Adrian Lipscomb: Aspirational ethics – the trojan horse of benchmarks?

Aug 16, 2022
ethics values right wrong moral core
Image: PxHere / mohamed hassan

I want to apologise for my actions. I’ve let my team down. I’ve let my family down. I’ve let the country down!”

How many times have we heard these sorts of sentiments in recent months – from sportspeople, politicians, clerics and corporate high-flyers. It seems that the world has lost its moral compass, and those who were formerly role models are now the prime culprits. Graft and corruption, cheating, stealing, sexual impropriety, and greed – they are there for the taking.

This is perhaps all a little unremarkable in these impersonal cyber-times. But when the rules of conduct that govern the behaviour of our leaders become purely “aspirational” – with no attempt to act accordingly – there is cause for serious concern. Success is now inevitably judged in terms of raw outcomes rather than principles. Ethics, compassion, justice and due process all become malleable in a world that is self-serving and opportunistic. Our leadership has become inherently amoral, and nothing is binding if power, profit or winning is perceived as being under threat.

The noted anthropologist, Lionel Tiger, wrote extensively in the 1970s and 1980s on the development of ethics in western society. He suggested that humankind is endowed with a “natural”, perhaps even genetically-transmitted, morality. During the time when our ancestors lived in small bands of hunters and gatherers, they regarded kin and non-kin in different ways. Our atavistic touchstone of morality thus developed in communities of 200 to 300 people, of whom most were blood relatives. But this ethical model did not adapt well to the circumstances of much larger social entities with their complex political organisations and corporate structures.

Times have changed – and we now live in a vastly different world. “Aspirational ethics” can now be used to fill in the gap when you want the kudos that accompanies a fine sentiment, but you don’t want the handicap of having to live up to it. One can sign up to such vague ideas as “a fair go” or “mateship” or “Christian values” as aspirational targets merely by enunciating them. It has become the positive equivalent of dog-whistling to the conformista.

Several years ago Tony Abbott commented with respect to Australia’s ratification of the Paris Agreement on climate change that it was merely an “aspirational target” and hence not binding. He commented that he hadn’t anticipated, as prime minister, how such “aspirational targets” would, in different hands, “become binding commitments”. Scott Morrison’s later response to the COP26 Summit bore a striking similarity. Whilst agreeing to the summit’s key objectives (“aspirations”) when in Glasgow he went on to effectively reject them a few hours later on his return to Australia. Plus ca change.

Other historical examples abound. Peter Dutton, for example, told us (in a former ministerial capacity) that we must guard against compassion towards refugees as it could undo the government’s hard-fought success in discouraging people smugglers (and let’s not mention the au pair girls!). Tony Abbott promised that there would be no cuts to the ABC or SBS, and then proceeded to implement radical cuts when later elected. Christian Porter (in his previous role as Attorney-General) declined to comment on allegations with respect to the Howard government’s blatant and illegal bugging of a friendly government (East Timor) for base commercial purposes, but instituted legal proceedings against the whistle-blowers who brought the debacle to world attention. And more recently the Morrison government overturned 120 years of parliamentary practice by rejecting the Speaker’s decision that there was a prima facie case for the Privileges Committee to examine Christian Porter’s “blind trust” entry on the register of MP’s interests.

This hubristic approach to government can, perhaps, be attributed to the “born to rule” attitude that seems to prevail among politicians. They divide the world into them and us, but, with the sagacity that is bred by a circular electoral cycle, that distinction has evolved into an unthinking support for the party line that approaches jingoism. Like tends to attract like, and so empathy seems to be bred out of the ruling class. Indeed, most politicians are firm in their belief that they actually understand life better than the average person because they are more intelligent, better-educated, and they have unique insights into the political game (which is, of course, the ultimate truth). Many are, no doubt, ethical people in their private lives, but harsh pragmatism dominates in their public roles. It is a very strange double standard. The morality that applies to the decisions they make in their own lives just doesn’t seem to be relevant to the decisions they are making in their ministerial capacities. Their ethics become “aspirational” but not “lived”. An expression of good intentions is sufficient, with no requirement for follow-through – and the resultant greed, narcissism, vainglory and libidinous extravagance can then be absolved with a mere apology or a short-lived resignation. The current Barilaro fiasco in NSW is a prime example.

So it is also in the corporate world. By the 1990s, many corporations had reached mega-proportions and were becoming confronted by the deleterious environmental and social consequences of their own activities. So – always keen to present a good public image – they started to talk about “Charters” and “Codes of Ethics”, and the concept of a “triple bottom line”. They suggested that equal emphasis should be placed on economic, social and environmental outcomes rather than a stark “profit motive”. Unfortunately much that has been written about such virtuous chicanery since then has been merely spin and puffery from organisations seeking to be viewed as “good corporate citizens” but whose underlying motives nevertheless remain the maximisation of return on investment for shareholders. Whilst they “aspire” vociferously to a “triple bottom line”, in reality their focus has overwhelmingly been on “profit”.

Once trust is lost, it is inevitably difficult to regain, despite the atmospherics. But one salient factor that may facilitate the regaining of a degree of confidence in our political and corporate leaders would be for them to voluntarily limit the salary packages offered to them, to keep them more in line with community expectations. Failing that, trust will inevitably remain elusive. But don’t hold your breath. The $500,000 annual salary recently sought by John Barilaro for his abortive US Trade Commissioner’s role was no aberration.

In this world of spin and hype – where thoughts have become digital bytes and bits – merely enunciating an ethical aspiration will, unfortunately, continue to be considered sufficient by those in power, and a feckless apology for an ethical failure will inevitably be perceived to be an adequate sanction.

Adrian Lipscomb is a lawyer, travel-writer, academic and political observer. During the 1980s he worked in policy areas with the Department of Defence in Canberra and with the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO – now the Defence Intelligence Organisation). In the mid-1990s he was an advisor to the Western Province of the Solomon Islands, and was the co-ordinating author of the 1998 edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to Papua New Guinea. In 2015 he was awarded the OAM. He is currently based in Urunga, NSW.

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