The Ethicist: Transparency (Part I)

Here we are in 2017, and all around us we see signs of turmoil, angst and politicians running afoul of basic ethical principles! I was going to write about Justin Trudeau’s marvelous tropical Christmas vacation, but I have decided to tackle that topic next month instead, since I think that the circumstances in the CBRM – where the media and communications representative for the municipality is refusing to answer the Spectator’s questions because she doesn’t like the tone of its reporting on City Hall – is worthy of comment.


Transparency Test

Provence JM Terio,

Provence (Photo by JM Terio)

I see these ethics columns not only as a way of commenting on current events, but also as an opportunity to let readers consider some of the basic presuppositions of political and moral philosophy that seem to be little understood and seldom analyzed outside of the philosophy classroom, although they should important to all of us because they affect each of us in ways both trivial and significant: from what we read online as we drink our morning tea, to what rights we are able to enjoy as citizens.

What I want to do in a couple of linked columns is explore one of these fundamental presuppositions, namely, the concept of transparency: what the term means, what the concept requires, why public institutions in a democracy ought to be transparent and why a lack of transparency is an issue that should be understood by all citizens (us!) to be serious and fundamentally unethical. In this month’s column, I want to explore the important role journalists play in holding politicians to account when they fail to meet what I call the “transparency test,” and in next month’s, the connection between transparency and conflicts of interest. Before I discuss either topic, of course, we need to have a good understanding of what it means for public institutions to be transparent, and why transparency is important in a democracy.

The fundamental principle underlying democratic states is that governments are chosen by their citizens to work for the common good of all. Of course, in all healthy democracies, there will be discussions – often lively, sometimes fractious – about what sorts of policies and which particular goals actually serve the common good; and it is to be hoped that, out of these discussions, all participants will come to have a clearer sense of what sorts of things are genuinely valuable, will really help make our shared life better.

Unfortunately, in most democracies, as these divergent opinions come to be solidified into party policies and partisan allegiances, citizens often come to see politics not as a communal endeavor but as a zero-sum game which produces winners and losers, and to root for their party, no matter what, in much the same way that die-hard Maple Leafs fans root for their team. When this happens (as it clearly has in both Canada and the United States), political discussion ceases to be a mechanism through which citizens can together identify which possible courses of action should be followed because they provide a means to making a better life for all and becomes, instead, a bitter battleground in which people’s positions harden and those who think differently are demonized, ignored, called insulting names and dismissed. Moreover, people are also likely to make excuses for the unethical behavior of their favorite politicians and to offer justifications for their actions when they would be outraged were similar behavior exhibited by politicians on the other side.

Robert Freeman,

(Photo by Robert Freeman)

What I hope to do in these columns is to try to get readers to think, not in terms of their own partisan allegiances or favorite politicians but, instead, about the underlying principles which provide the foundation of democratic politics. It is only when we hold all politicians to account on the basis that they have failed to live up to these principles, whatever their party affiliations, that we can expect them to behave better. If they know that their supporters will continue to support them whatever they do because they are “Liberal” or “Conservative,” “Republican” or “Democrat,” they will get away with egregious violations of ethical values and democratic principles, and all of us, in the long run, will pay a heavy cost: our democracies will start to look more and more like oligarchies and, perhaps, eventually like tyrannies. (I believe that in both Canada and the United States our democracies are already showing worrying signs that they are in the process of becoming less and less democratic and more and more oligarchic – but that is a discussion for another day).


Public Servants

In a democracy, public institutions – the institutions that were created to meet the needs that it is possible and appropriate for governments at every level to address – are supposed to be transparent. This means exactly what it sounds like – citizens should be able to see “through” them to their inner workings, to have an idea how they function, what choices were made by those who work in them, and who, in particular, made specific decisions, and what their reasons were for doing so. We can, therefore, metaphorically visualize public institutions as being see-through, as constructed with transparent glass walls, containing glass elevators, housing glass offices, encasing glass council chambers, legislators or parliaments.

Those who work in them, as public servants designated with the task of working in the public interest to further the common good fall into two broad categories: there are politicians, who, for certain periods of time, have managed to articulate a particular vision of the common good that has so resonated with voters that they have been entrusted to implement their vision, at least for now; and then there are public employees, whose role is not to be partisan, not to support this particular political party, come hell or high water, but to serve the people. Members of the latter group are meant to be constants, not people hired and fired when different parties gain or lose office. Consequently, they are meant to be people who, ideally, understand the workings of government well, and can take a long-term view on what sorts of policies, programs and plans, are likely to be of benefit to citizens. For example, we would not want all the people who work for E.I. or Health Canada to be hired and fired when new governments come in and old ones leave, nor do we want E.I. policies or pharmaceutical regulations to change so radically from one government to the next that none of us know what to expect if we lose our job or need medication.

Moreover, while politicians are elected, indeed, to advance particular party platforms, they, too, remain public servants: they serve at our pleasure, and their job is to work for all citizens, not only those who voted for them. This does not mean, of course, that their job is to make everyone happy, or to hold a referendum on every issue before they decide what to do; but it does mean that they ought to make decisions that they believe to be in the public interest, decisions that reflect their understanding of the common good – and that they ought to be able and willing to explain and defend those decisions. In short, their decisions have implications for citizens, and the job of politicians is to serve our interests, not their own. If a politician is unwilling to meet the transparency test – unwilling, that is to say, to explain what he did, and why – we can be pretty sure that the decision itself is, on some level, indefensible. In short, anytime a politician refuses to answer the questions of journalists, we should be concerned.



Päivi Rytivaara,

(Photo by Päivi Rytivaara)

Of course, many of our public institutions – from municipal council chambers and provincial legislatures, to hospital boards and federal ministries – have utterly failed the transparency test: meetings are routinely held in camera, our MPs don’t return our phone calls, legislation is passed which seems clearly to support corporate interests rather than advance the common good, and we are not given a good explanation of why, or told who lobbied the government and which individuals are likely to benefit as a result. Most of the time, we accept this lack of transparency – we are so used to it that we don’t notice it anymore, or the politicians who are in power are the ones on our team, the ones we voted for, so we give them the benefit of the doubt.

But this kind of apathy is dangerous. It allows some of our most fundamental democratic principles – for example, that politicians and public servants ought to be accountable to citizens, and ought to take seriously their role as guardians of the common good – to be weakened, so that politicians can get away with helping their friends while in office in exchange for favors when they are outside it, and so public servants come to feel that they must do whatever they can to make those politicians happy if they want to keep their jobs.

The most important defense against this kind of erosion is the role played by journalists. The most fundamental job of journalists in a democracy is to hold politicians accountable for their actions, and to ensure that, if our public institutions are not being run properly, citizens are aware of this fact. Their primary job, that is to say, is not to entertain us (although they often do this, and do it well), not to report on the latest fad diet or celebrity divorce, but to remind those whom we have entrusted to act in the public, in our interest, and to call them out when they behave badly, either by failing the transparency test, or by using their office to advance their own interests and those of their friends. The journalist, that is to say, does what most of us are unable or unwilling to do: if our public institutions are not transparent – if, metaphorically speaking, the glass walls have been encased in concrete, and blinds have been pulled down over the windows – she brings in a backhoe and tears the walls down, then flips up the blinds so that we, the citizens, can see inside.

Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. She is working on a book that explores the ethical dimensions of detective fiction.




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