Blagojevich and Ethics

Yesterday I blogged provocatively (I hope) about “Why I Don’t Care About Blagojevich”. I argued that, titillating as the story is, I don’t care (much) about the story professionally because it’s not about business, and not really about ethics.

24 hours later, I’m ready to say something a little more nuanced.

I said yesterday that Blagojevich’s story was not an ethics story; that of course overstates the truth. Blagojevich being arrested and charged with a crime is not an ethics story; it’s a legal story. That he was arrested — or even that he’s guilty, assuming he is — doesn’t prove he’s unethical. And if he’s acquitted, that doesn’t prove he did nothing wrong. But of course, setting aside that logical nicety, there’s much less doubt about his lack of ethics than there is about his criminal culpability. All indicators suggest that this is no paragon of virtue.

There is, to be sure, an ethics story to be told about Blagojevich. But that story isn’t about his arrest; it’s about everything that he did up to the point where he began doing things that are against the law. That is, the chances are very slim that Blagojevich woke up sometime in the last year and decided to start abusing power in ways that would draw the attention of the Justice Department. Much more likely is that this bold, foolish, criminal move was the culmination of a life of pettier wrongdoing. We have good evidence, certainly, that the recent attempt to sell Obama’s senate seat was not the beginning: Blagojevich had been the subject of a federal corruption investigation for years. So there might well be an interesting story (you can bet investigative journalists have been, and are, working on it) about what personal and situational factors make a guy do stuff like this. What got him started? Petty influence peddling? Shady backroom deals? What lessons are there to be learned, in terms of personal or institutional ethics?

The other part of the story that is clearly about ethics, and relevant for those of us interested in ethics, is about the political culture of Illinois in general and Chicago in particular. If politics is a dirty game, politics in Illinois is, by all accounts, about as dirty as it gets. Much of that dirt involves issues that are ethical issues. Conflict of interest, lying, and influence peddling are all major ethical problems, even when there are no laws governing them. That’s bad news for the people of that state. But the interesting challenge is what to do about it. Zealous enforcement is a good start, clearly. But just what combination of incentives and (ahem) leadership is required is a good question.

Both of those ethics stories have parallels in the corporate world. Take the issue of how (or whether) petty infractions lead reliably to more grievous wrongs. The people at the centre of various corporate scandals don’t just wake up one morning and say, “hey, I think I’ll screw my shareholders” or “today I think I’ll try to increase my wealth by selling adulterated apple juice.” In business and the professions, major wrongdoing pretty certainly starts with small indiscretions. Similarly, there are, in Blagojevich’s story, parallels with important questions about corporate culture. It’s kind of a truism of corporate ethics that corporate culture has a huge, perhaps even overriding, effect on behaviour. And hard questions abound about how to manage corporate culture effectively, for the better.

So, a final thought: given current popular cynicism about ethics in both politics and business, do we look to business for insight into political ethics, or to politics for insight into business ethics? More specifically — and there’s a researchable topic here — what institutional structures do organizations in one of those domains get right, that ought to be imported into the other domain, for the improvement of ethical behaviour?

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