We're the ones who are unethical

Members of Congress are widely considered dishonest. But, wonders Dean Obeidallah, should anyone really feel superior?

Story highlights

  • A Gallup poll says Congress has the second-lowest ethical standards of any profession
  • Dean Obeidallah: If we care about ethics, why did we re-elect 91% of Congress in 2012?
  • No one brags that his or her lawyer or accountant is the most ethical, honest person, he says
  • We scoff at others' apparent moral bankruptcy and imagine we are superior, he says

Congratulations, members of Congress: A new poll finds that you're not viewed as having the lowest ethical standards of any profession in the country! You edged out car salesman for that honor. Of course, you're viewed as the second worst profession in terms of honesty and ethics, but hey, savor this moment -- you've earned it.

At least these are the findings of a Gallup poll released this week that asked people to rate "the honesty and ethical standards of people" in different professions. Besides Congress and car salesmen, also bringing up the rear in this poll are the usual suspects, among them lawyers, stockbrokers and bankers.

Topping the list of professions we find most ethical were nurses, followed by pharmacists and doctors. Dentists came in lower, but I doubt that dentists are truly less honorable than M.D.s; it's just that dentists seem to enjoy causing us so much pain that this may be our way of paying them back.

In reviewing the poll results, I am left with a few burning questions. First, how can car salesmen be viewed as less trustworthy than Congress?

Dean Obeidallah

It wasn't the guys at the local Ford or Chrysler dealership who caused our government to lose its AAA credit rating. And they aren't the ones who can't agree on a budget deal while we collectively stare into the abyss of the "fiscal cliff." In fact, I have no doubt that a group of car salesmen could iron out a deal on the budget quicker than our recalcitrant Congress -- plus get us all to buy some undercoating for our cars to boot.

But here are my bigger questions about this poll. Do we really care about the ethics of the people in these professions? Does it truly matter to us whether they are honest?

If we actually did care about the moral fitness of Congress, why would we re-elect them to the tune of 91% in 2012? If honesty truly meant something to us, wouldn't we have voted out at least half of them? Even 25%? But no, when given a chance last month to vote out Congress, we sent home only 9% of those up for re-election.

And let's look at lawyers, a profession consistently viewed as ethically challenged. Before I saw the light and became a comedian, I was a practicing attorney for about six years. I can tell you firsthand that my clients never, ever asked me about ethics.

What did my clients always ask me about? How do we win -- be it a lawsuit or negotiations. (Followed by: How much is this going to cost me?) I even had clients tell me, in essence: I don't care what you have to do to win this case; win it, or I will find a lawyer who will. It was up to me to rein in my clients who wanted to go beyond what was ethically permissible.

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Let's consider stockbrokers, also a profession that wallows in the pit of perceived low ethics. If your stockbroker had a tip for you that was not illegal but was ethically ambiguous, would you execute the trade based on that info if it could make you a nice payday?

Or what about your accountant? Would you support her recommendation to take a "questionable" deduction that would save you a nice chunk of money?

Honestly, have you ever heard someone brag that their lawyer, accountant or financial planner was the most ethical, honest person they ever met? Unlikely. But I bet you heard people say things like "My accountant is amazing at finding loopholes," "my broker gets me great returns on my money every year" or "my lawyer is a killer."

We want the meat, but we don't want to know how the calf is forced to live in a crate or how the lobster is boiled alive. We want tender veal, tasty seafood, lawyers who win cases and brokers who make us money. We want results.

But when a poll comes around about ethics, we are all of a sudden holier than thou. We scoff at others' apparent moral bankruptcy. We joke about their lack of ethics. We convince ourselves that we are ethically superior to them.

Yet in the very same instance, we re-elect them to Congress. We retain them to represent us in legal proceedings. We hire them to manage our money. And when they do a good job, we recommend them to friends.

So here are my real questions about this poll: Who really are the unethical ones here? Who truly deserves to be on the bottom of the list of honest people? Them or us?

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