Ethics in 2009: Extraordinary or Simply Ordinary With A Little Extra?

2009 has been a year of extraordinarily big splashes in ethics of all kinds. We've had the ethics questions permeating both the global economic crisis and the U.S. economic meltdown in particular – especially issues related to the sub-prime mess,TARP, and more, the medical prescribing ethics questions surrounding Michael Jackson's death, the almost unimaginably gigantic fraud scheme of Bernie Madoff and many other 'merely' huge financial scandals, and we've had the relationship ethics questions flowing from Steve McNair up the Appalachian Trail to Mark Sanford and then on to Tiger Woods. Each has been huge in its own way and has led 2009 to being well on its way to being labeled by the history books as a year of infamy in the annals of ethics of all kinds. It has certainly felt that way all year long.

But is that really what we've been seeing? The more I review the year in my mind, the more I start to see it differently. Call me a hopeless glass-half-full kinda guy if you like – it certainly wouldn't be the first time – but I'm rapidly changing my tune on 2009; I think it might have actually been a pretty ordinary year in far more ways than not. Here's my thinking…

In the corporate world? In 2009, we've seen evidence of a variety of improvements in ethics as well as other data suggesting the status quo or worse. Sound familiar from other years? It certainly does to me.

Otherwise, with few exceptions, the 'big splashes' of 2009 made the headlines because of coming to their end in 2009 – maybe we ought to be adjusting our collective ratio of celebrating to moping with a hefty increase in the former. Bernie Madoff and his cronies had been scamming for decades and the lax oversight that allowed him to do so had to have been happening for equally as long to allow it. The financial meltdown was the product of problems that had been developing for years and years; sub-prime mortgages, for example, weren't some new product heaved onto the shelves in 2008 or 2009 nor were any of the shaky investment structures supporting them. Michael Jackson didn't start having problems in 2009, he finally died from them – and here again, the prescribing issues allowing his death were hardly either new or unique to him. And, of course, serial philandering is hardly a new concept for '09 – we simply saw several more-interesting-than-usual people get caught in more interesting-than-usual ways.

So, was it a bad year in ethics? It was terrible! Was it a worse year than usual? I really don't know. It seems to me that each of the above examples has largely to do with splashy, high-profile cases that actually came to their respective ends in 2009. In other words, maybe we need to nurture a bit 'o thanks for the uncovering or resolution of some of these problems during the year rather than misunderstanding them as examples of 2009-generated new lows in ethics of so many kinds. (True, some remain highly problematic but I'd like to think that their higher exposure will allow us to keep a search for their solution more easily in mind.)

Was 2009 an extraordinary year in ethics? The more I think about it, the less I think it probably was. In either case, though, here's to our collective hopes for a faaaaaaaar better 2010!

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