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Learning ethics from Enron

Paul Andersen

The Enron Code of Ethics is a blatant oxymoron. High ideals meant nothing as corrupt corporate officers took care of themselves at great cost to their employees and shareholders.

Now that Enron wunderkind Andrew Fastow and his wife face criminal charges, and with the spread of guilt to the prestigious accounting firm of Arthur Andersen, is it any wonder that cynics find fault with corporate leadership? Does anyone feel sorry for former Enron CEO Ken Lay for having to liquidate his three Aspen properties?

Unfortunately for the victims of Enron’s collapse, the damage has been done. Self-serving greed and ambition became once again the rationale for unjust actions. History tells us this is part of the human condition, that avarice should come as no surprise, especially among those in positions of greatest power.

But before we condemn Enron, we must examine ourselves. If he who is without ethical compromises casts the first stone, few stones will be hurled at the scions of corporate power. Ethical breaches are universal, which is why they deserve our attention.

Ethics is the topic of a community seminar at The Aspen Institute on June 24 and 25. The program, led by Heidi Wilson, a philosophy scholar, will explore ethical debates from Socrates to Enron, from John Locke to Gotoma the Buddha.

Reading the Enron Code of Ethics is worth the price of admission, and it appears in the readings as a means of keeping the seminar current. Relating the pure virtues described by Socrates to the actions of corporate transgressors will make for enjoyable intellectual gamesmanship and provide meaningful philosophical discourse.

The core of a seminar at the Institute is the open exchange of ideas and viewpoints from a disparate group of participants. Everyone receives the same packet of readings and is expected to do the homework. Using the readings as a basis for discussion, the group is led by a knowledgeable moderator who guides seminarians into the nuances of meaning and understanding.

There could be no more timely a topic than ethics. Now that the FCC has opened the media to what critics say is a dire threat to democracy, and in light of unscrupulous journalists demonstrating how devious they can be, ethics is a prime factor in dispensing truth.

Ethics violations are in no way restricted to corporations and their hierarchies. Unethical conduct in government has always been a scourge. The dubious actions of leaders in the most powerful democracy in the world – the United States – have often shaken our sanctified democratic institutions to their core.

The question the seminar asks – “Can Ethics Be Taught?” – raises fundamental questions about mankind. Are ethics part of our nature, or do they derive from nurture? When our ethics fail, who or what is to blame?

The Bill of Rights, which is part of the seminar readings, suggests that ethics can be legislated through specific protections. By instilling a set of overarching guidelines, the founding fathers hoped to protect the individual from the ethical breaches of government.

As a complement, the lessons of religion attempt to condition human beings into behavior that benefits the expansive and eclectic community of man. By honoring man’s relationship to a divinity, religion offers a means of transfusing divine morality into man.

Law and punishment create yet another incentive for ethical behavior. If ethics are not intrinsic or cannot be taught, they must be enforced by the fear of incarceration and/or capital punishment.

Regardless of the authority of church, state and the law, ethics violations appear inevitable. What’s missing, said Socrates over 2,000 years ago, is right action and wisdom. These virtues form the foundation of ethics.

“As officers and employees of Enron Corp.,” wrote Ken Lay in an office memo on July 1, 2000, “we are responsible for conducting the business affairs of the Company in accordance with all applicable laws and in a moral and honest manner.”

Today those words elicit howls of derision and the pain of betrayal. During the Institute’s seminar on ethics, participants may learn what went wrong between the words and the actions.

Paul Andersen thinks that ethics is a lifelong process. His column appears every Monday.


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