I've written a few columns on the regrettable and often dangerous confusion of ethics with law, especially in Israeli public life. This week I have a new example.
Several months ago, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert created a special committee to draft a code of ethics for members of the government, meaning ministers. I think this is a positive step.
The accepted behavior for government ministers has undergone rapid change, resulting in many awkward situations. Many ministers are used to the old system where political appointments were the norm, and are confused when they are told that such appointments today are considered an ethical violation and often a criminal offense. (In a previous column, I discussed and ultimately rejected the claims that political appointments to professional positions are harmless.) Drafting an explicit set of ethical principles, whether binding or not, is a valuable contribution to quality government, a service to ministers and public alike.
Who should be involved in drafting this document?
Since being a government minister is a professional, political job requiring special professional, political skills, we would expect that the committee would be drawn mainly from former government ministers who have the expertise and experience to create meaningful guidelines for this all-important job. Based on what I know about the ethics-codes literature, it is considered vital that any code be drafted with the hands-on participation of the people it is supposed to govern. Otherwise, the code will probably be professionally inadequate, and in addition there will be a lack of identification with the code among those subject to it. A previous column related that the first attempt to introduce a code of ethics in the Israeli army fell short because soldiers felt it had been imposed on them from above or from outside. The whole process had to be started anew with a far greater degree of participation from the rank and file. I know of similar examples from other workplaces.
In fact, this committee doesn't include a single current or former minister, or even a single politician. It consists of a former judge (Meir Shamgar); a professor of law (Prof. Gabriella Shalev); and an academic ethicist (Prof. Asa Kasher). The committee has not made any recommendations, but given its profoundly lopsided make-up I would be very surprised if legal considerations are not given dominant and exaggerated emphasis. I will add that the secretary of the committee is a lawyer (Guy Luria).
My suspicions are not allayed by an explanatory letter sent by Luria, and posted on the Web site of the Israeli chapter of Transparency International. The letter lists the main sources the committee will draw on. The first is "Principles that found expression in rulings of the Supreme Court." Could Supreme Court rulings really be the most important source of ethical guidance for government ministers?
I applaud Prime Minister Olmert's pioneering intent to create coherent and explicit professional criteria for Israel's government ministers. Our country has a wealth of talented former ministers who would have been delighted to lend their expertise and experience to this task.
But I am afraid that the actual choice of committee members will make the drafting of a truly relevant ethical document much more difficult, while at the same time exacerbating the already excessive involvement of the legal establishment in Israeli political life. Perhaps it is not too late to expand the committee to include some of our highly gifted former cabinet members.
The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org), an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.