Theoretically, in the abstract, omnipresent business, academic, and government codified rules of ethics present a serious philosophical dilemma for anyone whose morality considers honesty to be a virtue — really for anyone whose morality is other than might-makes-right and especially for any morality accepting as an imperative any concept of Western Classical or Christian virtues. Codes of ethics are dishonest in substantive foundation, dishonest in essential procedure, and dishonest in execution. If a basic imperative of your personal morality of goodness is honesty or at least the desire for honesty, to be a good person one should reject modern codes of ethics. However, such rejection makes a person by definition unethical by modern ethics codes and therefore also immoral or amoral by such codes — as contemplated earlier, modern ethics codes do not recognize their own irrationality nor emotively seek empathy with personal morality that opposes or contradicts it so any opposition or contradiction is by definition unethical. In practice, this dilemma is heightened in concrete practice by the necessarily irrational and arbitrary nature of how codes of ethics operate in practical reality even when faced with the simplest of problems.
Personal morality may be personal but once a person lives in society with others, one’s personal morality must include a workable method, intuition, algorithm, or whatever one uses to resolve conflicts with the billions of other personal moralities out there. At one extreme, if one’s method of resolution is having personal duels to the death with any conflicts, the majesty of the law will eventually make your sense of morality unworkable by your imprisonment; for this extreme this contemplation is meaningless. At the other extreme, if one’s method of resolution for any conflict between personal morality and codes of ethics is to follow orders and not make trouble, my contemplation is also fairly worthless since following orders blindly and not making trouble by definition means that codes of conduct and law will be your personal morality. Historically, it is this final method of resolution that has been and will be the dominant one by the majority of persons at any given time.
Many supposedly good and moral preachers of ethics criticize humanity’s tendency to follow orders blindly as unethical — while of course demanding such blind compliance with their codes of ethics — quickly pointing to the atrocities of World War II as examples. However, as usual when pundits use historical argument, this argument is not historically valid. As pointed out in earlier essays, humanity’s battle to survive in a universe that is at best indifferent to our existence when it is not actively trying to kill us is essentially a war in which society is analogous to a military in a battle for its life. Unfortunately, many times in this struggle against the universe, society often is more in need of pure disciplined and organized group will-to-power than individual freedom to act as the individual thinks best. If humanity did not have an instinct to follow orders and not make trouble in situations that call for quick, organized, action against the universe, we would not be living in caves but would have died out as life long ago. Without such an intuition to blindly follow orders or authority in some circumstances, as bad as the results are sometimes, modern technological society would not be possible and World War II would have been lost by the Allies. The gross injustice and unfairness of this reality created by destiny, fate, God, nature, or whatever you want to call it is contemplated elsewhere.
So, what about when a person’s options are somewhere in between these two extremes? Even for modern individuals who try never to make ethical trouble, there will be times when there will occur a dilemma created by a personal morality conflicting with a code of ethics. In such case, my contemplation here is worthwhile but still seems to be unable to resolve the dilemma. Since this is a contemplation for workers and not academics, I will submit my first memory of being faced with this dilemma in real life as a means to further this contemplation.
As a young child emigrate to this country, I went to school very young and thus learned English quickly by being immersed in it — there was no such thing as bilingual education at the time. This was not true of my parents. They spoke their native dialect at home, with their other immigrate friends, and usually at work. Even into their old age, they spoke only broken English and were never literate in English. My Dad worked as a construction laborer. Since we lived in the city and the better construction work was what seem at that time to be in another world of far distant suburbs being built to which there was no public transportation, my Dad needed a car to maximize his earning potential. The problem was that he could not read and write either in his native language or in English. The illiteracy in his native language did not matter since at the time government tests such as the driver’s license written examinations were only given in English, but the latter illiteracy was a big problem needing to be resolved.
Since he took me with him to the DMV in case any translation was needed, I saw how through the decades the immigrant community had resolved this problem. He knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy at the DMV who for a payment of $25 – $50, do not remember the exact amount, would make sure my Dad passed the driver’s license written examination. Given that a worker’s annual income in those days was about $5000 a year, this $25-$50 was good money. So the following happened: my Dad walked up to this guy’s booth at the DMV as directed; made the filing fee payment plus the bride; got the blank test back with his name and address written in by me copying from my Dad’s green card (immigration card); we waited for a few minutes while my Dad pretended to fill in the test; took the blank test back to this dude; and magically a few minutes later after this dude hand-graded the exam as was done in those days, the test was filed in the paper drawers with a sufficient number of correct answers to pass. My Dad then got his driving permit; went over to the driving exam section; took the driving road test; passed it; and he had his drivers’ license that same day. Do not remember if someone drove us to the DMV or if he drove to it as an unlicensed driver.
