Blagojevich Speaks on Ethics (And I Would Listen)

Who on earth would want to hear a politician indicted on a whole range of corruption charges talk about ethics?

Well, I would.

But I wasn’t among the lucky students at Northwestern University who heard Rod Blagojevich speak on ethics recently. Here’s the story, by Natasha Korecki, for the Chicago Sun-Times: Laughs, boos for Blago at NU

To some, the irony was as thick as the shock of hair on his head: indicted ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich addressed Northwestern University students Tuesday night about ethics and morals in government.

One student said the event was akin to inviting Tiger Woods to speak about fidelity….

Why would anyone want to hear this guy speak on ethics? Well, let’s set aside the fact that he’s innocent-until-proven-guilty, and so he’s not yet certifiably unethical. I think that, even if he’s guilty of everything he’s charged with, there are still reasons to want to hear a guy like Blago talk about ethics:

One: “What’s this Ethics Stuff?” First, I’d be truly curious to hear just how someone like Blagojevich defines the word “ethics,” or more generally what he takes the scope of that topic to be. If the speaker thinks that ethics covers not cheating on schoolwork, but doesn’t think it covers not selling public offices, that’s an interesting substantive confusion.

Two: “Excuses, excuses.” I’m intrigued to hear anyone accused of serious wrongdoing explain themselves. It’s interesting (and likely useful) to hear the excuses & rationalizations. The explanations offered might be intended as explanations of why they didn’t actually do the things they’re accused of, in spite of the evidence. Or what’s offered might be rationalizations: “I did it, but it’s not as bad as it looks” or “I did it, but I did it for good reasons.” Either way, psychologically interesting.

Three: “Been There, Done That.” I’m also interested to hear apologetic wrongdoers. The ones who have come to terms with their wrongdoing can provide insight into the causes of wrongdoing more generally, and the processes by which otherwise “normal” folks can come to participate in schemes that they, by their own lights, would otherwise have seen as unethical. It’s also useful to see what someone convicted of serious wrongdoing looks like, if you’ve never met one. I once met Walt Pavlo, who did federal time for embezzling a few million dollars from MCI. When I heard Pavlo speak, I recall that the most alarming thing about the experience was just how normal the guy is, and what a nice guy he seemed to be. It was truly unnerving. I’m not sure what I was expecting a white-collar criminal to be like, but Pavlo wasn’t it! (See my blog entry about Pavlo here: White Collar Crime Up Close & Personal. See also my interview with Walt Pavlo about the sentencing of Enron’s Jeff Skilling, back in 2006).

Of course, when you’re listening to someone who is accused of, or who has admitted to, significant wrongdoing, there’s no guarantee you’re hearing the truth. Some of them may be inveterate liars; others may be lying to polish their own image. So, naturally, you should take what they say with a grain of salt. But to think that there’s nothing to learn from them is a mistake.

2 comments so far

  1. Joel on

    In a similar vein, I found this article by Eliot Spitzer today advocating government intervention within the market. He claims that the government is the only body which can promote transparency, integrity, and fair dealing in business.

  2. […] From.) For my part, I’ve already blogged on why I think convicted white-collar criminals are worth listening to. So for now, all I’ll say is that in my experience, Pavlo is a thoughtful and insightful guy. […]

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