Ethics… What Ethics?

It seems that every time I turn on the news, another case about corruption emerges. And lately, I’m just wondering about ethics, or lack of thereof.

I live in Indonesia. And while I do love my country, it often leaves me with perplexing feelings, and questions… that I find no answers to.

Indeed, it’s difficult to stay pure and uncorrupted when you are surrounded by corrupt individuals, and that the only obvious way to “survive” is to also engage in such misconduct.

I realize that in such environment, it’s easy to engage in neutralization techniques, by claiming that there are other companies / people out there that are worst than you.

When I talked to a few people about this issue, one fleeting suggestion that often appears is just, “Well, if you don’t like it, then you just have to go and live in countries like Singapore or something.” But what does this solve? If every “good” and “pure” person moves away, then wouldn’t this place be even more rotten? 

Not that I’m saying I’m completely blameless in this regards or anything.

True, I’ve never engaged in any high profile corruption cases or whatever. But the depressing reality is that corruption is not simply stories or news on the media between high-ranking government officials and big corporations.

Instead, it’s so embedded into daily life, that bribes are common practice between low-ranking officers and common members of the society. Some time ago for instance, an immigration officer at the Jakarta airport forced me to give him “coffee money”, because I brought a pack of various Indonesian foods into Singapore. He claimed that he suspected me of going to sell the food without permit (even though in reality I did not even pack that much food), and threatened that he would have to bring me to investigation if I don’t pay “coffee money”.

As my flight was leaving soon, and I did not want to get into an argument with him, I had little choice but to simply pay up the bribe. In all honesty, I was more amused than surprised or incensed of this whole incident, because it was such a common occurrence, and that I was simply unlucky because he “picked” me as his target.

Upon reflection, I realized that the dangerous thing is that I did not feel any guilt doing it. Furthermore, when I told this incident to my other Indonesian friends, they only laughed at it, saying, “As expected”. Nobody makes a big deal over it, because we have unconsciously accepted the fact that it’s simply the way things are done.

And even until now, I’m not even sure, if what I did is considered as something truly wrong. Perhaps, I’m just over thinking it. But perhaps, I’m not.

What is considered as wrong anyway? Is friendship gift that is commonly used to smoothen things up in this kind of environment acceptable? Or is it not? What if the officials don’t really give us the choice of saying no? The lines of morality has becomes so blurred… that I’m not entirely sure what does ethics, truly means.

More importantly, this reflects our apathy as students or recent graduates, who despite knowing good ethical and moral standards, still unconsciously concede with the common practices of a corrupt environment.

Everyone can proclaim loudly that they detest corruption. But in minor cases like this, only a small number of people would ever think of protesting out loud. Now, if this is the mindset of educated students and future business leaders, then this certainly paint a bleak picture for Indonesia’s future.

Through this simple incident, I’m able to understand first hand about what Kilroe & Marsh meant by, “Corporate crime is not committed by mentally deranged misfits who are not responsible for their actions, but rather by executives who are indifferent to their actions”.

After all, if we are not able to strive for justice and have the correct attitude in little things, then how could we be able to stay faithful when we are entrusted with greater responsibilities in the corporate world?

Lastly, I also want to ask on how exactly can we deter corruption?

In Indonesia, a separate government agency known as Corruption Eradication Commission (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi “KPK” was established to fight corruption.

However, the irony of the situation is that, the more corruption cases that KPK managed to reveal, the more sensationalized and normalized such cases becomes. (And now, it seems that things are not going smoothly for this agency as well). Therefore, such broadcasting of news actually makes it easier for lower-ranking officers to demand “small” bribes while practicing normalization and social weighting, as they are able to believe that there are so many other people who are worst than them.

Therefore, if even KPK’s activity could inadvertently motivate people to be corrupt, then is there any hope left for countries like Indonesia? Are we really in a downward spiral with no ending in sight?

Sometimes, I want to refuse thinking about it through this angle, and instead, try to keep hopeful eyes on things.

But reality is bleak… especially if we remain indifferent about things.


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27 thoughts on “Ethics… What Ethics?”

