What Price Ethics? Ask a Bangladeshi

I really like judicial ethics. I like them for a lot of reasons. They guide judges in considering their behavior and attitudes. They give the public a basis for measuring a judge’s performance. And they are really interesting to study and analyze and figure out how to apply to a judge’s everyday life both on and off the bench. (Sounds somewhat like a Christian’s relationship with Scripture, doesn’t it?)

I like judicial ethics so much that I’ve spent the last dozen years on the California Judges Association’s Committee on Judicial Ethics (serving as Vice Chair now, and if they don’t wise up I’ll end up being Chair in a few months), which means also serving on the judicial ethics hotline that judges call with ethics questions. For over ten years I’ve also taught judicial ethics to hundreds of judges up and down the state, even helping to write some of the ethics curriculum along the way. (At the last conference I spoke at they called me an ethics guru, which just goes to show that if you stick at something long enough everyone thinks you’re a smarty.)

Another thing I like about California’s judicial ethics is that it is written down. Our Code of Judicial Conduct is just what its name suggests: a code that governs conduct of judges. It is a set of canons that are part of state law, enforceable by the state and ultimately overseen by the Supreme Court itself. And they apply to judges both on and off the bench: you can’t hear cases involving a family member or close friend; don’t get involved in business transactions with companies likely to have frequent litigation in your court; no public comment on cases pending in your court or any other courthouse; don’t take bribes (OK, that one was obvious); and much more.

Sometimes a judge will call me with an ethics question about something going on in their courtroom or private life. Sometimes after listening to their situation, I have to give them some unwelcome news: they are ethically barred from doing what they want to do. This can get sticky, because this might be something that is really important to the judge.

Let’s say, for example, that one of the judge’s closest friends is running for political office. The friend wants the judge’s endorsement, and would like to run a statement from the judge in a campaign mailer. No can do. Judges are barred by the canons from endorsing people running for political office.

The candidate might get miffed that an old and dear friend such as the judge refuses to help out with an endorsement, and often won’t understand the reasons behind the ethics canons. This can run a rift right down the center of a friendship, especially when the candidate is in the heat of a campaign and focused so intently on winning. Still, the judge has to tell the friend “No.” That is not a comfortable position for any of us to be in, telling a friend no. It’s a price (and only one of the many) judges pay sometimes for constraining themselves within ethical boundaries, many of which don’t even apply to other elected officials.

The real cost of ethics, though, comes not in the observance but in the breach.

Death and Ethics

On May 1, 2013 – International Workers Day – I heard two reports on NPR about overseas garment factories (go down that page a bit to find the entries). One spoke about international auditing for these factories, and how what used to be carried out solely by non-profit auditing agencies is now conducted at least in part by for-profit auditing firms hired directly by the clothing manufacturer. The other report discussed whether the cost of ethical clothing could be borne by the ultimate consumer – the person buying clothes to wear.

The auditors interviewed in the first report came across with assurances that they would not compromise their professional ethics when examining the safety of these overseas factories. I will believe them on that, unless there is evidence to the contrary for a particular audit.

The consumers interviewed for the second report assured the interviewers that they’d pay anywhere from 5% top 20% more for ethically manufactured clothing. I would believe that too, as far as what the individual consumers said they’d do. But the report noted that in actual studies of consumer habits, many people will spend 5% more for clothing labeled as ethically made, but the percentage drops off dramatically after that. Almost no one would actually pay 20% more.

At the time I’m writing this, the death toll for the factory fire in Bangladesh has exceeded 1000 people. Would paying more for the clothes made in that factory have resulted in better and safer working conditions? I don’t think it works that way. I think the factory owners need to build better factories in the first place, and do so with the assurance that Americans and other wealthier country residents will pay the extra that it costs to make clothes in those factories.

Will we? American manufacturers didn’t change their ways and provide safe conditions for garment workers until forced to do so by government regulation, and the government didn’t have the political inclination or will to create those laws until tragedy struck right here at home: 146 dead in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

We passed the laws to govern ourselves, but how does this work for factories in foreign countries? We can’t enact laws for them. But we can vote in a sense. We can vote with our pocket books.

Fair trade, ethical practices, labor free from human trafficking; these are all things we should take into account when spending our hard-earned money. Because we should allow others to be able to live long enough to enjoy the fruit of their labor as well.

Why should we be concerned about that? Where does our ethical duty come from? Scripture itself:

Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.
Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight. (Leviticus 19:13.)

And even though that is a law from the Old Covenant and we now live under the New Covenant, we still have a biblical responsibility in how we spend our money:

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. (James 5:1-6.)

Please don’t think that rich people are only those who live in mansions. If you own more than a couple pairs of shoes – let alone own a car – you are wealthier than almost the entire world’s population.

What price do you put on ethics?

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9 Responses to What Price Ethics? Ask a Bangladeshi

  1. janehinrichs says:

    Tim, thanks for writing on a topic we all need to seriously think about. Awareness of how our seemingly benign decisions affect others on the other side of the globe is so important I the process of change.

  2. If your business is not following dharma (righteousness) your income, means, everything is unethical. Only those who follow dharma are on the path to finding the divine within. Otherwise the karma will play out and you have to live out the effects.

  3. Jeannie says:

    Thanks for this analysis, Tim — it really gets us to think about our day-to-day choices. It’s so easy to think that small decisions, purchases, etc. affect only me, but that’s just not true. Challenging post.

  4. Aimee Byrd says:

    This is becoming such a difficult issue, because we need to educate ourselves in so many ways. Even in buying meat, I have challenged myself with whether I can afford to go the route where I am assured the animals are treated better, and what I am eating is not just a bunch of chemicals. It is so overwhelming that we can become discouraged. Raising awareness is definitely called for.

    • Tim says:

      I wonder about information overload too, Aimee. My wisdom is limited, and so’s my brain’s capacity to take in the knowledge I need to act wisely. I don’t have the answer for that one.

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