ETHICS

SCOTT STEELE January 2 1995

ETHICS

SCOTT STEELE January 2 1995

ETHICS

Truth or consequences

Canada, says one expert, is becoming ‘a nation of greedy, amoral self-promoters’

SCOTT STEELE

Perhaps it was a case of holiday soulsearching. Just two weeks before Christmas, a mysterious letter landed on the Toronto desk of John Cunningham, vice-president of operations for the Hudson’s Bay Co. In it, an anonymous female writer from British Columbia, evidently plagued by her conscience, admitted to having stolen from a Bay store some two decades earlier. Tucked into the envelope with her unsigned confession were 10 crisp $20 bills. “It

happens all the time,” said Cunningham, adding that the company receives similar letters almost every week. “But the number of people who confess is pretty small potatoes compared with the number of people we actually catch shoplifting.”

The figures are indeed astronomical: according to the Retail Council of Canada, “shop thieves” make off with more than $2.25 billion annually from Canadian stores—about $6 million a day. In its latest report on the problem, the council said that after a steady increase in theft over the past decade, retailers finally appear to have halted the upward trend. Good news for those who worry that Canadians are becoming increasingly unscrupulous? Not really, says Mel Fruitman, the council’s vice-president. Instead, he attributes the levelling off to improved security and aggressive new antitheft measures. The Bay, for example, announced earlier this year that, in addition to seeking criminal prosecutions, it will sue shoplifters in civil court for the cost of the stolen goods and the money spent to recover them. Already, the company has filed suit against 5,000 individuals. “I think the reason that [overall] shop theft has not increased is because retailers are now more vigilant,” Fruitman explains. “I don’t think it is because people are any more honest.”

On the contrary, many people are convinced that Canadians are becoming less honest—less respectful of the I law and more inclined to end gage in a wide range of un| ethical and unscrupulous I practices, from pirating comz puter software to falsifying ü expense accounts and cheat-

You are qualified for a promotion at work, but are informed that you are ineligible because the job has to go to a member of a minority group. What do you do?

Happily accept the decision 13% Grudgingly accept the decision 27% Make a formal protest 52% Quit your job 6% Percentage who would quit their job or protest: If you were a student and obtained a copy of an important exam before it was given, what would you do? Give it back without looking at it 46% Look at it briefly and then turn it in 32% Go over it in detail, looking up answers and preparing for the exam F Percentage who would go over the exam in detail, by province: B.C. 12%

• Thirty-one per cent of the respondents said that if they received a government cheque for $1,000 to which they were obviously not entitled, they would keep the money.

• Fifty-eight per cent acknowledged that they would pay cash under the table to avoid paying taxes.

• Fourteen per cent reported a willingness to cheat on a business expense report, even if they were caught doing so by a fellow employee.

• Fifty-four per cent said that if they were a student and somehow managed to obtain a copy of an important exam before it was given, they would cheat either by looking at it briefly or going over it in detail to prepare for the test.

Are those results cause for alarm?

“Almost certainly,” says Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. As a nation, Schafer contends, “all of our focus is on government deficits, but we’re also running a very significant moral deficit—and I think it’s much more threatening to our society than the financial one.” Adds Archbishop Michael Peers, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada: ‘We’ve been through a long period in the 1980s when much of what happened was dominated by a philosophy of individualism. Ethical issues are individual and moral, but they are also social. And that is the area of ethics that is taking the toughest knock these days.”

nces

ing on their taxes. To explore the scale of the problem, this year’s Maclean’s/CYV poll asked Canadians what they would do when confronted with a series of ethical dilemmas. Some of the findings:

Few people, of course, would go so far as to suggest that the country has slid into a moral abyss. But many ethicists, moral philosophers and spiritual leaders maintain that there are significant strains on the country’s value system that must be addressed if Canadians are to avoid an ethical crisis. Among the factors influencing ethical behavior: tough economic times; a decline in respect for governments, religious organizations and other institutions; diminished emphasis on values in the education system;

Ma-Anne Dionisio, star of Miss Saigon, on the downside of honesty:

‘Honest people are more trusting, but there are people out there who could take advantage of you’

and, perhaps most important, a vanishing sense of community. “Ethics have a lot to do with our social relationships, and some of these involve relationships of reciprocity and trust between people,” says Michael McDonald, director of the Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “When we are talking about ethics, we aren’t just talking about clear-cut rules. We are talking about how much people trust each other. What I see is a lot of suspicion about relationships where once there was trust.”

