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Clearing a Path for Ethics in the 21st Century

The following opinion piece by Roger Mudd ’50 appeared in the Oct. 30, 2013, edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is reprinted here by permission.

Clearing a Path for Ethics in the 21st Century

Roger Mudd ’50

What is it about the word “ethics” that is so difficult for many Americans to understand?

Pick up the paper on any morning of the week and read the headlines: Virginia governor accepts $150,000 in gifts and money; Detroit mayor sentenced to 28 years for bribery and extortion; race-fixing scandal hangs over NASCAR; U.S. Navy rocked by bribery scandal; JP Morgan Chase fined $13 billion for mortgage practices; and two former governors, Don Siegelman, of Alabama, and Rod Blagojevich, of Illinois, are currently serving prison sentences for corruption.

What motivates such transgressions? Is it pure greed? The ease of becoming corrupt? The pleasure of not being caught? The very laxness of the laws? Or a combination of all four?

Even though corrupt politicians have been with us from the beginning, most citizens observe unspoken ethical standards and do so without shaming their name and or their profession.

But given the recent and dramatic shifts in our society, perhaps we have ceased to hold a place in the 21st century for a code of conduct acceptable to all levels of the population.

In a provocative column entitled “Reinventing Ethics,” Professor Howard Gardner, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes in The New York Times that “citizens in complex, modern democratic societies regularly confront situations in which traditional morality provides little if any guidance.”

“The professional,” he writes, “deals every day with issues that cannot possibly be decided by simply consulting the Bible or some other traditional moral code.”

Our culture has become “infinitely malleable,” writes the British journalist Jeremy Campbell, and our society too complex “for it to survive by always telling the truth.”

What better role for the newly christened Roger Mudd Center for Ethics at Washington and Lee University than to assemble leaders of the professions to update or recast their ethical standards so that they are relevant to our changed society?

Take, for instance, my former profession — journalism.

It may come as a surprise to many that the press does have a code of ethics. But the codes are obscure, voluntary and almost toothless.

A reporter in the Richmond, Va., bureau of the Associated Press was recently fired, along with his two editors, for an innocent but sloppy, and briefly damaging mistake involving the Democratic candidate for governor. AP quickly corrected the mistake, but most journalists found the firing excessively harsh.

The press does have a generally agreed-upon set of standards: we do not make up stories; we do not fabricate quotations; we attribute information that is not self-evident; we do not publish or broadcast offensive pictures; we do not use obscene words, unless we write for The New Yorker or talk on cable television; and we acknowledge that every individual has a right to privacy.

But reporters and editors remain divided on how large the zone of privacy should be and to whom it should apply. And they are unsettled on whether material on the Internet is in the public domain.

Do we photograph without permission? It depends. Do we go through the garbage of public figures? It depends. Do we entrap? It depends. Do we lie about our identity in order to penetrate someone’s privacy? It depends.

And what it depends on, of course, is whether the story is worth the ethical compromise it requires and whether the competition is on to the story.

Washington and Lee has long prided itself on producing graduates with a fine sense of honor, the willingness to ask the tough questions, and the ability to see clearly and quickly what is fair, decent and generous.

The university and its new Center for Ethics have a matchless opportunity to offer a current generation of our students, and others, the tools and resources necessary to think critically and humanely about the complex ethical issues they will confront in the world today.

Award-winning journalist Roger Mudd is a 1950 graduate of Washington and Lee University in Lexington where the Roger Mudd Center for Ethics will be inaugurated on Thursday, Oct. 31.

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