Columns » John Brummett

Morality and ethics

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A woman told me I ought to come to her next Sunday school class because she was going to ask for the difference between morality and ethics. 

I was unable to attend on account of not wanting to do so. Anyway, I already knew the difference, or thought I did, although the dictionary does not distinguish these concepts as I do. 

I will go with my definitions, this being my space: Morality is personal and about good over evil and virtue over vice. Ethics is more institutional and has to do with appropriateness and appearances in a professional context.

You can be immoral, a serial adulterer, perhaps, and, at the same time, abide purposefully and diligently by the ethical code of conduct of your profession — law, for example. On the other hand, you can be perfectly moral and do something unethical, which brings me to a consideration of the latest news about state Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway. 

Baker was revealed by the Arkansas Times blog on Sunday to have applied for the presidency of Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. 

The blog suggested an unseemliness, considering that Baker is co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, which considers higher education appropriations. In fact, Baker had shepherded a "special language" amendment during the recent session to nab a spare hundred grand for Henderson. 

I sent a text to Baker to seek his explanation. He rang back promptly. 

Baker said he did not get invited to apply for the Henderson job until last week, after the Henderson special language had been executed and the session concluded except for gerrymandering. Anyway, he said, he handled that at the behest of Sen. Percy Malone of Arkadelphia. 

He said it was a longtime Republican friend, Anita Cabe of Gurdon, a member of Henderson's board of trustees for 13 years, who asked him last week to please consider applying because the school desperately needed a president who knew higher education and politics and was not shy about raising money. 

Baker, who has a master's degree in music, spent 22 years as a music professor at the University of Central Arkansas. He is a longtime legislator who has spent two consecutive terms as co-chairman of Joint Budget. In a matter of a few weeks he raised a million dollars in 2008 for his bid for the U.S. Senate, which might have been successful except that John Boozman decided he wanted the nomination. He led the state Republican Party through stormy times. He is energetic.

Baker also has been a tad sentimental lately about being term-limited and a tad concerned about what the future might hold for him. This was his last regular session as a senator, though he has one fiscal session remaining next year.  

So, yes, he said, he decided to take up Cabe on her invitation to apply, but only, he emphasized, after clearing with the Senate staff that such an action was permitted by Senate rules. 

Of course he'll quit the Senate if hired, a probably remote prospect, he said. 

But then he asked me: Did I think there was anything wrong with what he was doing? 

My reply was that I didn't think it was actually inappropriate, but that it was problematic in that it might appear inappropriate, thus the same thing. 

It is surely moral to seek a job that interests you so that you might attend to your future. But, in this case, it might not be ethical, which is to say properly dutiful to the interests of integrity, both yours and that of the institution you represent.  

Consider the options: If Baker gets the job he will enter it beset by resentment or suspicion that he must have won the job by political leverage. If he doesn't get the job, which appeared likely after his job interview Monday, he will continue to sit next year as co-chairman of a committee considering the appropriation for a college that rejected him.  

The system is not well-served either way. The timing is wrong.

Let me close with a handy rule of thumb: If you have to ask, you probably know the answer.  

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