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Ethical conduct

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A discussion in the workplace: 'Shouldn't our decisions include ethical considerations much more often?'

A colleague indicates that acting in accordance with the law is also acting ethically, so that further ethical consideration is not necessary. Of course, it may be moral to comply with the law. But this fact is itself the finished product of ethical consideration. There is apparently the hidden assumption that the (at all times?) is better to follow the law, than not to follow it.

Does singularly following legislation now actually answer the question of whether it is morally justified to this law to follow, or in this situation or at this target group? And is all legislation equivalent? Is it not better in cases to act in the spirit of the law? Are there no overlapping laws or laws that contradict each other? Is it no longer necessary to weigh up whether certain legislation actually leads to legal inequality? Or lead to discrimination or disadvantage? And isn't there such a thing as discretionary room for the executive officer?

The point of view chosen disturbs me, especially from a policy maker who, on the contrary, draws lines and colors parts of the coloring sheet himself. It was probably easily dismissed and not given too much thought. Yet, it is precisely that which is perhaps most troubling. Perhaps it has to do with the words of Hanna Arendt echoing through my head:

The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.

(Paraphrased) she says: "The darkest evil in society is perpetuated by the public servant who dutifully does his job. All processes are bureaucratized and divided into pieces so that no one is responsible for the whole. And when everyone is guilty, no one is. Evil is not radical, but banal."

I can already hear you making the objection that Hanna Arendt was talking about totalitarian regimes, not our free and reasonably well-run democracy. But wasn't it Winston Churchill who once said something in this vein: Democracy is a lousy system, but it is the best we have. The Dutch system therefore seems to me to be extremely vulnerable in this sense, also because the division into small parts seems so familiar to me. Shouldn't ethical conduct be a standard item on the agenda in such a system? Surely considerations cannot be motivated solely by financial, economic or political interests, framed only by expected or suspected ethics in legislation? It points to an extraordinarily positivistic view of legislation and extraordinarily little awareness of historicity and the lessons of history.

Themes that play out within my field of vision, to give you an idea: Are eligible resources distributed with equal consideration so that there can be a "level playing field" and distortion of competition can be countered (think also of market forces in healthcare)? Have historically injustices grown that need to be corrected? Are target groups treated equally? Is there any politically charged terminology and can this be neutralized? Have legislations been contrasted and balanced (think of the rights of the child, human rights, Wmo, political responsibility)? I could go on, but hopefully you can also compile your own list of what is going on within your work and field of vision.

May I therefore call on every civil servant, from politician to policymaker and from lawyer to implementer to always continue to evaluate their own "small parts" in terms that not only ask about the legislative frameworks, but also dare to ask the question 'what I do is the right thing‘.


Erwin de Ruiter

"One man tries to express himself in books, another in boots; both are likely to fail." - G.K. Chesterton

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