John Yoo, Michael Jackson’s doc and Penn State administrators all betrayed professional ethics

When Julien Benda wrote The Betrayal of the Intellectuals (in French: La Trahison des Clercs) in 1927, he defined the “intellectual” (or “clerc”) much as we define the “knowledge worker” today: the professionals who manipulate  bodies of knowledge to deliver mostly services, such as university professors, policy wonks, writers, lawyers, accountants, doctors, teachers, engineers and designers. 

In his long essay, Benda argues that that European “knowledge workers” of the preceding hundred years often ceased to follow their professional dictates to reason dispassionately about political and military matters, instead becoming apologists for nationalism, warmongering and racism.

The most obvious contemporary betrayal by a knowledge worker must be John Yoo, the lawyer who at the behest of his bosses in the Bush II administration concocted a legal argument (mostly built on invalid premises) to justify the use of torture. 

We are seeing two examples of knowledge worker betrayals dominate the news right now: the medical decisions made by Dr. Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s physician, that first incapacitated and then led to the death of the pop entertainer, and the decision by at least two Penn State administrators to conceal the predatory sexual abuse of children by a long-time assistant football coach.

Jackson’s doc and the Penn State administrators have a lot in common:

  • Both sets of actions were made to avoid horrible truths, i.e., this talented entertainer had a major substance abuse problem and an adult in authority was having sex with 10-year-olds.
  • Both focused on short-term issues, i.e., keeping Michael happy and damage control.
  • Both acted to protect institutions, for Michael Jackson had (and still has) the kind of institutional brand of a Penn State.
  • In neither case were decisions colored by important concerns of true community scope, such as the hypothetical example of killing someone to keep millions of people from starving. At the end of the day, we’re talking about trivial matters—pop music and football.
  • In both cases, behind the trivial matter was a whole lot of money at stake. 

Most in common, though, is the fact that in deciding to act illegally, they also acted unethically. They betrayed their professions. Education in all professions emphasizes ethical behavior. Additionally, all professions have a code of ethics, which stress these principles:

  1. Always act on the truth, which means making decisions based on the truth, not what you want the truth to be.
  2. Always tell the truth and never cover up the inconvenient.
  3. Act in the best interests of your institution or client and the community, but put the truth and the community’s interest ahead of the client’s desires.

While no set of professional ethics may employ these precise words, the thoughts behind these words serve as the ethical foundation of all knowledge-based professions, such as teaching, law, accounting, human resources, advertising, engineering and research.

It’s clear that in the decisions they made, both the physician and the administrators betrayed the ethics of their profession, and of all knowledge workers.

The same, sadly, can be said about football coach Joe Paterno, who should now consider resigning. Paterno has been exonerated by the authorities because he did his job by kicking the accusation upstairs to the administration, although he claims to have done so without inquiring as to the exact nature of the horrific acts his graduate assistant reported to him. Maybe he did his job, but if someone came to me—or virtually everyone I know—and told any of us he saw a coach doing something inappropriate with a 10-year-old, we would certainly ask what it was. And once we heard that what was seen was a sexual act, we would not only pass the information to the boss, we would bug her or him frequently about the status of the case. Joe-Pa never did, and that makes him culpable.

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