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The Thinker

The Thinker, a sculpture by Auguste Rodin, is seen outside the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2013.

Mark Twain punctured the pretense of ethics teachers with his observation that “to do good is noble but to tell others to do good is even nobler — and much less trouble.” Perhaps those of us who teach ethics deserve to be taken down a peg or two.

We two authors have been teaching ethics at St. Louis University now for well over 70 collective years. Gilsinan in arenas of public policy and public administration while Fisher focuses on issues of business conduct.

And what, exactly, do we see as signs of progress? Frankly, current events — both national and local — are demoralizing and perhaps call for a new perspective on an old problem.

Here in the St. Louis area, the resignation and guilty plea of former County Executive Steve Stenger is a story that steadily expands. And this is what makes corruption such a serious threat to our community. The abuse of public power for private gain is bad enough in isolation, but corruption is seldom isolated. It’s inevitably a two-way street, a creeping rot that erodes our faith in government, in business and in basic notions of morality.

In raising the question “Why corruption?” we don’t want to overlook what is perhaps the most obvious answer, namely, money. Time-honored wisdom asserts, after all, that money is the root of all evil. And the historical record combines with current accounts to confirm that money has been and continues to be a corrupting influence in politics.

And then there is a persistent strain of philosophy — often labeled virtue ethics — that goes back at least as far as Aristotle and that locates ethical failure in the weaknesses that bedevil human character. The cartoonist’s image portrays the typical ethical snare with an angel on one human shoulder and the devil on the other. Again, humor carries a serious message. Beneath the surface lurks a testing of the will, one in which character counts.

Let’s call this perspective the conventional school of ethics. And we’ll contrast it with a new wave of research and inquiry that, over recent decades, casts ethics in a new light. This contemporary approach reflects the influence of psychology, evolutionary science and the analysis of decision-making. If the standard school of ethics focused on how people should behave, then this new approach considers how we actually decide and behave under myriad different circumstances.

This new school of situational ethics suggests that emotions frequently trump rationality in our decision-making processes. Given our strong desire to maintain our position within a group, we seek to avoid shame and ostracism from our social networks.

This desire for group acceptance is one of the causes of seemingly unexplained ethical lapses. It is not simply the lack of character or virtue in the face of corruption that tips the scales, but the need to belong that causes good people to remain silent or look away or act contrary to their own moral standards.

Most distressing — yet most telling when we cast our gaze on corruption — is our tendency to delude ourselves into thinking we are able to manage our conflicts of interest and to place the welfare of others ahead of our own short-term interests. These blind spots effectively prevent us from even recognizing an ethical issue when, in retrospect, sober (and morally indignant) bystanders wonder: What were they thinking?

Of course, the more pointed question is: How were they thinking? The mounting evidence is not so much that humans are poor decision makers — though we frequently are. The bigger moral threat — to both our individual reputations and the common good — is that we consistently overestimate the soundness of our choices and miss the underlying ethical issues that can often come back to bite us so hard.

It perhaps encourages a virtue that politicians and professors alike should cultivate: humility.

James E. Fisher, Ph.D., is a professor of marketing and an Emerson Ethics Fellow at St. Louis University. James L. Gilsinan, Ph.D., is a member of the political science department and the Desmond Lee Professor in Collaborative Regional Education, also at St. Louis University.