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Why Ethics Bills Are Not Ethics: Lessons Learned From Baseball

The Tennessee Legislature just passed a comprehensive ethics bill that aims to restrain the influence of special interests in law-making by way of limiting the monetary access of lobbyists to legislators.

The law, which Gov. Phil Bredesen is expected to sign, comes less than a year after four lawmakers were arrested in an FBI bribery sting known as “Operation Tennessee Waltz.”

Coincidentally, spring training is just around the corner for Major League Baseball. Why mention the advent of this much-anticipated ritual of spring? Because it provides a way of thinking about what I call “rule-olatry”–the misplaced valuing of rules–or rule worship.

In Tennessee, the governor, lawmakers and the public have spoken clearly that the practice of power and influence in the form of “lobby bribery” must end.

Their so-called ethics bill, however, is no more an exercise in ethics than capital punishment is an act of rehabilitation of the criminal. This bill is about defining what is legal, not what is moral. It’s about what can be done, not what ought and must be done.

This is because ethics is not just about rules. It’s about good people, good ends and good means. The tradition of ethics entails a complex array of moral elements that are meaningful because they describe and prescribe a certain form of life.

It’s like the game of baseball. Baseball’s many elements depend upon one another if they are to mean anything at all. The team and the individual player can’t be what they are without the other. Neither can they be what they are without the rules of the game.

Good players develop the discipline of not only following the rules, but also the virtues of “smart play.” They understand that simply following rules isn’t the last word in whether or not a team plays well. It’s how one negotiates those rules in the middle of the game. It’s the constant negotiation of changing running, fielding and pitching situations.

When Steve Bartman plucked a fly-ball-drifting-foul out of Moises Alou’s glove in the sixth game of the National League Championship Series between the Cubs and the Marlins, an ethical quandary hit the baseball world square in the face.

As it happened, the Cubs—on the verge of going to the World Series for the first time in 58 years—lost their concentration after fan-interference was not called. The Marlins scored eight unanswered runs, eventually defeating the Cubs in seven games.

True, the Cubs’ lost their concentration, but, contrary to popular opinion, Bartman did not cause the loss. The good player defines him or herself not by the events peripheral to his or her performance, but instead makes that performance the judge of those peripheral events.

The Cubs’ play could have redeemed Bartman’s moment. As ballplayers, anything unexpected can always happen, but the virtue of courage on the field overcomes. As it turned out, their play was judged and condemned by how they responded to adversity.

Similarly our lawmakers—who also should embody courage and fortitude—should already be judging and condemning those influences that destroy democracy, rather than allowing themselves to be judged by them.

Thinking specifically of this Tennessee ethics bill, I am disturbed by several things:

–The assumption that a few rules can perform the great moral task of curtailing the undemocratic influence of special-interest power.

–The admission of lawmakers contained in this kind of “ethics” bill that tells constituencies, “We really can’t be trusted to avoid these behaviors because they’re wrong—but only because they’re illegal.”

–The codification of moral conduct outside of any constructive moral comment on the power abuses (i.e., the disenfranchisement of the poor, the minority and the different) inherent in special-interest politics.

–The lack of moral self-examination, as well as public examination and accountability.

–That tax dollars can be used to fund intricate plans of social deception to expose a moral tragedy like Operation Tennessee Waltz.

My concern with the “ethics bill” is that it renders helpless the ability of democratic self-governance to judge the moral cancers that attack from without. It does this because it has replaced the virtue of prudence in law-making with the childish quality of obedience.

I’m reminded of another situation where rules had prevented the discernment and practice of good. A certain young man in Luke 19 walked away from Jesus sad because—although he had followed the rules—he was no closer to God’s goodness for it.

Andy Watts is an assistant professor of religion teaching ethics at BelmontUniversity.