Do DOJ Lawyers Need an Ethics Class?
The Ethical Link Between Our Beliefs and Our Actions

Moral Blindness and the Fall of the American Empire

Why the U.S. Has Lost its Moral Compass?

My contention is that a decline in ethical behavior in the U.S. fueled by years of self-serving behavior, profligate spending, and neglect of the average person’s needs has led us down the ethical slippery slope and there may be no turning back.

Moral Blindness

Moral blindness and ethical fading are key contributors to low moral sensitivity and unethical action. The desire to do what is expedient rather than principled is influenced by one’s moral identity, past experiences, and relational impasses. Given a high tolerance for hypocrisy, insight into experiences that foster moral identity, focus on self-responsibility and relational accountability help to achieve future moral action.

Some people never become engaged in moral decision making because they seem morally tone-deaf: a certain awareness and perception of a challenging moral problem must occur before anything else can happen. A great many moral failures stem from ethical insensitivity. Responsiveness to self and responsiveness to others are essential components of ethics.

Ethical blind spots refer to the gap between who we want to be and the person we really are. Many researchers have studied the psychological processes that lead even good people to engage in ethically questionable behavior that contradicts their own preferred ethics. Bazerman and Tenbrunsel identify bounded ethicality as an explanation for the phenomenon when individuals make decisions that harm others and when that harm is inconsistent with these decision makers’ conscious beliefs and preferences.

Selfish Behavior

The key to making ethical decisions is to be a selfless person. This doesn’t mean you should think of others’ interests and ignore your own. Quite to the contrary, thinking of others’ interests as equal to your own helps to steer you to do the right thing because those interests become one and the same. If I am fulfilling my obligations to others then I am meeting my own needs and that of the broader society.

I find today that all too many young people have not been taught or even guided by their parents to recognize that their actions affect others. Youngsters drive and text without considering the possibility of causing a tragic accident. College students disrupt others’ free speech in the name of intolerance. Even adults can act uncivilly. What kind of role models are they when self-aggrandizement rules their actions. If parents teach their kids that they are the most important person in the world and the needs of others don’t matter so long as their personal needs are met, then we are educating a generation of young adults with a narcissistic personality disorder.

As a society, America has lost its moral compass. The pursuit of self-interest above all else is a recipe for cultural disaster. Our economy continues to favor the rich over the poor; Wall Street over Main Street; and our educational system fails miserably in training young people to think creatively; act ethically; and recognize their obligation to make society – the U.S.A. – a better place for all to live and work.

The Fall of Rome

We need look no further than the fall of the Roman Empire to understand the forces at work that have created the challenges and disenchantment of the electorate this Presidential cycle. Rome was spending more than it could afford. The free food rations for the poor of Rome and Constantinople were costing a fortune. The Purchasing of exotic spices and silk from the orient meant that over time Rome was spending its gold on overseas luxuries -- Gold which didn't return. Soon Rome didn't have enough gold to produce coins with.

Even as Rome was under attack from outside forces, it was also crumbling from within thanks to a severe financial crisis. In the hope of avoiding the taxman, many members of the wealthy classes had even fled to the countryside and set up independent fiefdoms. At the same time, the empire was rocked by a labor deficit. Rome’s economy depended on slaves to till its fields and work as craftsmen, and its military might had traditionally provided a fresh influx of conquered peoples to put to work. Rome’s supply of slaves and other war treasures began to dry up when expansion ground to a halt in the second century.

Some will say that I am an alarmist. Perhaps but I’d rather ring the warning bell now than wait to the future when all is lost and it’s too late to reverse our current course of self-destruction.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz on May 31, 2016. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at