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Whose Ethics Are Ethical?

  • Ina Manly Painter,
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We are familiar with the popular phrase that incites "Practice random acts of kindness." This statement seems to encourage chance happenings interjected here and there, lacking qualification—random diverseness, without a standard.

The Enron Corp. fiasco, the largest bankruptcy in history, took place over a year ago now, and we are still shocked and repulsed. "Enron, No. 7 on the Fortune 500 with $100 billion in revenues two years ago, declared bankruptcy Dec.2, 2001, a result of shady accounting, hidden debt and inflated profits. Stock that traded at $90 in August 2000 plummeted to pennies, costing investors millions of dollars and leaving employees and retirees with evaporated 401 (k) accounts."1

As of December 1, 2002, only three, out of more than 4,000 Enron workers had pleaded guilty to "charges ranging from fraud to filing false tax returns."2 When this was first broadcast, a reporter interjected the horrifying idea that Enron might not be the only corporation operating in like manner. Sure enough, it was not long until we heard of scandals at WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, Conseco, and others. The junk bond scandals, employee theft and the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, as well as the Firestone fiasco in the 1990s, pale in comparison to today's scandals in corporate America.

Corporate lawlessness is forcing us to take a closer look at moral conduct. Colleges and universities are scrambling to know how to better prepare students in ethical business standards. Many universities are urging students to enroll in ethics courses as preparatory training for the "real" world. "There is no clear consensus on just how to offer them [ethics] to the nation's business student. 'We will take the students to a prison and let them talk to some people who didn't believe that ethics would be very important,' said Edwin Hartman, director of the Prudential Business Ethics Center at Rutgers University in New Jersey."3 Does this reasoning seem humorous to you?

President Bush, in the same article, is quoted as saying, "Business schools must be principled teachers of right and wrong and not surrender to moral confusion and relativism."4 This sounds great but what does it mean? Is this reference to right and wrong based upon an innate knowledge of morality, a specific written standard, or something else?

"Ethics has become such a marginal component of business education and training that more and more people, from the local fishmonger to the Lear-jetting CEO, think doing good business has nothing to do with doing good. Of course corporations are reaping what they sow—and in more than depressed stock prices. A survey of businesses, government agencies, and nonprofit groups by the accounting company KPMG found that loss from employee theft more than doubled from 1994 to 2000. Employee thieving now costs about five times as much in goods as shoplifting. We need an ethical revolution in the modern workplace, where companies appoint integrity specialists to the management team and ethicists to the board of directors."5 Now, that sounds like a good "fix"! Wonder who will write the policy guidelines for these ethicists, and integrity specialists? Whose standard will they used?

"A recent Zogby International poll of college seniors said 'when their professors taught about ethical issues, the usual message is that uniform standards of right and wrong do not exist. Today students are taught to behave ethically, but they are also taught that there are no absolute standards by which to judge ethical behavior. Many academic departments report that they have given up trying to teach ethics because the faculty cannot agree on objective standards for ethics.'"6

"Getting into the nation's top universities requires plenty of smarts and creativity by high school seniors, but some may be getting a little too artistic on their applications. … Universities from Tennessee to California and everywhere in between are increasingly spot-checking applications to see if students are telling the truth about their prep accomplishments. … There's a good reason colleges and universities are distrustful—students are increasingly less than honest."7

Morris Berman, in his book, The Twilight of American Culture, begins with an anonymous quote: "America has become a storefront for a corporate mob."8 Berman states that in 1989 presidential offices had already become "a kind of corporate CEO with no moral or personal responsibilities; the individual not only had no identity, he didn't need an identity, and could reinvent himself continuously; choices were only a matter of what worked, and therefore had no existential or ethical meaning…. No values were superior to any other values, because there was no such thing as the truth, and therefore all realities were interchangeable, so the major activity became mindless consumption."9

From the late 80s into the 90s, the Biblical moral standards, upon which our country was founded, crumbled at an astonishing rate. Character integrity was openly declared to be unnecessary for the day-by-day operation of the highest office in the land. Ethics were of little to no concern to the American public. Spin-doctors masked lawless agendas with suave talking points. Unprincipled political manipulations replaced ethical standards. Talk show hosts were correct when they constantly reminded us that the election of our nation's leaders had nothing to do with their individual morals. The activities inside the White House, or inside any house, became personal and private. The public was assured that a person's private beliefs and actions had no bearing upon the administration of public office. "It's the economy, stupid," was the rallying cry! "Are you and your family better off this year than you were last year?" became the major financial question. As long as there were upward trends in the stock market, low unemployment rates and increased home sales, we did not care. We felt secure. Consumer confidence became the bolstering component for economic success. It did not matter if the economy were doing well or not, only that the public perceived that it were.

