Ethical fading

Many years ago I watched a horrifically compelling drama-documentary about the making of a torturer. In an unspecified Latin American country a callow campesino, a nice young lad, is enlisted into the army, where he is systematically bullied and brutalised. He sees prisoners ("dangerous terrorists") being abused by his fellow-soldiers, and one day he is told to "rough up" one of them prior to interrogation. His violence wins his sergeant's approval, and he is gradually given more "responsibility", until, by the end, this nice young lad has become an accomplished sadistic torturer.

I was reminded of this drama when I read two articles in today's Guardian. They concern two unrelated stories, two different economic scales - a global media enterprise on one hand, a small British company on the other - but the same underlying issue with both. First, a thoughtful piece in G2 by Aditya Chakrabortty (here) in which he writes about

'... a process of "ethical fading" in businesses where maximising returns is encouraged over fairness to fellow employees and customers. The result is that right and wrong go out of the window. Read about the culture at the News of the World and "ethical fading" certainly comes to mind...'

Thus, in a company culture which is corrupt or abusive, conscientous employees keep silent about dubious or openly abhorrent practices in order to preserve their jobs, while less conscientous ones happily pile in, probably gaining promotion and bonuses in the process.

And then, on page 13 of the main paper, a short article about the recently exposed widespread abuse of vulnerable adults at Winterbourne View private hospital (here). Care workers - presumably employed because they were trained, experienced professionals - openly abused their power, openly bullied and beat the vulnerable patients supposedly in their care. And presumably these people, like our callow campesino, were not born sadistic monsters. They may not even have been playground bullies or smack their children; and assuming they had some previous experience of care work, they must have managed to behave humanely and ethically in previous jobs. So what happened? What went wrong? And could it have happened to anyone?

We all know how easy it is to assimilate the mores of a dominant culture - we start doing so in the playground and translate it seamlessly into the our workplaces and other adult interractions. For better or worse we take on at least some of the culture, language, values and worldview of those with whom we spend our time. But what if that culture is corrupt or inhumane, contradicting values and views we know to be right and decent? How easy or hard is it then for our ethics to fade?

I don't know the answers to any of the many questions I've been posing. All I do know is that we're discovering how scarily easy it is for ethics to fade, whether in global enterprises, respectable public institutions or isolated workplaces... and in each individual. This calls for much prayer.