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

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