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The French battle for ethics

What is the world coming to?

It’s truly a sign of the times when France – of all nations – is leading the way in ethics reform.  This is the country that for decades has destabilized the world by selling weapons to and buying oil from any regime willing to do business; it’s the culture that embraced casual illegitimacy centuries before the institution of marriage began crumbling elsewhere around the globe; and it’s the government that has recently taken the war on terror to its beaches by banning Muslim women from wearing “burkinis,” apparently based on the presumption that modesty leads to suicide bombings.

Then there are the endless tales of cronyism, kickbacks, and embezzlement among the political elites.  Former President Nicolas Sarkozy gave himself a 170% raise shortly after taking office.

But there’s a new sheriff in town – President Emmanuel Macron – whose justice minister François Bayrou introduced sweeping ethics legislation last week into a system that has shown little interest in ethics.

Among the list of proposals we find:

  • A ban on nepotism in appointments to government positions
  • Increased scrutiny over the use of public money
  • Stronger penalties for political corruption
  • A public bank to finance and control political party funds

These are all worthy and admirable steps to restore a measure of integrity to a morally dysfunctional system.  But they also demonstrate how imposing the battle for ethics really is.


There are two ways of looking at legislation in general.  The more common perspective views legality as the border-crossing of culpability.  On one side of the line are things I’m allowed to do; on the other side of the line are things I get punished if I get caught doing.

And there’s the rub.  It’s only illegal if I get caught, the conventional thinking goes.  When that attitude becomes the accepted norm, inevitably the gray area of ethical ambiguity starts to spread like nuclear fallout, leaving in its wake countless casualties of radioactive rationalizing and moral mutation.

But what if instead we look at the law as an expression of civil values and responsibilities?  Then we come away with an entirely different mindset, one in which the law is something to be upheld, not circumvented.  And when that viewpoint takes hold, everything else begins to look different.

Imagine if the narrative inside our heads sounded like this:

  • I don’t cheat on my taxes because I’m a member of a society that values honesty, not because I’m afraid of the IRS.
  • I seek out the owner of a lost wallet because I empathize with his distress, not because the law might punish me if I don’t.
  • I trip the fleeing purse snatcher and return the handbag to the little old lady not because there’s a Good Samaritan law, but because I see myself as a good citizen.


Really, laws should only be necessary as protection against miscreants and as a guide to morally ambiguous conflicts of interest.  Instead of searching for loopholes that allow us to pervert the intent of legislation, we should seek to glean the spirit that guided those who designed the law and contemplate how we can contribute to a more civil society.

King Solomon says, The performance of justice is joy to the righteous, but ruinous to the workers of corruption.

There is no greater joy than the feeling that comes from benefiting others through selflessness and service, from the sense of integrity that swells in our hearts when we know we’ve honored the values of society without being goaded by the fear of punishment that haunts the unscrupulous day and night.

So kudos to the French for their efforts to re-establish basic ethical standards in government.  But to have any hope of real change, we must return to seeing the law as a foundation for moral conduct, not a snare of reprisal to be skirted at every opportunity.

After all, wouldn’t you rather live in a world where others think more about what they can contribute than what they can get away with?  Isn’t the best first step to start thinking that way yourself?

Published in Jewish World Review

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