Recently, a journalism professional who works in a developing country asked me why ethics matter, especially where government is repressive and people treat their profession as a job rather than a vocation. In other words, if journalists are going to behave irresponsibly either because of fear of repression or out of a quest for material benefit, then what’s the point of teaching ethics?
I responded that ethics do matter, and a majority of the countries represented at the United Nations agree that principles should be universally embraced. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have adopted the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. This means that the UN is on record for acknowledging that principles and values provide the rationale for defending human rights. The world didn’t agree with Hitler’s ambition for world domination that began in 1933 and continued through 1945. The Nazi leadership was judged at the Nuremberg trial. Their atrocities were exposed to the world, and the trial ended in the execution of many of the top Nazi leaders. Indeed, the 2018 movie, Operation Finale, depicts the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi officer who masterminded the logistics that sent millions of innocent Jews and others to their deaths in concentration camps. If moral principles are not universal, then such trials would make no sense in my view. If moral relativity is allowed to rule as the standard for judging behavior, then no one on earth—no court, no judge, no army general, no government, and no human institution can be held accountable for violating human rights. Civil Society and the Rule of Law must be protected and constructed on a firm foundation of moral principles including, but not limited to these: truth, justice, humaneness, liberty and freedom, and stewardship. If morality is relative, then determining what is right and wrong would be left up to capricious governments, corporations, and other human institutions.
Sure, it’s a struggle to maintain one’s ethical principles in the news profession—especially in the current politically charged environment with so much “fake news,” and in developing countries where resources are few—and where poverty abounds and folks feel as if they have to do whatever it takes to succeed and sometimes even survive. I think we would all agree that humankind is much better in a society where individuals learn to work together in an atmosphere of trust. We must be able to do business with people we know and trust. Collectively, we lose when we refuse to stand tall for moral principles. Who would want to be operated on by a physician who cheated her way through medical school? Ultimately, society breaks down when brave men and women refuse to insist on the rule of law and ethical norms. It’s up to our communities to enforce ethical standards. Once, we could depend upon our religious institutions to hold high the flag of moral order; we took for granted the concept of natural law: that reason deduces binding rules of moral behavior. In secular society, there is a separation of religious institutions from the state and often the public sphere. That’s too bad, really. Still the Community Writ Large, which is why I mention the UN, must come to a consensus that it’s not OK for our men, women, and children to be murdered, raped, or exploited without threat of judgment. It’s not OK for Supreme Court nominees to be excoriated in the press by corrupt politicians for political gain. If we fail to embrace principles and values and convey them to current and future generations, then moral relativity will spell the doom of civilization.