An American Editor

December 14, 2016

On Ethics: Do Ethics Matter Anymore?

I have discussed ethics on An American Editor in a number of essays (see, e.g., “On Ethics: To Out or Not to Out Clients” [Part I and Part II]; “A Question of Ethics: The Delayed Project Further Delayed”; “A Question of Ethics: If the Editing Is Running Behind Schedule…”; “The Ethics of Distaste”; “The Ethics of Editing: Padding the Bill”; “The Ethics of Editing: The Sour Job”; “Trolleyology and the Ethics of Editing”; and “Ethics in a World of Cheap”), but I am now wondering whether ethics matter.

Editors do not live in isolation, cut off from the world around us — or we shouldn’t. We need to be engaged with our surrounding world because it is our worldly experiences, along with our education and interests, that shape our editing. It would be difficult to provide a quality edit for a book on genocide if we did not know what genocide was and how it has appeared in history. We do not need to be experts in the subject matter, but we need to have some, at least rudimentary, knowledge about the subject matter. Thus we are engaged with our world.

In addition, we are engaged because we are citizens of our world and country. We cannot shut our eyes and pretend that what is happening next door, across the street, around the corner doesn’t have an impact on our own lives. And that is what makes me wonder if I have been wrong all along when I thought that ethics matter, that following an ethical path is important, that ethics is part and parcel of being a professional editor.

What I see around me is a vast change. A pebble was dropped in the ocean and the ripples it created are becoming a tsunami as the wave approaches the other side of the ocean. We have always had unethical members of the editing profession; every profession, every trade, every job type has workers who are ethical and workers who are unethical — except, we hope, for one very specific exception: president of the United States.

It is not that our presidents haven’t been ethically challenged on occasion; they are human and have human failings. It is the striving to be ethical that matters most and I cannot recall or think of a president who I would declare as wholly unethical — until now. Which is why I am concerned.

My reward for being an ethical business person, an ethical editor, is that I have work, I earn a decent wage, I have a place among my colleagues (i.e., they do not shun me for being unethical). And just as I sought to be ethical in my business, I expected others to be ethical in theirs. If they were not ethical, I expected them to not be rewarded for being unethical. Consequently, when we discuss questions of ethics, we discuss them in terms of balancing the scales of right and wrong and how, when we strike that balance, the answer affects not only ourselves but others. That is and has always been the foundation of ethics.

Until the Donald Trump run for and election to the presidency.

Now my world of ethics is being turned upside down. I get work and earn a decent living, but I am not a millionaire, let alone a billionaire, and I have not been rewarded with the power to set editing’s future direction. I am just an everyday schmoe of little influence and relevance.

In contrast, a man who appears to have no ethical boundaries, who doesn’t separate fact from fantasy, who is divisive, who steals from others and calls it business, is rewarded with election to the presidency of the United States and monetary wealth.

Sure I go to sleep at night with a clear conscience, but, I am willing to bet, so does Donald Trump.

So I ask the question: Based on the example of Donald Trump, do ethics matter? Would editors be better served to ignore questions of ethics and do whatever it takes or they can get away with? For example, instead of checking references, should the editor just style them and not care whether the cite information is correct, even though the agreement with the client is for the editor to check references for accuracy? Think of how much time and effort could be saved — time that could be spent on other, perhaps more profitable, pursuits.

When we discuss our fee and what it includes with an author, should we justify our fee by mentioning services that we will not really perform? Had you asked me on November 1, I would have said doing so was highly unethical and no, we should not only not do so but we shouldn’t even think about doing so. But today I waver.

I do not waver for myself; I know what path I will follow — the same path I always have. I waver on the question of whether or not ethics matter today. Does anyone expect ethicality? If we are willing to elect someone who wholly lacks an ethical and moral compass to lead us, why should we expect more of those who work beside us or for us?

I recognize that matters of ethics are personal. Each of us will choose our own path, just as we did on November 1. None of that is likely to change. What is changing — or, perhaps, has already changed — is the community compulsion to be ethical, however ethicality is individually defined. We are ethical because of personal traits and because of peer pressure. It is like stopping for a red light. We stop because of peer pressure and our desire to conform to community standards. (Yes, I recognize that there are laws, but laws are simply written expressions of community standards. They are written so that all community members can know them. But no law is enforceable in the absence of our personal beliefs, peer pressure, and community acceptance of the law.)

