The Ethics of a Politician’s Speaking Fee

coins money handJustin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, was recently asked by a charitable organization to give back a hefty speaking fee — $20,000 — after the event he spoke at took a loss. Not surprisingly, the dispute quickly became (and perhaps even started as) a political dustup.

Should Trudeau return the money, as he now says he will do? Should he have accepted it in the first place?

My first thought, upon hearing this story, was that it’s a great example of the close linkage between good ethics and good business practice. There would be no ethical question here if everyone involved had used good business judgment in advance. What kind of decision-making leads a charity into a situation in which it ends up feeling the need to reneg on a $20,000 contract? Did Trudeau do his due diligence in accepting such a large fee from a small organization that wouldn’t be able to absorb the expense if the event went poorly? Good business sense isn’t the same as good ethics, but sound business decisions are a pretty good start at avoiding ethical conflicts and dilemmas.

The question most people have focused on is whether Trudeau should have accepted such a speaking fee from a charity in the first place. Setting aside, for now, the fact that Trudeau is an elected official, we cannot reasonably assert that prominent persons generally should not take speaking fees from charities. Charities are businesses, and in the normal course of things they hire people, purchase goods and services, and pay bills. They don’t normally expect things for free, and charitable status doesn’t imply that an organization is off-limits as a business partner in the traditional sense.

And besides, to say that you can’t charge a charity a fee would be to limit the speakers to which charities have access, and thereby harm the interests of organizations that regularly make use of prominent speakers as a way of raising money. Anyone who does much public speaking (and I do a good deal of it myself) is liable to use a sliding scale. Well-heeled organizations may get charged more, and charitable organizations may get charged less or even nothing. But every speaker’s time is limited, and so not every charity can get things for free, and certainly not every time.

What about returning the money, as Mr Trudeau has now offered to do? This question reminds us of the important distinction between doing your duty, on one hand, and going above and beyond your duty, on the other. Often, we discuss ethics more starkly in terms of “doing the right thing.” But that implicitly binary way of talking blurs the gradations of “goodness,” if you will. It’s entirely coherent for us to think that returning the money would be a good thing to do, even if we don’t think he’s obligated to do so.

Finally, this kind of case highlights the fact that ethics is best thought of from the point of view of systems and institutions. While individuals may be the ones who struggle with particular ethical dilemmas, it is not necessarily at that level that structured thought about ethics can be the most helpful. Ethical problems are most tractable when they are of the form, “What kinds of rules should we follow?” “What would be an effective way of allaying this kind of worry in the future?” And so while we can squabble about just what Justin Trudeau should or should not do, our effort is much better spent thinking about the question one level up, as some commentators have already begun doing. Should sitting Members of Parliament like Mr Trudeau accept paid speaking engagements? If so, under what conditions and with what safeguards? Do paid speaking engagements risk jeopardizing the integrity of political decision-making? Worse, do they erode our confidence in particular decision-makers, or in political decision-making altogether?

Those sorts of questions are much more interesting and useful than questions about whether a particular politician should accept paid speaking engagements, and certainly more important than the borderline silly question of whether money that was accepted in good faith ought to be paid back.

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