Historical facts were replaced with orchestrated lies—it was called "disinformation!" Published information, including textbooks, encyclopedias, dictionaries etc., were edited and republished. Ethical references were deleted and actual facts were left out altogether or altered with untruths in printed materials, commentaries, documentaries, etc. Road maps no longer contained symbols of church locations. Realtors were prohibited from using directional statements in printed multiple listings that referenced churches as landmarks. "Turn left at the large brick church" became a politically incorrect, prohibited statement. Museums, national parks, tourist attractions and the like were stripped of objective historical facts and "dumbed" down to someone's subjective inferences. The historical Yorktown Museum near Williamsburg, Virginia, still suffers from a complete overhauling of objective, truthful information. Fictitious letters, laden with subjective emotions and distorted facts surrounding historical events are read over the sound system to listeners who are suspected to be none the wiser.

The twenty-first century, with the obliteration of ethics and the proliferation of globalization and cybernetics, has us spinning in a "what happened/what do we do now?" fog. There is so much alteration in all directions that it is impossible to keep up with even the most crucial changes impacting our and our children's future.

We Christians are well acquainted with ethics, but our relativistic thinking causes us to lose sight of where, how, and to what extent ethics should be applied. There are more questions than answers. How did such a gulf occur between what we believe in our hearts and what actually takes place in our culture? Are we deceived in thinking we have separated ourselves from sin, when in reality we have separated ourselves from God's ethical standard that we might sin?

Dr. Greg Bahnsen, used to say, if there is no standard for right and wrong, then one person's ethics are just as good as the next person's. Who is to say that the child molester's moral values are wrong, if there is no ethical standard by which to measure right and wrong? We may not be child molesters ourselves, but as awful as it sounds, the child molester has just as much right to his moral opinions as we do.

God has given us His wise and all sufficient ethical standard. It is not subject to revision by varied application. It is settled forever in heaven, unchangeable and unalterable (Ps.119:89). God's Word is the standard, the only standard for directing all people and cultures, in home life and in work life. "Every one of our attainments (whether they be aims that are fulfilled or character traits that are developed) and every one of our actions (whether they be mental, verbal, or bodily behavior) expresses an unspoken code of right and wrong. All of life is ethical."10 Without adherence to God's ethical standard, all of our actions and activities are subject to our own notions of right and wrong—random diverseness, without a standard.

Question: Should the business world base its operation upon someone's system of right and wrong?
Answer: That sounds right, but wouldn't that violate our freedoms, our human rights?
Question: Who is qualified to regulate moral uniformity?
Answer: Not anyone that we know.
Question: Should ethical policy be formulated into business procedure manuals?
Answer: That would waste paper—waste of a lot of trees. We will have to think about that.
Question: Is there an exemplary person who can provide ethical mentoring in applicable situations?
Answer: There isn't such a person, is there?
Question: Should nations adhere to God's Word as the final standard for everyone, everywhere?
Answer: That sounds right but different nations have different standards, do they not?
Question: "Who is the Lord that we should obey His voice?"
Answer: Who said that?
Answer: Pharaoh. (Exodus 5:2)


1. Kristen Hays, "Soon, 'Enron' Could Be Merely A Word Meaning Bad Business," The Knoxville News-Sentinel, 1 Dec. 2002, D4.

2. Ibid.

3. Paul Singer, "Scandals Prompt Ethics Courses For Business Students," The Knoxville News-Sentinel, 25 Aug. 2002, D8.

4. Ibid.

5. David P. Perimutter, "The Lie of the land," The Knoxville News-Sentinel, July 21, 2002, H1.

6. Marlin Maddoux, Freedom Club Report, Vol.15, No.9, Sept. 2002, 4.

7. Associated press, "Colleges Checking On Fibbing, Fudging," The Knoxville News-Sentinel, 22, Jan. 2003, B2.

8. Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002) 1.

9. Ibid.,168.

10. Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard (Texas: Institute For Christian Economics), 13

  • Ina Manly Painter

Ina Manly Painter has a Master of Science Degree in Educational/Counseling Psychology. She and her husband, Harrison, live in Knoxville , TN , where they have been affiliated with Re/Max Preferred Properties as REALTORS, for many years. They have four children, Paige, and wife Christa, Laura, Jared, and Amanda and one grandson, Caleb. They can be contacted by email at [email protected].

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