September 22, 2009
Last week’s video revelation that Acorn employees in more than one office were caught giving advice to what they believed were a prostitute and a pimp on how to open a brothel that would “employ” under-aged girls and how to evade taxes.
ACORN’s CEO Bertha Lewis said in reaction to the incidents: “As a result of the indefensible action of a handful of our employees, I am, in consultation with ACORN’s Executive Committee, immediately ordering a halt to any new intakes into ACORN’s service programs until completion of an independent review. I have also communicated with ACORN’s independent Advisory Council, and they will assist ACORN in naming an independent auditor and investigator to conduct a thorough review of all of the organization’s relevant systems and processes.”
Will that be enough to save the organization? The Congress voted for a suspension of public funding by an overwhelming majority of 345-75 in the House and 83 -7 in the Senate. Senator Gillibrand was one of the 7 senators who voted in favor of ACORN funding. Her office made the following statement: “Senator Gillibrand finds the actions of certain employees of these organizations to be reprehensible, and believes these individuals should absolutely be punished for their actions. However, thousands of New York families who are facing foreclosure depend on charitable organizations for assistance. Senator Gillibrand believes that eliminating funding would be harmful to the thousands of families who need assistance during this very difficult economic time. We should not punish hardworking families in need because of the abhorrent actions of a few.”
There are many ethical aspects as to what happened with ACORN last week.
The method of entrapment is one of them. It is usually done by the authorities such as the police or the FBI. Female police officers pose as prostitutes to entrap “customers” and FBI agents pose as terrorists to apprehend a real terrorist. The moral justification for such deceptive method is that it prevents a crime from occurring and exposes the intent of the individuals about or in the process of committing a crime.
However it is rare that such method is used by private citizens. There is a moral difference between recording a conversation or an action that we consider illegal, immoral, or just inappropriate in order to expose the action and the individuals in question and actually provoking that action by assuming a false identity. Although exposing evil has a positive outcome for society, does the end justify the means? In some case they do, in others maybe not. Each situation should be considered separately.
The aspect of the ACORN scandal also raises questions about the ethical culture of an organization.
An organization that is an advocate for the down trodden and poor will tend to find itself in adversarial positions against the establishment that it believes is the cause of poverty and injustice. There is however a difference between “beating the system” and breaking the law. This recent scandal unfortunately is not an isolated incident and seems to indicate an endemic unethical culture. The incident was repeated in a number of offices in different cities. Furthermore ACORN has been in the past charged and fined for voter’s registration fraud and investigated by the FBI for mortgage fraud.
Employees of an organization that has an ethical culture will instinctively react to a blatant immoral proposition. Once the words “under-aged” (child?) prostitutes were uttered, the right thing to do would have been for the ACORN employees to terminate the conversation and walk the two individuals out the door. They did not.
This is very unfortunate because ACORN is fighting for a good cause and has done a much good to many people.
One lesson we can all learn from this deplorable story is that the end rarely justifies the means.
As George Bernanos, the French author once said:
“The first sign of corruption in a society that is still alive is that the end justifies the means.”