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Howard's End: Character Counts

MP's alleged to be involved in rorts, public servants taking bribes, the stock exchange altering the rules, violent crime doubling in the last decade, these are just some examples of the New Zealand disease. Where have all the role models gone? John Howard writes.

If violent crime has doubled in the last 10 years, what will New Zealand be like to live in 10 years from now?

From time to time I'm invited to speak to small community groups and I hope Scoop readers will forgive me in advance if I share part of one of my recent talks with you about ethics.

If there's one thing that New Zealand needs, more than ever, it's to teach the message that character counts. Trust, respect, responsibility, fairness, ethics and citizenship should all form part of our teaching and learning.

We've all been let down, many have deceived us and many have been found wanting - and we've let ourselves down.

It's got to the stage in New Zealand when somebody says or asks something, our immediate reaction seems to be, "what's their angle."

Gone are the days when we could take someone at their word when we had no positive reason to believe the contrary. Suspicion and mistrust abound.

I believe trust begets trust. Suspicion stinks. But being trustworthy is not enough, we must also be caring. Adhering to the letter of the law is not enough, we must also accept responsibility for our actions.

Sometimes, we focus so hard on upholding a moral principle that we sacrifice another - where, intent on holding others accountable, we ignore our duty to be compassionate. Where, intent on getting a job done, we ignore the how and why.

Responding to the latest figures that the number of violent offences has doubled in the past decade, Police Minister George Hawkins said, "New Zealand has simply become a more violent society and it would take time to reverse the trend."

"It might take a few years because there are so many people whose behaviour is unacceptable that we've got to try and turn them around," he said.

The Opposition blames the lack of police on the beat but Mr Hawkins says there are more police now than ever.

Police numbers will not solve the real problem. The problem is that our standards and ethics have slipped so far, even in the ranks of our so-called leaders, that there are no longer any decent role models to look up to.

New Zealand has to again teach people at all levels of society what can unite our diverse and fractured society.

Building trust would be a good place to start.

When we're trusted we're given leeway by others because they don't feel they need contracts to assure that we'll meet our obligations. They believe in us and that's satisfying. But simply refraining from lies and deception is not enough. Trustworthiness is the most complicated of the core ethical values and concerns a variety of behavioural qualities - like honesty, integrity, reliability and loyalty.

Honesty is perhaps the most fundamental of the core values. We associate honesty with people of honour and we admire and trust those who are honest. But honesty is a broader concept than many may realise.

For example, honesty in communicating requires a good faith intent to convey the truth as best we know it and to avoid communicating in a way likely to mislead or deceive.

That in itself requires truthfullness, sincerity and candour. In other words volunteering information that another person needs to know in such a sincere way that excludes half-truths, out-of-context statements and even silence that is intended to create beliefs or leave impressions that are untrue or misleading.

If we don't conduct our affairs this way then we violate trust and fairness.

Reliability, or promise-keeping, is another part of trust. When we make promises or other commitments that create a basis for another person to rely upon us to perform a task, we undertake a duty which goes beyond legal obligations.

The ethical dimension of promise-keeping imposes a responsibility of making all reasonable efforts to fulfil our commitments. Because promise-keeping is such an important aspect of trustworthiness, we should avoid bad-faith excuses, avoid unwise commitments, and avoid unclear commitments.

So, loyalty, respect, responsibility, accountability, fairness, caring, impartiality, self-restraint and pursuit of excellence are all fundamentals of trust.

Caring, for example, is at the heart of ethics. We cannot be ethical and at the same time not be genuinely concerned with the welfare of others. That's because ethics is ultimately about our responsibilities toward other people. An individual existing alone in the universe would have no need for ethics and their heart could be as cold and hard as ice because there would be no consequences to anyone or anything.

People who consider themselves ethical and yet lack a caring attitude toward individuals tend to treat others as instruments of their will. This type of person, and there are too many of them in New Zealand, rarely feels an obligation to be honest, loyal, fair or respectful except when it is to their own advantage - a disposition which hints at duplicity and lack of integrity.

It seems to me that the highest form of caring is honest expression of benevolence. Caring is not what I call "strategic giving" where a person or company gives to advance personal interests. They aren't gifts at all, they are investments or tax write-offs.

Finally, I suppose it's all about citizenship and being a good citizen. The concept includes civic virtues and duties that shows us how we ought to behave as part of a community.

The good citizen knows the laws and obeys them, but that's not all. A good citizen volunteers and stays informed on the issues of the day, the better to function as a member of a self-governing democratic society. That is, they do more than their fair-share to make society work, now and for future generations. A good citizen never takes more than they give. And a good citizen will always try to be honest, caring, fair, respectful and responsible.

Sometimes being a good citizen is as simple as believing in someone when nobody else will.

In the end, people have to live their own lives in whatever degree of isolation they choose. But think about the question I posed at the start of this column - If violent crime has doubled in the past 10 years, what will New Zealand be like to live in 10 years from now?

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