By Professor Margaret Somerville, Faculty of Law, McGill University

The revelations at the Charbonneau commission have put the issue of widespread corruption in our socio-political structure on Quebec’s societal agenda. What could we and should we have done to avoid such alleged massive wrongdoing?

For instance, was there some way we could have screened the people who made the corrupt decisions, before they were in a position to do so? Just as engineers must have proven and certified competence in engineering before being employed, should those in public office be required to have proven and certified competence in ethics?

That question led me to think about whether involving ethicists in public decision making might help to avoid breaches of ethics, such as we are now witnessing. And that, in turn, raises the question of the ethics of ethicists.

Can one practise as an ethicist, if one is an unethical person? The “virtues ethics” school would give a negative answer. That school advocates deciding about ethics by requiring ethical decisions to be taken by morally right-minded people. But how should we assess who they are?

And what, in general, are the ethics of the ethicists who follow the many other schools, and how are those ethics to be established, “certified,” and monitored? This is an important question if we are thinking of expanding the contexts in which ethicists work.

What is the responsibility of universities in admitting people to masters and doctoral programs in bioethics, which will train them to be professional ethicists? Should people who have the necessary qualifications for admission, but manifest characteristics which are reasonable grounds to fear they will act unethically, be refused admission? Or, what if, during the course of their studies, a student’s conduct raises such valid fears? This is not a new or unique problem for professional schools; for instance, those of medicine and law have long faced it.

Should a very high achieving medical student be expelled if, unknown to a patient, he takes photographs in which the patient is identifiable, during very invasive facial surgery, which most people would regard as horrific, and posts them on Facebook? The damage is not only a serious breach of the patient’s privacy, but also serious emotional trauma to the patient from his later viewing the photographs.

What lessons could we take from the embedding of ethics in medicine and science over the last 40 years that could help to remedy and avoid, in the future, the culture of corruption we are seeing dramatically unravelling, daily, in the evidence given before Justice France Charbonneau? How did this culture evolve and who is responsible?

We know that what is called the “ethical tone” of an institution, such as a hospital, employing around 1,000 people, is set by a small group of leaders — about five — at the top. If they are ethical the institution, on the whole, will be ethical; and if they are unethical, so goes the institution.

Then, in terms of assessing the “ethical tone” of our society, it’s often said that this is not set by how the society treats its strongest, most powerful, most affluent members, but by how it treats its weakest, most vulnerable, most in need ones. So, applying this test to Quebec, we would have to take into account that strong, powerful and affluent people in positions of public trust, have been sequestering taxpayers’ money at the expense of those who are weak, vulnerable and in need, whether because they are mentally or physically ill, homeless, disabled, poor, very young or old.

The wider harmful effects of such conduct include the destruction of what is sometimes called “social capital,” the collective store of intangible “goodness,” which must permeate and inform our society, if it is to have a high “ethical tone.” This is created through trustworthiness, honesty, promise-keeping, philanthropy, generosity, co-operation and the social networks that we need to foster and protect to ensure that we can maintain a society in which reasonable people would want to live.

There are no magic bullet remedies for the current situation and we will have to seek the necessary changes at the level of individuals’ conduct, institutional design and operation, and societal values and sanctions. In the context of public office, we need ethical people, ethical institutions, and ethical systems, and the safeguards and supervision that make this more, rather, than as seems to have been the case, less likely to be achieved.

That requires a change in the nature of the trust that we, as citizens, place in people in public office. Again, medicine can provide us with a lesson. The late Dr. Jay Katz, formerly of Yale University, described the change from “blind trust” — “trust me because I know what’s best for you and will act in your ‘best interests’” — to “earned trust” — “trust me because I will show that I can be trusted and earn your trust.” As the Charbonneau commission and the resignations of Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay and Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt are showing us, there’s a lot of earning to be done by those who hold public office in Quebec.

But before rushing to single out Quebec, we need to ask whether the same is true for other parts of Canada.

Margaret Somerville is director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law.

This article was initially published in The Ottawa Citizen on Nov 11, 2012.