According to McDonald, that fraying of the social fabric has encouraged people to focus increasingly on their own interests—to look out for number 1. “There is a sort of mean-mindedness about people we don’t trust,” he said, “whether they are on welfare, recent immigrants or what have you. Where before there was a willingness to give those people the benefit of the doubt—and in some cases be compassionate—there is now a sense that they are ripping us off, that these are difficult times and why should I be concerned about

If you received a $1,000 cheque from the government that was obviously an error, would you... ? Send it back Deposit the cheque and see_____ what happens Cash it and spend it as quickly as possible Percentage who would deposit or cash the cheque, by province: 30% 27% 30% By age: 18-24 48% 25-54 32% 55+ 16%

If a good friend approached you with a new, illegal, mind-altering drug and assured you it was harmless, would you... ? Report your friend to the _____ authorities fTTfl Refuse the drug and be less friendly to that person in future Refuse the drug but continue_ the friendship Give it a try A colleague at work catches you trying to claim a $100 restaurant meal on your expense report, even though it was a personal expense. What do you do? Take the phoney expense off the report t:n Submit the claim Percentage who would submit the phoney claim, by age: 18-24 25-34 13% 35-44 14% 45-54 12% 55-64 65+ 9% If a stranger was staring at a member of the opposite sex in public, for a prolonged period, how would you describe this behavior? Acceptable Silly but harmless Inappropriate Inappropriate and offensive A form of sexual harassment No answer

them? And I’m worried about that.”

One of the poll’s findings clearly underlines that lack of trust. Fully 78 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement: “People who are overly honest in our society are often taken advantage of.” That finding is particularly troubling, Schafer and others say, because people who believe that everyone around them is behaving unethically are more likely to behave unethically themselves to avoid being left behind.

‘There is a tremendous amount of cynicism,” Schafer observes. “And often that means cheating—it means cheating on exams if you’re a student, it means calculating carefully who your friends are, it means treating every relationship in terms of ‘What can it do for me?’ ” He adds that qualities such as honesty, loyalty and public-spiritedness flourish only when there is “a widespread sense of fairness” and, in tough times, a belief that everyone is sharing the sacrifice. “I think we are systematically eroding all of that,” he says, pointing to cuts in Canada’s social-safety net, “and in our effort to be competitive we are creating a nation of greedy, amoral self-promoters.”

The recession, many say, has only accentuated the inherent conflict between selfishness and a sense of social duty. “Ethics and economics are very often at odds with each other,” says Barry Hoffmaster, a professor of philosophy at I f the University of Western Ontario in Lon' don. “In many situations, the right thing to do conflicts with what might be most profitable. When things get difficult, that puts added pressure on people.” David Selley, chairman of the Canadian Centre for Ethics and Corporate Policy in Toronto and audit director for the accounting firm Ernst & Young, agrees that the social and economic environment has strained people’s sense Pp' of moral duty: “It probably 0 makes it easier for them to somehow justify to themselves actions that in better times most would regard as reprehensible.”

Marion Best, moderator of the United Church of Canada, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, offers yet another explanation for some of the poll’s findings. ‘The point at which many people tend to be dishonest or push the boundaries is in situations involving institutions or government,” she says. “Some of it probably

has to do with our alienation from institutions generally—they seem distant, bureaucratic and faceless.” Adds Hoffmaster: “People will often think twice about cheating when they can see that somebody might actually be harmed by it. But when it is the government, which seems very impersonal, it is easy to rationalize that kind of behavior.”