  1. Reblogged this on ethicaldynamics and commented:
    When ethics are used mainly to stop people from doing ‘bad’ things, they will often find a way around them to get what they consider ‘good’ things. Ethics – what I like to call, ethical dynamics – should focus on helping us all see the wisdom of wanting the ‘good’ things i.e., that will benefit us all…

    1. Hi, thanks for reblogging it! 🙂
      That’s an interesting way of looking at “ethics” (I never really thought about it that way). Most of the times, ethics are seen as moral boundaries that are used to prevent us to do “bad” things. But I suppose it’s a more optimistic way of looking at it.

      Sometimes, I consider the 80-10-10 Theory: where there 10% of people are just people who will always find ways to break a rule, and the other 10% people are just people who never even think about breaking rules.

      The majority (80%) of the people, are the ones that can be swayed by opportunities to break rules/ engage in opportunistic behaviors. I think, “Ethical Standards”, are perhaps most useful to this 80% of people, to provide boundaries, and discourage them from misbehaving.

      Thing is, boundaries are often subject to the norms of the environment we’re living in. And sometimes, the line becomes blurred… that sometimes, what is “legally okay”, may not be ethical. Thus, my question: Ethics… What ethics?

      1. Thanks for your thoughts!!!

        Accepted and socially enforced ethical standards surely play this role; however, the challenge seems to be how do you get to ‘accepted and socially enforced’ ethical standards in the situation which you describe. Simply put, how do you transform a broad and well-accepted social ethos?

        Working in a large (20,000+ employee) organization, I used the saying: ‘monkey see monkey do’ as probably the first principle for organizational change, hence my focus on getting the executive on board, making them knowledgeable of and, also participants in, the ethical transformations required of them. The results of the approach became the impetus for a broader change strategy for Canada’s government. Mind you ‘nothing is perfect in this world’ but if it works reasonably well and people are happier and more productive so be it.

        Another approach I have used to control fraud in a major government program (10billion Cad$) was to develop a sophisticated detection approach, publicize it in the newspapers across the country and tell people what would happen to them if they got caught (I also gave them chance to ‘come clean’).

        One could also use a ‘social marketing’ strategy. Some elements of the following summary presentation of an approach might be useful for certain contexts.

        In summary, having briefly worked in Mexico, I can see that this is quite the challenge for your country, nonetheless, it must be addressed…

      2. Cool experiences, it’s nice to hear that you were able to get people to change for the better. 🙂

        I just wonder about the effectiveness of publicizing cases where ppl get caught. Did it really work? Or does it ironically make it easier for some people to neutralize their actions by saying “See, there’s a lot of people who are worst than me”.

        And lastly.. I also wonder about the “social marketing” approach: educating people, especially the youngs about good, ethical standards and norms. It’s a great idea, but perhaps a little idealistic? Where do you start this marketing if the environment is not necessarily condusive? (Someone said to me, when the institution is weak, then it might not just the Bad Apple vs. Bad Barrel problem anymore. Perhaps, the whole orchard / garden is bad)…..

        //but yeah, in all honesty, I’d rather prefer to believe that no orchard is completely bad. No place is truly rotten. And that we can always make a difference, if we try, and stop being indifferent about things. 🙂

  2. Hello! Towards the end of your blog, you ask “what is wrong anyway,” and i’d just like to share my thoughts on that. i believe every situation is different, but “wrong” can be generally classified as something that negatively impacts another person without any comparable gain on their part.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thought. I agree with you on that. But maybe, as I think about it.. “wrong” could be something that may not always have negative impact. But it might also be those little misbehaviors (that may not matter much at first), but becomes the foundation of bad habits of making compromises.

  3. I think corruption may be a greater threat to good government than any single ideology. But changing culture is hard. Would the agent ask his sister for “coffee money?” How about a cousin? how about someone from his home town? someone wearing the jersey of his favorite team? Finding out where the limits are may help our understanding – then encouraging people to widen their definition of who is “one of us.” I guess that happens little by little through trade, exchanging art and music and movies, maybe students studying abroad. It also helps if people believe the people in power are honest – prosecuting corruption there does, I think, help create the idea that corruption is not acceptable.

