Should We Prepare for a Reckoning?

(Hat tip to Adam Kotsko’s tweet, which also gave me the theological spin, and my title.)

Over at Crooked Timber, Daniel Davies has a thought-provoking post about looming scandals in academia, analogous to the scandals in government, journalism, and finance we’ve already witnessed. Interestingly, he closes the post with some straight talk about how we can protect ourselves from being implicated in such scandals when they (if he’s right) inevitably begin to roll. “[P]ractice decent email hygiene … and avoid the creation of a paper trail,” he says; “anyone sensible will do anything they’re ashamed of in person or over the telephone.” That’s some stark advice where most of us would be inclined to think (or at least pretend to think) that it was possible to just not do something you’re likely to be ashamed of. To my ears, it’s a refreshing way of putting it.

He sets it up with a much more, shall we say, “ethical” position, namely, that the reason you want to keep your name out of a searchable email correspondence about some doubtful practice is that the excuse you’re probably using to convince yourself to do what you know you shouldn’t probably isn’t going to cut it in the light of day.

The characteristic defence is that “in the system as it is designed, we are forced to take these measures”. Often because “everyone works the system, so if we don’t do so ourselves, then …” … well, then what? Then we will slip down the rankings. Then other people will get our grants and funding and students. After having spent a couple of years of my life covering the financial sector scandals, I can report back and tell you that “If I did what I know to be the right thing, then I would have got less money and prestige than if I did what I know to be the wrong thing, so I did something I knew to be wrong” is not generally regarded as a brilliant excuse.

This is an important point. Ethical behaviour costs something, often it terms of passing up opportunities for accelerated advancement. We might say that these are “short term” losses that pay off in the long run, but we might have to invoke an almost religious sense of “the long run” to make that argument truly plausible. There are no doubt many academics who take their ethical transgressions with them through a long career, first to the bank, and then to the grave. The “cost” you’re really avoiding is the risk of getting caught, and the worry that goes with it.

What Davies is trying to do is to get you to feel that risk a little more acutely. He wants you to worry a little more about the long-term risk of exposure, so that you might do something that exposes you to the short-term discomfort of a colleague’s, or even university president’s, disapproval. As he says in relation to that question of keeping your email clean, it might not be a bad thing one day if “it’s your name in the records attached to the lone voice of complaint saying ‘we shouldn’t do this, vice-Chancellor’.” A day of reckoning is coming!

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