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Improprieties

The WorldCom Scandal.

by Barnabas
July 3, 2002

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Improprieties_Barnabas-The WorldCom Scandal. “WorldCom said it would restate results for 2001 and the first quarter of 2002 to show net losses, in what may be the largest such revision ever. It joins a growing list of U.S. companies that have revealed accounting improprieties.” —Reuters, June 26.

Not improprieties. There is a lot more here than improper or indecorous acts or remarks, ”esp: an unacceptable use of a word or of language,” as Merriam-Webster has it. According to this definition, “improprieties” is a word for Miss Manners, not for the Financial Section. I’m not sure she even uses the word, though; she prefers plain language. But if she were to use it, it would be as a reference to thoughtless, rude, or vulgar words and behavior — not as a cover-up for crime nor as a devaluation of the personal responsibility attached to unethical behavior.

“Accounting” isn’t guilty of impropriety. Accountants are guilty of it when, without regard for the taste and feelings of the others there, they use obscene language in the break room. When they are at their computers, using their profession to cheat and steal, they are guilty of harming other people. That is more than improper. It’s wrong.

In this column the illustrations change with the news, but what they illustrate doesn’t seem to change much. Rose Kennedy has been dead for some years now, but when her sons were riding the wave of high politics some thirty-five or forty years ago, she said concerning a specific campaign practice, “It is not illegal, so it is not immoral.”

What an easy world to live in! In fewer than ten words, Mrs. Kennedy dismissed the ethical framework of the western world, a tradition that had been in development for three thousand years. I don’t mean to give her too much credit though. She just happened to be one of the more famous persons to say it simply and out loud.

If she is correct, then we don’t have to concern ourselves about what is right, only about what isn’t wrong. Ethics is concerned with the Good, Law with the Not Bad. Since much more qualifies as Not Bad than qualifies as Good, the ethical choice of the Good needs hardly ever to be made.

In politics, such thinking is merely depraved. In other fields, such as accounting, surgery, and medical research, it is disastrous. The distance between Not Bad and Bad is much closer than that between the Good and the Bad. If we are unwilling to name the Bad, we’ll get even fuzzier about the Good.

In The Music Man, Harold seeks to win back the confidence of little Winthrop by promising to answer truthfully any question the boy asks him. Through his angry tears, Winthrop says, “Are you a dirty rotten crook?” Then Harold has to say, without qualification, “Yes.”

That may be musical comedy, but it belongs more to the real world than the absurd language of “accounting improprieties.”

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