Interestingly, poll respondents from smaller provinces, where there is arguably a more clear-

Percentage who would accept the offer, by province: 57% 53% 56% 50% 65% 55% 51% 61% 49% By age: 66% 67% 58% 63%

ly defined sense of community, were considerably less likely to express a willingness to bend the rules. In Newfoundland, 39 per cent of respondents said they would pay cash to avoid the GST; by contrast, 69 per cent in Metropolitan Toronto said they would do so. Similarly, only eight per cent of Newfoundlanders said they would fraudulently cash a government cheque, compared with 39 per cent of Quebecers. And a mere six per cent of Saskatchewan residents said they would be willing to cheat on an expense report; the national average was 14 per cent.

In a society that is becoming increasingly urbanized, that ethical gulf between more and less densely populated regions of the country may well widen. And in another development that may not bode well for the future, younger poll respondents appeared significantly less honest than older Canadians. Of respondents under the age of 24, an astounding 71 per cent said they would cheat on an exam if given the opportunity. Forty-eight per cent of people in that age bracket said they would cash a government cheque sent to them in error, and 27 per cent would have no qualms about claiming a personal meal on their company expense account. Meanwhile, 67 per cent of those aged 18 to 34 said they would happily pay cash to avoid the GST, compared with 44 per cent of those 55 or older.

Such results, many observers say, may be a result of the dashed expectations and diminished opportunities that Canada’s youth currently face. “A lot of young people grew up in an atmosphere of affluence, where the assumption was that everything’s going to be better and things can only keep improving,” said the United Church’s Best. “Their parents probably did experience life that way, but that is not the reality for members of the younger generation now.” Others point to the fact that there are fewer positive role models for young people in a society awash in lurid, tabloid-style journalism focusing al-

most exclusively on sleaze. “We don’t talk about saints or heroes any more,” says Western’s Hoffmaster. “All we have are celebrities. There aren’t many people to emulate or look up to in the public spotlight.”

Given the current stresses, it is little wonder that consultants who specialize in advising corporations on ethical issues are busier than ever. “Ethics and bankruptcy consulting are probably the only two businesses that have thrived through the recession,” says David Nitkin, president of EthicScan Canada, a Torontobased firm that has clients in both the public and private sectors. ‘What we are discovering in organizations is that people are thirsting for more ethics training, guidance and reinforcement.” Philip MacEwen, executive director of the Canadian Society for the Study of Practical Ethics, also senses that craving. “Many of us want to become more honest and more ethical,” he says. “Practical ethics has become a growth industry.”

But MacEwen and others also maintain that Canadians are becoming increasingly wary of discussing and promoting values of right and wrong because they believe, often mistakenly, that in doing so they may offend people from diverse cultural, ethnic or religious backgrounds. Says Elizabeth Loweth, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Ethics and Corporate Policy: “Instead of saying, ‘Look, all cultures have an ethic of caring for one another, all religions have an ethic of honesty,’ we instead throw the baby out with the bath.” Like Loweth, MacEwen says that Canadians need to recognize the values common to all their various cultures, rather than focusing on their differences. “What will emerge,” he argues, “are values about honesty, truthfulness, family relationships, relationships with nature, relationships with the divine, justice and caring that all Canadians share.” Only that, he believes, can rescue the country from continued ethical decay. □

Pat Mastroianni, actor, on whether he would be tempted to have an affair:

It would depend on the state of the relationship that I was in and whether we were both happy’

You are married but you meet someone who is extremely attractive and interested in a brief affair. Do you... ? Indicate your appreciation but do not act on the possibility....................89% Have a quick affair and hope no one finds out.....6% Have the affair in the hope that it turns into a longer relationship....................2% Percentage who said they would have an affair, by province: Have you ever actually had an affair while married? Men: Yes 14% No 86% Women: ■Yes 7% No 93% Omits “never married” and “no opinion." Percentage who acknowledged having an affair, by province: Nfld. 6% “People who are overly honest in our society are often taken advantage of.” Agreed 78% Disagreed 21%

In a society that is becoming increasingly