    Here’s my minor-corruption story. I was with a group traveling from the US in South America. We and our luggage were all backed up at a customs gate – the agents simply weren’t processing anyone. We had a local friend who met us at the airport and talked to the agent. Suddenly, all the agents turned their backs on us. “That’s the signal,” our friend shouted. “Grab you bags and run through.” I never did hear what the friend said (or gave?) to the agent.

    1. Haha thank you for sharing your story! (Is it wrong that I thought it’s funny?) But yeah, I could imagine the scene happening here.

      You raised great points, I never thought about the limits. And it might be save to assume that the agent would not actually ask his friends / sister etc for “coffee money”. And it gets me thinking: then maybe, if somehow… everyone in the country could refer to ourselves as one “us”, then there might be less self-opportunistic behaviors. (Still, this is a bit too idealistic to be true).

      I imagine it’s rather difficult to have a group of people in power who are completely honest. Of course, there are few, very honest, very refreshing, new individuals who rose to power, and gave us the hope of a better future. But, most of the time, the people around them / their subordinates / oppositions are just not afraid of getting their hands dirty. And maybe perhaps, by nature, politics / businesses is filled with concessions and compromises. So how can we eradicate such culture that seems to be so deeply embedded into our nation? 😦 Still, at least now, there are new clean people, that above all, empower others (who dream of a clean environment) to rise into action. 🙂

      1. I think there will always be a fight against corruption – but that becomes the key point – fight against it. Perhaps it takes some dynamic public figures to encourage people to view corruption as a crime. When I was a kid, we (USA) had a vice president who accepted a bribe. I remember my father being outraged and doubly outraged that he accepted the bribe in his government office. It was bad enough he took a bribe – doubly bad he wasn’t ashamed of himself. (He lost his office but never went to jail – not perfect, but a decent outcome.)
        Perhaps there will be a movement honest people can join so they have friends who tell them they are right – rather than stupid – for refusing corrupt money themselves, and for surviving the missed planes etc if they refuse to give a bribe.

    1. No worries (I deleted one of the double comments). Thanks for sharing your story btw. I hope that things like that (where people get caught and lost their office) would happen more often here.

      However… Your statement of “friends who tell them they are right – rather than stupid” really made me paused for a long while and think: “would I really I really give up a plane for something that I know is right?” ….and to be honest, I can’t really say yes. I want to, of course. But realistically, I’m not sure that I would dare to miss a plane ticket over a “minor bribe” (thinking about the ticket price, and the inconvenience of it all). But maybe in the principles of thing… there should be no exceptions, right? So I guess you’re right. It also depends on the kind of support system we have.

      This dilemma really makes me think… Do you think ethics is black and white? Is coffee money “black”? I always think of it as something like a light-grey-ish tone. After all, we were always taught that there’s no such a thing a black and white, and there’s uhm, flexibility in everything. But I suppose… if we were to really fight against corruption, then perhaps, we should start considering ethics as black-n-white thing? I have no idea.

  4. I suspect “black and white” thinking would drive everyone away, and is wrong anyway. Coffee money surely isn’t as bad as breaking someone’s legs to extort half their business’s profits! And – as you say – not everyone can afford to lose a plane ticket. In the USA we have some organizations that go looking for “test cases” to make a public fuss and take to court. They collect money from many members and, while the fight must be emotionally exhausting, no one has to bear the cost alone. But it’s a process – a journey with no end – and we mustn’t allow it to rob life of its joys. Your post sure has made me think! 🙂

    1. Thank you! I really appreciate all of your thoughtful comments! (They made me consider about things that I haven’t thought of before).. 😀

      A person says, “I can’t afford to lose a plane ticket”. Then another person would argue “I can’t afford to lose this deal, everything depends on it” (then bribe his way out to smoothen things up)… where do we draw the line? Neutralization techniques without conscience can be scary thing, isn’t it?

