The concept of ethics is a wonderful thing. Most of us, myself included, assume that we have a reasonable supply of good ethical standards, while the other guy could probably stand to upgrade his own. It almost goes without saying that very few attorneys or politicians are given credit for having any at all.
Ethics are sort of the modern day equivalent of moral values as they apply to law, government, business, and professions. Given the first three applications, it is little wonder that few people put much faith in ethics, and that is likely the reason why ethics have been held apart from morals based on religion, at least as long as I have been aware that either existed.
The wonderful thing about ethics is that if you have some, you can feel good about yourself and look down upon the guy who doesn’t, even if you don’t already subscribe to some sort of religion that conveys an absolute certainty of moral superiority. Also, if you don’t have particularly high ethical standards, you can always point to some other guy who screwed up and got caught before you did, or somebody who should have been caught but wasn’t, or somebody who is going to get caught in the future.
In those four fields of endeavor I mentioned above, it is relatively easy to identify the folks who don’t have sufficient moral character. They are the ones who literally get caught with their pants down. That is not a sexist comment, since it has been shown to apply equally to some female “Congressmen”.
Unfortunately, ethics is a squishier concept than morality, although there is quite enough contrariety in defining either idea. It is much more difficult to pin down which lawyer, politician, or business person has better ethical standards than another. I have not looked into the origins of ethics much, except that I learned in grade school that a Greek doctor named Hippocrates may have been the first to develop a professional ethical standard. The trades which eventually came to be recognized as “professions” have generally led the way in developing some sort of written ethical standards and mechanisms of enforcing those on the professionals.
The other three trades have mostly been dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age of accountability, but they just haven’t been dragged far enough. The problem is that any proposal to develop enforceable ethical standards constantly runs into a wall built of money, self-interest, and gargantuan egos. Rather than being like the medical profession which is concerned with tight enforcement to keep the number of doctors low (and therefore keep salaries high to benefit all doctors), lawyers, politicians, and businessmen seem to be more concerned with preventing rules that might keep the boldest among them from acquiring the greatest reward at the moment for themselves. While doctors seem to think they should police their ranks to prevent the profession from being disgraced, the other three trades seem to spend a lot of money and effort covering each other from the would be regulators. Politicians do, of course, make exceptions for the guy on the other side of the aisle.
An unethical business person is more likely to get caught being unethical than either a politician or a lawyer. In business, you can write off a lack of ethical treatment of your customer to “customary and reasonable” practices, which is an evolving science of excusing poor workmanship. For example, a contractor can tell you it is customary business practice to leave your new house with uneven floors, shingles that blow off because they have only two nails installed in the wrong locations, or a bathtub that won’t drain completely. As a consequence, though, the business person tends to lose business and soon finds it necessary to go into real estate sales.
Lawyers and politicians are less likely to be embarrassed by poor ethics partly because of those gargantuan egos and partly because those who are truly skilled in the art of dialectics can create enough verbal confusion and distraction to make you forget they don’t have any ethics. They are also better than most of us at pointing out the faults of others. Because of those bold egos, they will gleefully try make you believe that riding a bicycle onto the sidewalk is the ethical equivalent of beating your grandmother or child abuse. If you spend enough time trying to discredit that stupid idea, you might even forget the lawyer just picked your pocket or the politician just squandered a whole lot of your tax money.
Law and politics also have their own version of “customary and reasonable” exculpatory science working for them. How many times have you heard somebody say, “Well, what do you expect, he’s a __, isn’t he?”