then they’re no damn good. We should get rid of them.
We look back at history and claim that the deeply unethical behaviour of our ancestors can be excused, because times were very different back then. I claim this is first class bunk. Ethical choices were always available. Some of our ancestors were giving relief to the poor, fighting for women’s voting rights, arguing for the abolition of slavery and providing alternative means of earning a good living to sex workers. They didn’t shirk their ethical consciences. Instead, they acted on principle and very often suffered for their convictions. Yet, no progress would have been possible without these rare individuals seeking to upgrade society’s collective ethics. Which side of history will you be on?
Can’t we do better?