Fairfield University ethics professor sheds new light on corporate America's scandals with "Permission to Steal"

One could say Fairfield University Professor Lisa H. Newton, Ph.D. "wrote the book" on how and why some of the worst scandals in the history of corporate America happened to occur recently. Her newly released book, which she admits she wrote "in a flash of anger," is called "Permission to Steal: The Story of Corporate Scandal in America" (Blackwell Publishing, 2007). 

She has chosen to spotlight five corporate scandals in recent history - Enron, Arthur Andersen, WorldCom, Adelphia Communications and HealthSouth. She doesn't rehash the details of the cases that have been carried so widely in the press, but rather focuses on what she identifies as, "a simple trail concerned with personal growth, personal character and personal decision."

It is Professor Newton's belief that societal responsibility once devoutly practiced in "the Village" no longer carries the same stature and pride associated with a tribal society. As the culture shifted emphasis to the individual, it was easier to embrace the notion "that adults have free reign to follow their desires wherever they lead, including the desire for accumulation of wealth beyond all reason, without limit and without social sanction." Following such a dramatic change in values, according to Professor Newton, "the accepted limits on human vice disappeared." She postulates, "behavior was no longer held in check because of the disappearance of transparency and moral consistency and the Village was destroyed. The destruction precipitated the scandals we live with today."

Drawing on her formidable experience as Director of the Program in Applied Ethics and Professor of Philosophy at Fairfield University and as the writer and ethics consultant for Media and Society's 1990 PBS television series, "Ethics in America," Professor Newton's provocative point of view engenders thought about, if not ready acceptance of, regulations that demand accountability and encourage the retention of the concept of "the Village" as a moral guide. 

It isn't that difficult, she argues, to know where to draw the line for what is acceptable corporate behavior. She suggests that a company simply ask, "how would we explain this (decision) to a Wall Street Journal reporter for a front-page story?" A question such as this, she maintains, "forces one to consider one's actions in a larger context and makes it possible to conjure up 'community' in the mind." With these "controls" in place, an ethical decision becomes probable.

"Permission to Steal" broadens the scope of the scandals by exploring their place in the "entirety of human nature." Professor Newton declares, "it is not only business enterprise that has wandered off its moral tracks; it is education, church, statecraft and God's green earth itself that are equally at risk (and) threatened by neglect, chicanery and exploitation..."

It is her contention that "we are going to have to recreate the context of morality in which our race came to moral consciousness" and she has backed up her point of view with valuable insights in "Permission to Steal: The Story of Corporate Scandal in America."

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on January 29, 2007

Vol. 39, No. 126

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