By Tom Ehrich

What do you make of this?

State judges charged with being the independent branch of government deny the very foundation of democracy -- free voting by free citizens -- by suppressing voters likely to support Democratic candidates.

Or this?

Administrators, faculty, sports officials and students at US universities know their institutions are cheating the US government by turning Federal aid to education into higher tuition, extravagant facilities and bloated administrative costs. But they say nothing about it.

Or this?

Employees of major banks know their firms are back at the same risky practices that nearly drove the US into a depression seven years ago. But they, too, remain silent.

What do I make of it? This is why philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote about the "banality of evil." For evil to continue, people must go along with it.

The ethical collapse of a complex society doesn't just require bad people in leadership. It also requires bad behavior by ordinary citizens, who, when they see criminal and unjust practices, remain silent and, often, decide to profit from them.

Profit as in take a kickback, but profit also as in retain their jobs even though their company is doing bad things and hurting other people.

If the only way I can earn a living is by colluding in criminal, unsavory, unjust or unethical behavior, what does that say about me? Do I stand for anything beyond survival?

We don't expect any better of power-seekers. But they operate freely only when the led go along, when voters turn a blind eye to injustice, when employees allow a cheating culture, when supposedly high-minded people like judges and professors choose personal gain over ethical duty.

Ethical behavior has a cost. Trying to avoid that cost succeeds only in making the individual a collaborator in evil.

There is no simple way forward from this collapse. It will require religious communities to do a better job of ethical formation. Going beyond bedroom behavior to look at injustice and criminality in everyday life.

It will require parents to train their children, not just in following rules (a low form of ethical behavior) but recognizing and choosing the right thing because it is right.

It will require advocates for those who make ethical choices, such as whistleblower, and lawyers who defend people, not just corporations.

And more. And more. This ethical collapse has deep roots. But until we climb out of it, we will keep on losing the democracy we value, the fairness we depend on, the sound economy that serves all, and the self-esteem we want.

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