My "C-" in Ethics 101 explained--this stuff really is important!

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Ira Perkins
  • 21st Space Wing Staff Judge Advocate
My worst college grade was in ethics. Axiological ethics, deontological ethics, morals versus values -- it all seemed kind of mushy to me. After receiving my "C-," I skeptically reduced my personal ethics into a simple formula: if it feels good in my gut and doesn't harm anybody else, it's probably OK.

Clearly, there are caveats to such a general principle, but when I lecture on ethics, Airmen across the board typically have a similar definition of personal ethics that guides them to do what is right. Turns out, we all have a pretty good idea of what is right and what is wrong in our personal lives.

As a staff judge advocate, I'm now a government ethics advisor. This can be a thankless job. Unlike other areas of the law, where my clients are typically happy with the advice I give them, government ethics often requires answers that leave my clients quite befuddled. Specifically, I often have to advise my clients that government ethics rules prohibit an activity that is morally desirable under a personal-ethics formula. When I'm presented with a great wing initiative to solicit community leaders to raise money to cover babysitting for spouses of deployed Airmen, everyone anticipates the JAG to say "yes," not "great idea but ethics rules prohibit the Air Force from officially soliciting gifts." So, how can the gut instinct of personal ethics be in such apparent conflict with the rules of government ethics?

Simply put, personal ethics and government ethics are different creatures in both origin and purpose. Personal ethics are about human relationships and aim to make us better people and as such, they are the kind of rules we tend to learn in kindergarten (be charitable, help your neighbor). Government ethics, on the other hand, exist only to ensure that the public can trust government employees to put the nation's interest ahead of their own selfish interests. While certainly a far less lofty goal than personal ethics, the goal of government ethics to produce virtuous employees is rooted in the ideology of our founding fathers and is critical to the legitimacy of our republican form of government. History shows us why.

In 1775, our forefathers rebelled because they didn't trust their government. While England's constitutional monarchy was the most advanced government of the day, the colonist believed it contained a fatal flaw--the King and his ministers lacked public virtue and corruptly used power to promote their personal agenda. For instance, the King used his control of 17,000 government jobs to appoint loyal customs officials and judges. In fact, more than 200 of the 550 members of the House of Commons held a governmental position granted to them by the King. This created conflicts of interest, undue government influence in private affairs, use of position for personal gain, and complete lack of transparency necessary to sustain trust in the government.

Our founding fathers understood the root of the problem: all men lust for power, governments are comprised of men; therefore, all governments lust for power. To counter this truth, our founding fathers formed a republic that divided power against itself through three branches of government. But that wasn't enough. Since individuals within government were still capable of abusing power, our founders demanded that government employees put the needs of the nation ahead of their own interest -- they demanded public virtue. Moreover, our vigilant citizens were warned to be on the watch against any abuse of government power that might impact their rights and liberties. Over the years, the demand for public virtue in federal employees has morphed into a code of ethics. Remarkably, the topics listed on the home page for the Office of Government Ethics (conflicts of interest, gifts, use of position/resources, outside employment) address the exact same concerns our forefathers had with the King's corrupt government.

A commander once applauded my history lesson, but fairly pointed out, "we aren't fighting the Redcoats anymore - haven't we progressed to the point where the JAG can stop worrying about whether soliciting gifts from the community is a misuse of official position? Is that really what our founding fathers had in mind?" I directed my friend to a recent study that showed trust in government officials was at an all time low and that most Americans believe there is a lack of transparency in our government. To a skeptical public, an innocuous solicitation for a gift is an attempt to dispense favors with local leaders and begs the question, "if they can't follow simple ethics rules, how can we trust them on big issues like our current fiscal crisis?"

Ethics can seem mushy, that's why I got that "C-;" but I find most commanders quickly grasp the goal of government ethics because it is really quite familiar. Public virtue, putting the nation's interest ahead of personal interest, is really just "service before self" -- a core value we live by every day. In these trying times, let's maintain the public's trust in their Air Force, let's hue to our ethical standards and our core values -- this stuff really is important!