Opinion Page: Ethics and Enron

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The Rev. Thomas Sullivan, professor of ethics at Babson College talks about his op-ed in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer on what the Enron case says about ethics and power.


Time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page.

Last week, the former heads of Enron - Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling - were found guilty of fraud and conspiracy in the collapse of the former energy giant. They await sentencing and could spend the rest of their lives in prison. Thomas Sullivan is a Professor of Ethics at Babson College. He says at first, he thought Enron was less about moral grays than about legal black and whites. Since then, though, he's changed his mind.

In Sunday's Currents section of the Philadelphia Enquirer, he writes that what Enron teaches us is to ask the question, should we be doing this? Thomas Sullivan joins us now from the studios of member station WBUR in Boston, Massachusetts.

Thanks very much for taking time out of your holiday to be with us.

Reverend THOMAS SULLIVAN (Professor of Ethics, Babson College): Thank you for having me, Neal. It's great.

CONAN: In your op-ed, you said that for years a lot of your colleagues used to come up to you and say Enron must be great for your ethics classes, all sorts of questions. But you demurred. How come?

Rev. SULLIVAN: Well, it seemed at the time like it was exactly what you just described, a fraud case. And a lot of people confuse ethics and the law. They say, well, if they haven't broken any laws they've done nothing unethical. And I thought, okay, that's for the legal people, and they should definitely talk about it.

But as I was watching the testimony, or reading some of the testimony and listening to the witnesses for the prosecution - each of them, you know, had some moment where someone asked them to do something they knew they shouldn't do, or someone ordered them to do something they knew they shouldn't do, and they had a chance to say no and they didn't. And at the trial, when they were testifying about it, each of them looked as though they were looking back to that moment and saying, I'd love to have that back.

CONAN: Hmm. We're talking on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page with the Rev. Thomas Sullivan. You're listening to the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This moment that they would like back, this moment where - they were understood that they were participating in something shady?

Rev. SULLIVAN: Well, they understood that they were participating in something shady, or that they were deceiving investors, or that were doing something to manipulate the stock price or the earnings of the company. You know, these were all very smart people and astute business people, and I think they were trying to make a good decision but they just didn't ask the question should we be doing this? Or they asked it in a, sort of a, purely financial sense, and not also in a sort of an ethical sense, or a moral sense.

CONAN: Part of the problems, it seemed at the time, that there was a sense that Enron had a new way of doing business and finance. And if you questioned those in power and the way they were doing things, you would be ridiculed for not getting it. Even you as an ethics professor didn't see an ethical dilemma there. At least not at first.

Rev. SULLIVAN: Well, I think, I guess I'm, what I'm trying to do is broaden my understanding of what the ethics of this case are, to include these moments of somebody asking me to break the law or - it's actually a great, for, a model for a high technology business model, where a lot of times we do things and we don't really know what the implications of them are. But if we can stop and ask should we be doing this, and particularly if the leaders of the company can develop a culture where people feel comfortable saying should we do this - and also feel comfortable saying no if they think the answer is no - we're going to be better off than if we just sort of plunge ahead and say we have to this, we have to do this. It's a tough balance to strike for a CEO, I think, to be a hard-driving, tough leader, but also to be able to let people say there's a problem here.

CONAN: It's even more of a problem for underlings who are - this very powerful person, and they're supposed to say, should we be doing this?

Rev. SULLIVAN: Well, you know, my job would be really easy if I could say, if you're unethical, it's going to be bad, and if you're ethical it's going to be good.

CONAN: There you go.

Rev. SULLIVAN: But the world isn't quite that way. And, you know, I think - you know, even Andy Fastow, who said, look, I knew I was doing, I was deceiving people, and I was misleading people, but I thought I was a hero. That's a confusing world to be in when you're talking about billions of dollars and somebody wants something done yesterday. And they're saying, look, it's going to make or break the company. It's very hard to - unless the culture accepts it or even encourages it, it's hard to be the person to say, wait a minute, there's a problem here.

CONAN: Hm. How're you going to use this in your, are you going to, is this a teachable moment?

Rev. SULLIVAN: Well, it's actually - it's definitely a teachable moment. And I've already done a couple of classes where I've acknowledged that I was just wrong about this for five years. And as I talk about the witnesses having this time of recollecting the choice they made to go ahead and not stop this, and how they wished they could have the moment back, a lot of the students in my class have been nodding their heads yes - because either they've had the same experience or they've recognized it in a witness.

And that opens the door to some great conservations, about, okay, what does this mean? It's not as simple as, you know, being a whistle-blower. I mean, Sharron Watkins has been kind of a hero in this. But it's hard to be the person to say no, we shouldn't be doing this. It's, you know, she paid a cost for that, and all these other folks, had they said no, probably would have been fired. And they would've gotten somebody else to do what needed to be done.

CONAN: Yeah.

Rev. SULLIVAN: But on the other hand, you know, if there's a nice sort of morality play in this, they are all going to jail. And I feel badly for them, because I don't think any of them intended that by what they were doing. But, there's a cost to be paid either way. And they had a chance to choose which cost they paid - and I think now they see that, and if I can get students to see that before they face the decision then I had a good teaching day.

CONAN: You said, even students, university students, nodding in agreement that they've faced decisions like this. I wonder, have you faced a moment like that?

Rev. SULLIVAN: Oh, sure. And I said in my op-ed, you know, I've had some that I've blown. I think that's part of being human, is everybody faces these moments and gets them right most of the time, but sometimes makes mistakes. And I think that's probably important, and especially when you're, you know, a minister and the ethics professor, to say not everybody gets this right all the time. But yes, I've faced them. And it's tough.

Now I also, you know, I teach mostly graduate students at Babson, although I do sometimes teach undergraduate students. But its interesting that almost everyone I've talked to about this moment, of, you know, the time when you can say should I be doing this has pretty much understood it right away.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Rev. SULLIVAN: And said, yeah, yeah, I've been through that.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah, I've been through that. Yeah. Me too.

Rev. SULLIVAN: Yeah. Yeah.

CONAN: Sure. And not always getting it right, either. That's the other part of your editorial that I really liked, that we are human, and we either give in to moments of weakness or indecision or something. And go along.


CONAN: Well...

Rev. SULLIVAN: One of my favorite stories about myself is I was a hospital chaplain intern years ago, and I was very young. And I walked into this hospital room, and this woman had tubes coming out every which way. And I was not prepared for this particular counseling moment. And she started telling me what was wrong with her, and before I knew it I said, I know how you feel. And God bless her, she looked at me and said, young man, you have no idea how I feel.

And I thought, okay, yes, she's absolutely right. And I, you know, 30 years from that time, I have never once said I know how you feel to anyone ever since.

CONAN: Thomas Sullivan, thanks very much.

Rev. SULLIVAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Thomas Sullivan, professor of ethics at Babson College, in Babson Park, Massachusetts, with us today from the studios of member station WBUR, in Boston. His op-ed appeared in the Currents section of the Philadelphia Enquirer. You can find it online by going to the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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