      Yeah, it’s a longgg process, but as long it’s not in a standstill, then there’s always hope, and thinking about it, makes me happier haha. 🙂

  5. Where corruption has become endemic in the system I think it must be difficult to function without being party to small ‘coffee money’ transactions even despite not wishing to. Here, in the UK, the most evident signs of corruption are within corporations and government, letting slide incidences of law breaking.
    For instance, relatively recently, it has come to light that major companies/banks have been involved in assisting in tax evasion. People are outraged, partly because of the injustice invloved but also because of the hypocrisy. While austere economic measures are having such a negative impact on society, to realise that billions of tax pounds have been lost that could ease matters, there is shock and anger that apparently a different law for corporate law breakers exists than for the common man.
    People are reasonably outraged and disgusted even while half expecting it of big business. But when your government does not play on a level playing field and pursue redress with the same enthusiasm they do for the relatively minor amounts of benefit fraud, it begs answers.
    As long as people are still outraged and thinking of the in/justice then there is hope for ethical standards to be applied fairly where pressure mounts to ensure it does.
    In the case where it has become so common as to be standard practice from the bottom to the top, excusing offence by mitigating size, it must be more difficult to address as well as to function.
    I’m sure you cannot be the ony one thinking these things in your country and perhaps your voice questioning, along with others of like mind, may begin the change.
    I admire your honesty and openness in raising this matter for it becomes shameful to ourselves when the building blocks of our own society prove to have major cracks.
    Rest assured, sadly so, that it is everywhere. Perhaps the degree is the only difference. And people like yourself can make a difference.

    1. Thankyou so much for such an insightful comment, and also for sharing what happened in your country!

      Ideally, we certainly do expect major companies / bank to have better policies and set examples for common people. Glad that those instances are uncovered. Looking at the response you described, I think such outrage, is a lot better than indifference… and let’s just hope that this call for justice & fairness, translates to day-to-day interactions between common people.

      “As long as people are still outraged and thinking of the in/justice then there is hope for ethical standards to be applied fairly where pressure mounts to ensure it does.” -Yes! I really hope so, and I’m glad that you share this opinion with me.

      The terrains are hard, true. But lately, there are quite a number of new leaders arising (e.g. the Jakarta governor), who bring such refreshing change, a promise of a more honest political climate… and above all, providing a role model for common people, to aspire to be.

      I too, believe that there are many others who are thinking of these things, and questioning the way things are done. It’s a long process, yes. But I do hope, that with each spoken voice… more people would pause from going through the motions, and shed away their indifference, little by little. 🙂

  6. Excellent piece. Well thought and well written.

    The reality is that it is pretty simple.

    The difference between the ethical person and the moral person. The ethical person knows what the right thing is. The moral person does it.

    So it all comes down to you as as choice you make for yourself as an individual. Are you going to be ethical and moral or not.

    1. Thank you! Much appreciated 😀

      Yeah.. it’s a nice way of putting at it. I never really thought about it that way before, so thanks for sharing your view. I think the majority of us… are treading between what you call as ethical and moral. The conscience for the moral is there. Unfortunately, when opportunities for misconduct happens, it’s easy to be swayed.. to the left and right.

      People often argue that what they are doing isn’t technically, or legally wrong. They argue about the letter of the law, while ignoring about the spirit of the law. And perhaps in such case… if you repeat it often enough, we can even forget, about what the law is really trying to protect in the first place: the WHY behind ethical standards and the underlying meanings of what is considered as “right”.

      1. Hello sorry for the delay.

        I offer this as your search parameter, “the purpose of law”.

        Sometimes the law is just. A quote and I don’t know if I ever knew who said it, the law is an ass”.

        Law and Justice are different things.

        Happy foraging!

  7. We share the same sentiment… My country, the Philippines, is also deep in corruption and in some ways, had become the way of life in our government. It is a cancer deeply rooted in the bones which is incurable…

    1. Thanks for reblogging it! Eh, I’d rather not think about it as “incurable”. The future prospect and the situation might look bleak.. But as long there are people (like you), who notice the wrongness of it… and try to not to be indifferent about it, then I think, there’s always hope 🙂

  8. Hello, and thank you for an excellent post. We are constantly faced with ethical dilemmas in our lives, and often we are unaware of them or simply ignore their implications. Your post is insightful and thoughtful, and I deeply appreciated reading it.

    1. Hi, thanks a lot for stopping by and reading it.. 😀 I hope that through sharing these thoughts… we are becoming more mindful towards ethical dilemmas, instead of simply going through the motions.

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