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Spitzer discusses principle-based ethics

People and institutions that forge identities only by comparing themselves to peers waver between fear and hubris in an ethical no-man’s-land, the Rev. Robert Spitzer said Wednesday.

Fear that they do not measure up in power, wealth or intelligence, he said, or hubris when they perceive they have more of these attributes than those around them.

Spitzer, president of Gonzaga University and an author of several books on ethics and other topics, said such “comparative identities” have a twisted ethical root based on utility, a kind of cost-benefit analysis in which the end can justify the means.

Suppose, Spitzer told an audience gathered for the monthly Spokane City Forum, that everyone chipped in for an insurance policy on his life. His murder would create a windfall payoff that would benefit scores of charities.

“But you’ve killed Spitzer,” he said, adding in jest, “Well worth it, I would say.”

Did the good done for others justify the means, his death? Spitzer asked.

Those steeped in principle-based ethics, on the other hand, know that bad means do not justify a good end – except, as with war, when the alternative sometimes is an even more evil end, he said.

In the corporate world, Spitzer said, Enron Corp. executives might start with an assessment that hiding some losses might work to the greater good of the shareholders, but find themselves on a slippery slope that ends in bankruptcy and the destruction of what wealth once existed.

The answer, he said, is “contributive identity” that frames individual and institutional worth in terms of the positive effects they have on their family, their church or their community.

Everyone should approach life with the attitude “I just want the world to be optimally better off because of me,” Spitzer said. “For this, I came.”

Do two things, he suggested: Draft an individual Magna Carta listing how you can do your best by those people and institutions you most care about; and list only the positive qualities of the people you deal with.

Spitzer said Spokane is an unusually rich environment for those with contributive identities, a quality he noted when he attended Gonzaga as a student in the early 1970s.

“There is genuinely a kindness and careness in the culture,” he said. “The Spokane community is a remarkable place.”

Spitzer said he is also encouraged by a greater appreciation for principled ethics among students, which he said is manifested by increased church attendance, and larger audiences for ethics discussions.

“It’s a rather good atmosphere out there,” he said.