So, what occurred was definitely illegal, but was it unethical or immoral? Since it was illegal, it would by definition also be unethical though I am not aware of any code of ethics that would have applied to the situation at that time in the 60’s. Until the 1970’s, most codes of ethics were limited to so-called professional organizations such as medical associations and attorney bar associations. So, was it immoral; was my father a bad person for doing what he did? He needed a license to better support his family. No one was hurt. My father knew how to drive as well as or better than anyone; he drove about 20,000 – 25,000 miles a year to and from construction work and had no at-fault accidents that I remember. He was not a danger to anyone since he knew how to drive both physically and mentally. So, what is the moral problem? Every illegal act is unethical but most certainly not every illegal act is immoral. In fact, many illegal acts from anti-slavery revolts to slave revolts are the epitome of moral acts and courage showing no respect for the “rule of law”. Was he responsible for the corrupt government official? No more than anyone else and none of them did anything about it. They were all too busy trying to prosper by getting what they wanted from the government and others.
In theory, what “ought” to have happened is that my father after working construction all day should have spent six months, a year, or more attending English classes to learn to read and write English well enough to take the written driver’s examination. Obviously he was too lazy to do it. So what? “Progress is not made by early risers. It is made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.” — Robert A. Heinlein. During construction season, he spent 6 – 7 days a week digging ditches; wanted to continue doing so to support his family; wanted to save time and money by driving to work instead of paying and wasting time trying to get rides; did not want to spend his hard-earned money and 6 months or more of his off-time to learn English when less money and time would get him the license he wanted. No doubt, many will see in this bribery the usual complaint about the working class lacking the discipline and having little concern for future consequences instead preferring to “live for the moment” and engaging in self-defeating anti-social behavior. This type of criticism is easy to make when one has a future that can be reached with little or no discipline in which very little is self-defeating. My dad as a man in his 30’s with a family to support had no future other than work or jail. The fact that he would risk jail in order to be able to work six days a week as a construction laborer shows discipline, planning, and courage that are way beyond the so-called discipline, planning, and courage shown by most I have met in the ruling classes of the United States. In short, my dad was moral and good at that moment in time. Given the circumstances, he did good for himself and his family, though without doubt he was also an unethical criminal at that same moment in time.
Given the times, even the government official who took the bride was more good than bad in terms of practical economic reality. It was a form of direct democracy. He was immoral only in the sense of charging money for something that he as a government official should have been doing for free.
I am not implying that in practice anything goes in terms of what is ethical, moral, or good. Again, philosophical and theological ethics is behind the scope of this essay. We are dealing with codes of ethics. Unfortunately, in the reality of the social life of codes of ethics, if need be, any rational person can rationalize any act to be either in accordance with or in violation of any rule especially any code of ethics. In philosophy of language, this is called Wittgenstein’s “following a rule” paradox. Again, we go back to Hume’s Law. Since there is no way to rationally go from an “is” statement to an “ought” statement there really is no way to rationally defend any code of ethics. If a code of ethics does not factor this problem into its ethics, something no secular modern code of ethics does, in order to avoid an infinite chain of rationalization, all codes of ethics at enforcement will end by an arbitrary assertion by someone with power saying: “do it this way or else”.
These days, no doubt there is a code of ethics somewhere for DMV workers, government workers, for the construction business, and for construction laborers that would make what my Dad and the DMV official did both illegal and formally unethical and thus give a basis for both of them to be terminated from employment regardless of whether or not they were ever arrested and prosecuted for the activity. So, how have codes of ethics changed anything that the natural progression of history and technology have not changed?
Eventually, as our economy improved, government employees such as DMV employees have become better paid with better benefits and covered by civil service instead of being patronage employees. Also, the technology for these tests has gotten better: no more hand-graded tests; no more money changing hands without detailed computer records; video, data, or audio recording of all transactions. If an immigrant tried to repeat now what my Dad did, mostly likely it would fail and an arrest would occur for the attempt. Few if any government employees would be dumb enough to risk nowadays their nice government job by accepting a bribe. I do not remember any prosecutions for DMV bribery occurring in my old neighborhood until the 1980’s; so, the old-timers at the DMV who were doing it were probably retired and long gone. So, government is apparently more honest and ethical now thanks to what? Codes of ethics? If you take away the codes of ethics but kept the better government pay, civil service status, and benefits and the technology, would bribery make a comeback? How about the other way around? Keep the codes of ethics but reduce the pay and benefits to relative levels below what workers now would consider just; make them patronage employees again; and eliminate the computer record-keeping and testing technology; what then? Would the codes of ethics on their own prevent a return of bribery?