Worldwide Ethics: Can One Size Fit All?
 
There is a natural tendency for people to use the terms "ethics" and "morality" as if they had the same meaning. These words each have similar ancient roots, one in Greek, ethos , meaning the characteristic spirit of a community; and the other in Latin, mores , meaning the characteristic customs of a community. But in the applied contexts of government and profes- sional ethics, it is unhelpful to think of ethics in moral terms. Government and professional codes of ethics seek to promote not only the reality, but also the appearance of integrity. Even a benign act that advances the pub- lic interest, when committed by a conflicted actor, will reinforce public skepticism and undermine confidence in government or in the profession.

Even the great philosophers, who devoted their lives to contemplat- ing ethics and morality, disagreed fundamentally about what it meant to do the right thing. For example, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that good ends cannot justify bad means; one must act dutifully regard- less of how painful the consequences. The Utilitarian philosophers, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), judged an action by its consequences; a "good" action being one that promotes the most overall happiness. Differences of religion, culture and ideology lead to differing moral perspectives.
 
As our criminal law practitioners know, misconduct may be classified as either malum in se , conduct that is inherently wrong, such as murder, larceny or rape, or malum prohibitum, conduct that is wrong because it is illegal, such as speeding. Laws regulating the latter conduct are grounded in the social contract. We adopt them to make our society safer, more efficient, or more economical. Ethics regula- tions are best viewed in these pragmatic terms.
 
A broad, values based approach to government and professional ethics, without clear and compre- hensive rules, provides insufficient guidance to the honest majority of those whose conduct is regulated. It is difficult enough to develop coherent standards of conduct in our local, pluralistic communities. But how are we to develop coherent standards applicable to the worldwide workforce of an international organization like the United Nations? As Charles de Gaulle famously asked of France, "how can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?"
 
International civil servants working for the UN reside in countries having different laws, customs and prevailing economic conditions. A gift of nominal value in New York might be a windfall for a resident of Bangladesh. In some nations the refusal of a proffered gift may be regarded as an insult. The United Nations Ethics Office is engaged in the challeng- ing task of promoting coherent and consistent standards of conduct for worldwide application. The UNEO provides ethics advice and education to United Nations staff, affords whistle blower protection, and administers a financial disclosure program.
 
Like the Ethical Considerations of the former New York Lawyer's Code of Professional Responsibility, the United Nations code of ethics includes aspirational principles. These aspirational principles are accompanied by enforceable rules of conduct involving issues such as maintaining independence and impartiality, employment related conflicts of interest, use of UN resources, acceptance of gifts, honors and awards, out- side activities, political activities, post-employment restrictions and personal financial investments. Like the New York Rules of Professional Conduct, the UN rules of conduct are published together with interpretive commentary.
 
Thank you to our Ethics Committee Chair Kevin Kearon, Vice Chair Alfred Constants and the committee for their work in providing ethics advice and guidance to our members, and in partnering with the Nassau Academy of Law to pres- ent varied ethics programs.
 
TAX REFORM IN AN ERA OF POLITICAL POLARIZATION

Whether due to voter satisfaction, or due to decades of gerrymandering, few incumbents in Congress are defeated for reelection. The result is an electoral map that is now composed of reliably red states, blue states and battleground states. This gives little incentive for a majority party to bar- gain across the aisle.
 
At the time this column was written, tax bills had passed both houses of Congress and were headed for reconciliation. Among other things, the bills, if signed into law, would reduce the corporate income tax rate, provide tax relief for the owners of certain pass-through entities other than professional service businesses such as law firms (with certain exceptions in the Senate bill), reduce the individual income tax rates, consolidate the tax brackets (House bill), double the standard deduction, and eliminate the itemized deductions for state and local income taxes, medical expenses (House bill), mortgage interest on new loans in excess of $500,000 (House bill), and real property taxes in excess of $10,000. The respective bills were opposed by the entire bi-partisan Long Island Congressional delegation, and both of New York's United States Senators.
 
At its December meeting, the Association's Board of Directors unanimously expressed its opposition to the House and Senate bills. Many thanks to Brad Polizzano, Co-Chair of the Association's Tax Law Committee, for summarizing the bills, and explaining that the final tax reform legislation could have a significant adverse impact on the Long Island economy.
 
NEW LIFE FOR THE MORTGAGE FORECLOSURE CLINIC

Our Access to Justice Program includes regular and frequent legal consultation clinics at which volunteer attorneys provide advice and guidance to Nassau County residents facing mortgage foreclosure proceedings. This month, we held our 173 rd clinic. In the past five years, more than 13,688 residents turned to us for desperately needed assistance. All of these efforts would be impossible without the commitment to service, generosity of spirit and high standards of professionalism of our members, and our partners in government and in the not-for-profit sector. Thank you, in particular, to Access to Justice Committee Co-Chairs Rick Collins and Joseph Harbeson, and to Access to Justice Coordinator Gale Berg.
 
Our funding for the administrative costs of the program was due to expire in March of 2018. I am pleased to report that a grant from the Attorney General's office, combined with private funding, will enable us to continue to be a vital lifeline for those in despair of other alternatives well into 2019.
 
A SPECIAL HOLIDAY THANK YOU

We are grateful for the efforts of the many volunteers who, throughout the year, help us to serve the community and the profession. At this festive time of year, when a generous spirit of fellowship abounds, we give a special thank you to Nassau County District Court Judge Andrea Phoenix and Past President Chris McGrath for their many years of organizing the annual Thanksgiving luncheon for seniors, and to Florence Fass for her generosity in organizing the annual Gingerbread University, at which children decorate gingerbread houses. Of course, thank you to all of the members and their families, who volunteer their time at these events and throughout the year. Thank you, also to Executive Director Keith Soressi and the dedicated Association staff. Happy holidays to all who are celebrating at this time of year.
 

Log In