In the wake of corporate and church scandals, what needs to be restored: trust or distrust?

Distrust, said Dennis Thompson, keynote speaker at the recent meeting of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) in Charlotte, N.C.

Thompson’s credentials are impressive. A founding director of the University Center for Ethics and the Professions at Harvard, Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy, and senior adviser to Harvard’s president, he is the author of numerous books, his most recent being Just Elections: Creating a Fair Electoral Process in the United States.
In his keynote address, Thompson called for a restoration of distrust in the aftermath of three major scandals: Enron, the Roman Catholic Church and the FBI failures leading to 9-11.

Thompson said calls for restoring trust in the wake of the scandals are noble. He argued, however, that what society really needs is a restoration of distrust. Trust ought to be paramount in interpersonal relationships, but distrust is called for in relating to organizations.

Thompson identified two kinds of failures of oversight.

Failures of prospective oversight included the Enron board’s waiver of its own ethics rules, the church’s failure to keep adequate personnel records, and the FBI’s cumbersome bureaucratic culture. Failures of retrospective oversight occur when ethical offenders escape without facing serious consequences for their unethical conduct.

Whistleblowers helped bring the unethical conduct at Enron, in the church and at the FBI to public notice. All were women: Sharon Watkins at Enron, Margaret Gallant in the church, and Colleen Rowley at the FBI’s Minnesota office. Whistleblowers are needed only when the oversight function is in shambles or egregiously ineffective.

We expect institutional boards to serve as the principals in ethical oversight. Oversight, however, cannot be left up to boards. Society must be actively involved in ensuring that the guardians are doing their job.
Thompson asked an important question that should galvanize more public involvement to ensure that we have adequate oversight mechanisms in every area of life: “Who will guard the guardians?”

Those who serve on boards ought to adhere to three principles of ethical oversight, he said: independence (overseers ought to be free from undue pressure); knowledge (overseers discharge their task with adequate information); and publicity (the activities of overseers should be accessible and justifiable to the public).

Isaac Mwase is associate professor of philosophy and ethics at Ouachita Baptist University.

APPE is one of the premiere associations for academics, practitioners, students and anyone else interested in practical moral issues. It facilitates reflection on the state of ethical life in America.

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