Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The ethical bright line

The hardest part of Washington is knowing where you ethical line, your bright line is. Because it’s not so bright when you cross it. When you get up close to it, it looks rather gray.
This thought from Raynard Kington comes to us by way of joshuah, a young up-and-comer among the Washington technocrats. While Kington emphasizes the problem of identifying the line once you are close to it, Joshuah ponders the problem of identifying the line from a distance. Joshuah also comforts himself with his self-perception that:
I feel I am secure enough in my sense of self, and not particularly motivated by money or power, so I am at a pretty low risk for getting caught up in ethically questionable doings.
Let's take for granted that Joshuah's perception of himself is accurate, and he doesn't have any need for self-aggrandizement (a rare breed!), nor does he see himself as part of an aristocratic class that needs to keep the riffraff in their place. I think that there is still a real risk of corruption that faces even the most well-intentioned and well-adjusted individuals--it is the dynamic that I called "competing power" in a previous post on how power corrupts.

I can present this either in terms of modern American politics, or in terms of Nazi Germany...let's do the Nazi's first. The following quotes come from Milton Mayer's They Thought They Were Free, an excellent and enthralling case study of Nazism in Kronenberg, where this form of corruption was called the temptation of effectiveness.
"Yes," said (the professor), shaking his head, "the 'excesses' and the 'radicals.' We all opposed them, very quietly. So your two 'little men' thought that they must join, as good men, good Germans, even as good Christians, and when enough of them did they would be able to change the Party. They would 'bore from within.' 'Big men' told themselves that, too, in the usual sincerity that required them only to abandon one little principle after another, to throw away, little by little, all that was good. I was one of those men."

Another professor (a chemical engineer) confessed:

You see, refusal (to take an oath of fidelity in 1935) would have meant the loss of my job, of course, not prison or anything like that... But losing my job would have meant that I could not get another.... Nobody would hire a 'Bolshevik.'

I tried not to think of myself or my family. We might have got out of the country, in any case, and I could have got a job in industry or education somewhere else.

What I tried to think of was the people to whom I might be of some help later on, if things got worse.... If I took the oath and held my job, I might be of help, somehow, as things went on. If I refused to take the oath, I would certainly be useless to my friends, even if I remained in the country. I myself would be in their situation.
This man used his apartment as a hideout for fugitives until he was caught in 1943. But he still believed that he should not have ever taken the oath...
(T)here is the problem of the lesser evil. Taking the oath was not so evil as being unable to help my friends later on would have been. But the evil of the oath was certain and immediate, and the helping of my friends was in the future and therefore uncertain. I had to commit a positive evil, there and then, in the hope of a possible good later on. The good outweighed the evil; but the good was only a hope, the evil a fact.
In explaining why he regretted the decision to take the oath, this professor emphasized his privileged and influential position in society, and his view that the failure of people like him to resist the Nazis in 1935 guaranteed that the Nazis would come to power. He didn't even delve into the fact that even as he was hiding refugees in his apartment, he was also going to work (as a productive member of German society) and paying his taxes--providing the Nazis with the resources they would use to commit the very crimes that he was risking his life to mitigate.

To illustrate the same issue in contemporary American politics, consider two Senators running for President, with sincere differences of opinion on a number of "big" issues. Each of them believes that his own election will result in a substantial increase in the welfare of the people, yet he needs to convince the voters of this fact. Should he use his current power to direct taxpayer money to a particular company, with the expectations that this will increase campaign contributions from that company and help his election? The politician believes that the harm of this little kickback scheme is trivial next to the benefit arising from the campaign contribution (likewise, the voters believe that the harm of this kickback scheme is nothing compared to the harm caused by "the other guy" winning the election and setting policy on the "big issues").

Tragically, if both politicians follow this strategy, then they will resort to bigger and bigger kickback schemes, with the only limit being that they can't be substantially worse than their opponent. This is the basic problem of retaliation and escalation. I think the whole point of morality/ethics is to make sure that we don't go down that path...but it's so easy.