Published: March 4, 2013

By Jim Lichtman
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Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of It’s Ethics, Stupid!

While it’s great to acknowledge a milestone, sadly, five years and 712 commentaries later, ethics scandals seem to be more widespread than ever.

In March, 2008, my own survey found that every day, on average, 4.5 ethics-related stories appeared in the news – more stories than all other areas of concern by Americans other than the economy, (which dominated the news from 2009 on).

Among the commentaries that stood out, Do You Know Me? (Apr. 1, 2008) talked about Louisiana U.S. Representative (D) William J. Jefferson’s excruciatingly long fight to explain his actions in taking $100,000 in cash in an FBI sting after they had discovered evidence that he had already taken $500K in bribes. After being caught with $90,000 in cash in his freezer, Jefferson’s initial response: “there are two sides to every story.”

Cynthia Cooper’s Moment of Principle (Apr. 9-10, 2008) began when she was having her hair done and ended with exposing the largest case of corporate fraud in history. My interview revealed what motivated her to act. “ ‘We all face adversity,’ her father told her, ‘some of us will have to walk through doors of difficulty others won’t, but we all have our doors.’ In the end, the trials of life can make us stronger, and we can use our own experiences in a positive way to help other people who may find themselves in similar situations.”

Of all the commentaries in 2008, Justice vs. Compassion (July 1, 7, 8) far and away, drew the largest response.

“You are an ethicist who has been asked by a prison board to offer an opinion concerning the possible release of an inmate,” I wrote. “A notorious prisoner – convicted of multiple murders – has served almost 40 years of a life sentence. Recently, the prisoner has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and has petitioned the board to be released.”

While 5 readers came down on the side of justice, 8 believed compassion should be shown to a woman who, having served 40 years was dying of brain cancer.

However, in a follow-up, Keeping Me Honest (Sept. 25, 2009), to correct information in the story, one response came from Susan Atkins’ sister-in-law.

“Thank you for your posts… I am one who voted for compassion, I am also her sister-in-law. I’ve had the pleasure to call Susan my big sister for almost 22 years.

“What I think my brother was trying to get across in the parole hearing, which the Associate Press, Larry King, and all other media refuse to touch is that by California’s law the parole board had to parole her unless they could show she was a danger to society. They broke the law by denying her parole.

“Thankfully, she is now free and whole and hopefully a little more healing can be done by all parties involved.”

Denied parole, Atkins died in prison.

Another piece that garnered attention was one I wrote on the excesses of MSNBC political pundit Keith Olbermann. They Shoot Mules, Don’t They? (Nov. 22, 1010), was meant to be a play on the popular 1969 Jane Fonda film, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

“At the end of the day,” I concluded, “Olbermann comes off like a double-talking, blustery, sarcastic… wait, they made that movie already – Francis, the talking mule.”

I not only posted this on my own site, but Huffington Post. Well, it didn’t stay posted on Huffington very long. An editor at the site declared that I had crossed the line of civility with a title that suggested we “shoot the talking a#$.” Frankly, I had never thought of that.

No matter, in an act of contrition (Apologies, Nov. 23, 1010), I wrote an apology to “…Mr. Olbermann, Huffington Post readers as well as readers to this site. Whenever anyone, including myself, engages in name-calling, it lowers the bar for reasonable debate on any issue.”

A year-end commentary (What Happened to America’s Optimism?, Dec. 31, 2010) received a lot of attention. Comparing American’s attitudes during the Great Depression to those of 2010, I wrote, “We have endured Tea Party rage, road rage, air rage, cell phone rage, [concluding that] …Many of today’s citizenry however, have become a whiny group of rage-a-holics.”

I ended with words of hope expressed by one of the trapped Chilean miners from that year. “Even though I knew locating us would be like finding a needle in a haystack,” Luis Urzua said, “I never lost hope that help would arrive.”

It took 17 days just to find them, and 53 more to finally rescue all 32 trapped miners. What made the difference for the trapped men – faith and leadership.

“Ethics is the infrastructure for the way things should work,” I wrote in that first essay. “It’s more than simple honesty. It’s about fairness, responsibility, promise-keeping, and respect. It’s about tolerance, loyalty, accountability, compassion and citizenship.”

“This is the first of an on-going commentary about ethics in America with two primary goals,” I wrote:

“First, I hope to generate a greater awareness of the importance of ethics in our lives; Second, I want to bring about a dialog with others about the affect ethical principles or lack thereof have on our decision making and our lives.

“It’s a dialog that will include politics, sports, entertainment, immigration, religion, the environment – any area of our lives that has an ethical component, which pretty much includes every aspect of our lives.”

While I strive to point out the ethical improprieties of our time, I also endeavor to point out that without hope and optimism, we can never overcome the destructive qualities of arrogance, greed and self-interest.

As a country, we have within ourselves the tools necessary to overcome any obstacle to our success. We have a choice to use them or be used by others.


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