We are entering what is being called the “posttruth age,” a time when truth is whatever someone declares it to be. I think it might be better labeled the Trumpian Fantasy Age. It is an age when ethics are mutable, when ethics flow in all directions simultaneously, when ethics and honesty take a back seat to enrichment and fantasy. While the effect may be minimal on the current generation of editors, what will the effect be on future generations? Will anyone ask, will anyone care, whether a particular action is ethical? Does the future of editing lie in an ungoverned, undisciplined editing profession?

Has the political world of 2016 so upended the community’s moral compass that anarchy looks as if it is disciplined? Do ethics matter anymore?

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. In response to “…Trumpian Fantasy Age. It is an age when ethics are mutable, when ethics flow in all directions simultaneously, when ethics and honesty take a back seat to enrichment and fantasy. While the effect may be minimal on the current generation of editors, what will the effect be on future generations? Will anyone ask, will anyone care, whether a particular action is ethical? Does the future of editing lie in an ungoverned, undisciplined editing profession?”

    I think those of us who are outraged at Trump will ourselves be even more scrupulous about ethics. At least, that’s the way I feel. As to the younger generation and future generations of editors, from what I see on the various discussion boards I’m on, they are very concerned with professional ethics, with doing the right thing, even to the point, sometimes, of being overly scrupulous themselves with unscrupulous clients. Allowing some unscrupulous clients to take advantage of them.

    So another question arises from this observation: What can we do about others (those we must interact with) who have thrown ethics to the wind? Will this become more common? I try to be on guard for the warning signs of a lack of ethics in potential clients and avoid working with such people. Sometimes it’s appropriate to warn other freelancers about them — many posts I see on discussion boards are about this kind of client. This is part of ethical behavior on our parts — helping our colleagues.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — December 14, 2016 @ 12:25 pm | Reply

  2. AAE asks: “Has the political world of 2016 so upended the community’s moral compass that anarchy looks as if it is disciplined?”

    My question is, who is “the community”? I don’t belong to the one you describe. Neither do most of the people I know and am aware of. Ethics are alive and well in individuals and communities large and small spread throughout the world, who navigate through life following a sound moral compass. Just because they got outvoted this time and seem always to be outnumbered, doesn’t mean they don’t exist and aren’t a mighty force.

    The problem is how many people believe that what they see and hear through modern media is all true and are swayed by it. This makes ethics more important than ever, because folks who have them need to continually counteract the fantasy world that’s creeping in now that so many people, especially Americans, are disconnected from the basics of life, and rely on manipulative media bites to inform them, mold their thinking, and play their emotions.

    Ethical editors will continue to be sought by ethical writers and publishers and readers, an energy and culture that will spread onward/outward through “the community” until they get wiped out by unethical powers — which may ultimately happen. To date, however, the broad and diverse ethical small communities have managed to endure despite the spasms of civilization. Progress isn’t a straight line. All advances jerk forward, backward, and sideways before the next solid step forward takes place and holds. None of it would happen without the ethical subpopulation prevailing over time.


    Comment by Carolyn — December 15, 2016 @ 8:52 am | Reply

  3. I understand your concerns. Yet, I keep in mind that the man set to be the country’s next president was apparently put in office by only 26% of the country’s registered voters. Also, the ethics of this precarious man have been in place for a long time, and practiced by others of his ilk for a long time. Ethics have survived during those years, and will continue to survive.

    My personal and professional ethics will remain intact, as I’m certain will all other editors who have lived and worked ethically all their lives. Those people without ethics, or who twist them to suit, won’t become worse simply because the undeclared emperor of unethical will soon be sitting (on occasion) in the White House.

    Stand firm. Hold your honor high. Ethics for eternity! [banners unfurl — resounding roar of the crowd] : o)

    Great post as always, Rich — and please know that the same army of ethical editors that was in place before the election is still in place, still marching forward…


    Comment by TigerXGlobal (@TigerXGlobal) — December 15, 2016 @ 12:22 pm | Reply

  4. I worry more about unethical clients than unethical editors, although both are a concern. I’ll stick to my ethical code; turn down work that seems of out line with that code (and find ways to politely explain why); and keep trying to promote ethical, decent behavior in all areas of my life.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — December 17, 2016 @ 10:54 am | Reply

  5. Well, it’s my belief that the election was and always has been rigged (I have nothing to back that up other than a conspiracy theorist’s intuition). So, don’t let the outcome of this election put you down. And remember that you are just as much of a ripple as anyone else.


    Comment by atypicalfemme — December 18, 2016 @ 12:18 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: