Photo Credit: Graham Hughes , THE CANADIAN PRESS

For some time, the Province of Quebec has been facing a rising tsunami of allegations of serious corruption in the construction industry, resulting from its infiltration by organized crime, including the mafia and biker gangs. Finally, in October 2011, the Quebec government bowed to public pressure and established a judicial commission, the Commission of Inquiry on the Awarding and Management of Public Contracts in the Construction Industry, to investigate these allegations.

The commission is chaired by Justice France Charbonneau, a judge who is highly respected for her previous work in dealing with organized crime. She was a judicial counselor to Quebec’s elite anti-biker squad in the late 1990s, which resulted in the conviction of many biker gang members for serious crimes, including murder.

The revelations at the Charbonneau commission are astonishing and appalling. Bids for public works contracts were rigged to go to certain firms, with a 30 to 40 percent premium above the proper cost.

Allegations include public officials having accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash bribes – one Montreal city engineer admitted to receiving at least C$500,000 and possibly $700,000 – and other benefits, such as vacations, wine, expensive sports tickets, home renovations. In one case, a recipient of cash bribes had to buy a bigger safe to contain the cash, because he couldn’t shut the door of his smaller safe. Political parties accepted money for their campaigns in breach of the rules governing donations, and so on. And the evidence continues to flow in. Witnesses have been granted immunity from criminal prosecution for their testimony at the commission, so are eager to talk.

Such  revelations have put the issue of widespread corruption in our socio-political structure on Quebec’s societal agenda. That raises the question: What could we and should we have done to avoid such alleged massive wrongdoing?

For instance, was there some way we could have screened the people who made the corrupt decisions, before they were in a position to do so? Just as engineers must have proven and certified competence in engineering before being employed, should those in public office be required to have proven and certified competence in ethics?

That question led me to think about whether involving ethicists in public decision making might help to avoid breaches of ethics, such as we are now witnessing. And that, in turn, raises the question of the ethics of ethicists.

Can one practise as an ethicist, if one is an unethical person? The “virtues ethics” school would give a negative answer. That school advocates deciding about ethics by requiring ethical decisions to be taken by morally right-minded people. But how should we assess who they are?

And what, in general, are the ethics of the ethicists who follow the many other schools, and how are those ethics to be established, “certified,” and monitored? This is an important question if we are thinking of expanding the contexts in which ethicists work.

What is the responsibility of universities in admitting people to masters and doctoral programs in bioethics, which will train them to be professional ethicists? Should people who have the necessary qualifications for admission, but manifest characteristics which are reasonable grounds to fear they will act unethically, be refused admission? Or, what if, during the course of their studies, a student’s conduct raises such valid fears? This is not a new or unique problem for professional schools; for instance, those of medicine and law have long faced it.

Should a very high achieving medical student be expelled if, unknown to a patient, he takes photographs in which the patient is identifiable, during very invasive facial surgery, which most people would regard as horrific, and posts them on Facebook? The damage is not only a serious breach of the patient’s privacy, but also serious emotional trauma to the patient from his later viewing the photographs.

What lessons could we take from the embedding of ethics in medicine and science over the last 40 years that could help to remedy and avoid, in the future, the culture of corruption we are seeing dramatically unraveling, daily, in the evidence given before Justice France Charbonneau? How did this culture evolve and who is responsible?

We know that what is called the “ethical tone” of an institution, such as a hospital, employing around 1,000 people, is set by a small group of leaders — about five — at the top. If they are ethical the institution, on the whole, will be ethical; and if they are unethical, so goes the institution.

Then, in terms of assessing the “ethical tone” of our society, it’s often said that this is not set by how the society treats its strongest, most powerful, most affluent members, but by how it treats its weakest, most vulnerable, most in need ones. So, applying this test to Quebec, we would have to take into account that strong, powerful and affluent people in positions of public trust, have been sequestering taxpayers’ money at the expense of those who are weak, vulnerable and in need, whether because they are mentally or physically ill, homeless, disabled, poor, very young or old.

The wider harmful effects of such conduct include the destruction of what is sometimes called “social capital,” the collective store of intangible “goodness,” which must permeate and inform our society, if it is to have a high “ethical tone.” This is created through trustworthiness, honesty, promise-keeping, philanthropy, generosity, co-operation and the social networks that we need to foster and protect to ensure that we can maintain a society in which reasonable people would want to live.

There are no magic bullet remedies for the current situation and we will have to seek the necessary changes at the level of individuals’ conduct, institutional design and operation, and societal values and sanctions. In the context of public office, we need ethical people, ethical institutions, and ethical systems, and the safeguards and supervision that make this more, rather, than as seems to have been the case, less likely to be achieved.

That requires a change in the nature of the trust that we, as citizens, place in people in public office. Again, medicine can provide us with a lesson. The late Dr. Jay Katz, formerly of Yale University, described the change from “blind trust” — “trust me because I know what’s best for you and will act in your ‘best interests’” — to “earned trust” — “trust me because I will show that I can be trusted and earn your trust.” As the Charbonneau commission and the resignations of Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay and Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt are showing us, there’s a lot of earning to be done by those who hold public office in Quebec.

But before rushing to single out Quebec, we need to ask whether the same is true for other parts of Canada and, indeed, other comparable democracies. That’s not a comfortable question to have to ask.

Margaret Somerville is director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law.

Margaret Somerville is based in Sydney, Australia, where she is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine. At McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, she is Samuel...