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The meaning of ethics

On the political level, Conservatives found a way to damage the image of the Liberals; the Liberals are showing that Conservatives did the same thing, and New Democrats claim that both of the other parties are unethical. From a public perspective, the larger damage is further decline in the level of trust of all political leaders, which is already low. All political parties need to pay greater attention to that.

The meaning  of ethics

Campaign poster of Trudeau with Morneau in 2015.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau followed the advice of the Ethics Commissioner but found himself subject to charges of unethical conduct. At issue was a conflict between his private financial interests and new pension policies. Other politicians are also under attack. Beyond partisan politics, the debate reveals different perspectives on what ethics means. These differences run through Christian ethical discussions as well.

On the political level, Conservatives found a way to damage the image of the Liberals; the Liberals are showing that Conservatives did the same thing, and New Democrats claim that both of the other parties are unethical. From a public perspective, the larger damage is further decline in the level of trust of all political leaders, which is already low. All political parties need to pay greater attention to that.

Virtue ethics
On the personal level, the question is whether Morneau made decisions for the common good or for personal profits. Morneau has a high level of respect. No one is claiming he entered politics to get rich. He could make more money in the private sector. For those who see ethics as a matter of personal virtues, Morneau’s act of penance, to sell his investments and donate any profits to charity is honourable, but it may not restore trust.

The virtues approach to ethics is dominant among Christians right now as well. It shows up in a focus on character-building, fruits of the spirit and the qualities of a disciple of Jesus. All of that is Biblical. But, as a student of ethics, I critique this approach to ethics as inadequate for today’s ethical issues.    

Follow the rules
The Ethics Commissioner defines ethics as technical compliance with the letter of the law, in this case the Federal Accountability Act. For example, the law includes very detailed rules about gifts to elected officials. The students in my Public Ethics class usually passed the challenge to find a way around the rules. It was a better lesson than a lecture on legalistic approaches to ethics. Now we will see more amendments to plug more holes, but there will always be new gaps.  

Narrow definition of ethics
Digging deeper, the law is strong on financial conflict of interest, but it does not address other equally important aspects of ethics. The result is that ethics in public office seems limited to bribery and corruption. Respect for the human rights of others, for example, is not included in the current discourse. This narrow approach to ethics reflects the dominance of economic interests in our public life.

The Golden Rule at the heart of Christian ethics applies to much more than money. So should our measures of accountability in public life.  

Ethics of fair taxation
In one week we lost the focus on ethical issues about fair taxation, which is an important discussion that we need to have in Canada. How do we fairly pay for the common goods that make our country work? Economists recognize that a high percentage of private wealth (60 to 80 percent) depends on public goods that facilitate our work, not just personal effort. This includes everything from roads and bridges to health care and markets that work reasonably well, compared to some other countries. That casts a different light on what I owe to the public good from which I also benefit in my personal wealth. It reframes the debate about taxation.

Within that frame, determining what is a fair share for different groups of the population is challenging. No one gives our current tax system high marks for fairness. Whether one thinks the proposed tax reform proposals were a step in the right direction or not, they drew fire partly because of other distortions in the system that were not addressed. Calls for more comprehensive reform are valid, but after the political storm caused by these few proposals, it will take a strong-willed political leader to tackle the lack of fairness in our tax system. It’s easier to talk about the personal ethics of Morneau. It is a bigger ethical issue that tax reform is likely off the public agenda again. Ironically, ethics sidelined a more important ethical issue.   

About the Author
The meaning  of ethics

KATHY VANDERGRIFT, COLUMNIST

Kathy Vandergrift (kathyvandergrift@rogers.com), a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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