COLUMN: Missouri residents must define ethics for their legislators

Thursday, January 28, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 10:01 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

J. Karl Miller and I do not always see eye-to-eye, but I agree with his Jan. 26 column concerning Missouri’s proposed legislative ethics.

Gov. Jay Nixon’s message sent in the State of the State address spoke to legislative ethics. The problem? There seemed to be no definition of “ethics.”

I may not be an ethics “expert,” but I do lecture about ethics in every course I teach. Here is “ethics” as I understand it. Correct me if I am wrong.

Ethics is the study of morals — of rights versus wrongs. That may or may not mean what is “legal.” For example, the U.S. secret court issues search warrants, so your property may be searched without your knowledge by the government. Do you, like many Americans, believe that this is morally wrong even though it is legal?

Aristotle, in “The Nicomachean Ethics,” says that morals are learned and practiced and “are exercised in the same kinds of action as gave rise to them.” The fear of terrorism makes the use of the secret court warrants morally right in the eyes of our government.

Alan Dershowitz, author of "Rights From Wrongs," defines morals as secular depending on time, experience and growth of knowledge. Michael Shermer tells us that ethics is the study of “right and wrong thoughts and behaviors in context of the rules of a social group.”

Missourians must first decide from which social group we are deriving our definitions of “right” and “wrong.” We are initially speaking to the actions of the members of the state House and Senate, so that is the first “society.” What do they consider “right” and “wrong” actions as elected representatives of the people?

The second society is comprised of the people of the state of Missouri. What do we consider morally acceptable as it concerns the conduct of our legislators? The rub here is that with more than 4 million residents in our state, finding common ground may be harder than it would seem. Can we agree that taking bribes, cheating, stealing or creating “unholy alliances” is wrong? How and when do campaign contributions without disclosure or offering employment differ from a bribe? Is it cheating when a “backroom” deal is made to pass an important law? The list is infinite.

Campaign finance limits are part of the same question, with the opposing forces claiming to be “morally right.” Each camp supports their propositions with proof and empirical testimony. Both claim the other is “wrong.” (My position is stated in "'We the People' or 'We the Individual'" at

There is an additional argument that makes the definition and determination of ethics even more difficult. Should those who would be subject to these new rules be the sole creator of those rules? This writer believes not, but neither should the voting public.

To remain “virtuous,” the body legislature needs to let go and give the act of creating a written document concerning its own morality to an outside, independent and nonpartisan group of Missourians. It needs to be a representation of a true cross section of the state: legal and religious, professionals, white and blue collar, young and old, wealthy and poor … you get the idea.

If such a group is not attainable, then appoint a committee of 5 year olds. They will not let politics, religion, money or “original sin” get in the way. They know what is right and wrong because their morals are based on reality and not the superficial. Five-year-old children know everything. By 50, we realize that we know nothing and are learning less every day. Right, Karl?

A short side note. Betty Cook Rottman, the grand-dame of Columbia politics, has been ill for several weeks and is now with her family in Arkansas. This is wishing your return to good health, Betty. There are a lot more women who can still use your superb guidance and strength.

David Rosman is an award-winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics.  Read his blog at  He welcomes your comments at

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