by Kenneth G. Morton, Assistant Director of Curriculum Development & Research

In September, SLLF and the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership will be offering the 2015 Upper Midwest Ethics and Leadership Summit for legislators from Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Relatedly, SLLF has been working with the Governing Institute on a regular “Ethics Challenge” column where readers are presented with a case and then asked which of the following categories of ethical lapse applies – Violation, Impropriety, Technicality, or Non Issue. While these four categories may be appropriate, I am not sure they are sufficient. We may be missing one more category, although it might not be mutually exclusive from the others: the act was just plain stupid!

In addition to the obvious and far too common kinds of ethical lapses (e.g., accepting or soliciting a bribe, engaging in nepotism, using public office for personal gain), many of which are to some degree understandable with respect to the motivation, it’s hard not to notice that there’s another component – the stupidity or naivety of thinking you’ll either get away with it or that trying to cover it up will work. What we might call the “what were they thinking” part of the ethical violation. Sure, we can ask which category of violation it was, but we could also ask: was it intentional deceit, premeditated criminality, an innocent mistake, a momentary lapse of reason, or plain stupidity.

Because what’s been evident is the sheer idiocy of some of the recent ethical lapses that have led to scandals, resignations and/or prosecutions. There’s nothing technical or “grey area” about sending sexually explicit messages to a nineteen year old intern or using campaign funds to pay your mortgage, buy a vehicle or purchase lingerie. It’s adults acting like they’re in high school (or kindergarten) and falsely believing that the rest of us aren’t paying attention despite living in this hyper-connected world. Why do people in power think they’ll get away with doing something they have to know is wrong and in a world where there’s a digital record of just about everything?

The lapses that stand out the most aren’t abuses of power for political or financial gain, but the violations that are merely prurient graspings at short term and trivial gratification – the sort of behavior that makes you astonished at the flagrancy and stupidity and lack of self control of these elected officials. The various politicians who thought that texting sexually explicit selfies was a risk worth taking makes you wonder. Or what about those using social media to send around bigoted images of a rival politician? Are there a lot of people in positions of responsibility who do this kind of thing, but we only find out when it’s a public figure who gets caught? Is there something about elected office and power that corrupts otherwise good and intelligent people?

Sometimes ethical decisions are difficult or complex – ethics laws can be complicated and there are in fact many grey areas to consider. Is there an objective way to set the line for the value of a gift a politician is allowed to accept – is a $20 lunch okay, but a $50 dinner over the line? Is a bleacher seat in the outfield okay, but not a seat in the owner’s box?

But sometimes making the right decision is not complicated or difficult at all. In many of the recent cases, it certainly wasn’t. One of the remarkable things about several of the recent scandals and resignations among legislators around the country is that what they’ve been caught doing isn’t a grey area, it isn’t a legal technicality, and they aren’t even politically motivated ‘gotcha’ moments. These legislators were caught doing something transparently stupid and obviously unethical.

In the past, SLLF has backed the view that if you’re even asking if a situation or proposal passes the smell test, then it doesn’t. But I think it is time we make this painfully simple – don’t be an idiot and don’t be a hypocrite. If your political career is at least partly based on a particular position, don’t engage in the activity you’re condemning in others, whatever it may be (examples include being gay, engaging in adultery, using illegal drugs, and soliciting prostitutes). The scandal isn’t necessarily or only that you’re cheating on your spouse. The scandal is expecting to get away with it while condemning and attacking others for doing the very same thing you are doing.