Remember how you felt as a kid when an adult told you to say you were sorry? Maybe you took something you weren’t supposed to, or were just generally not behaving like the good kid everyone knew you to be. We would venture to guess that the worse part of the whole experience was not necessarily getting in trouble, or having your games taken away, but more so, it was having to make that verbal, public concession that you had done something wrong.
The end goal for ethics is to take action, ideally implemented with the greatest care to all involved. However, that doesn’t always occur. Ethical accountability, then, is the readiness to take responsibility for actions taken. This is also not easy.How often do we hear things like “I’m sorry, BUT…” --adding the presence of some factor that has undermined control of a situation. Contrition is typically followed by some sort of statement explaining it away, and for some, that distaste for saying “I’m sorry” has never gone away.
In addition, there are some common rationalizations that are used to avoid accountability:
If it's necessary, it's ethical:This reasoning often leads to ends-justify-the-means rationale and treating non-ethical tasks as ethical imperatives.
If it's legal, it's ethical:This reasoning substitutes personal ethical judgment for legal requirements.
If you did it to me first and I do it back to you, it’s ethical: This reasoning often leads to the eye-for-an-eye argument. Retaliatory in nature.
If everyone's doing it, it’s ethical: This reasoning didn’t work with our parents, but for some reason it keeps making a comeback, using cultural, organizational, or occupational behaviors and customs as ethical norms.
And then there is, perhaps, the most infamous rationalization: “I was just doing my job.”
People have been able to compartmentalize ethics into personal and job-related, and may often feel justified doing things at work that they know to be wrong in other contexts. Because of this, accountability is lost.
Nowhere has this been most problematically witnessed than at the 1961 trial for Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal who was indicted on 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people, and membership in a criminal organization.
In his testimony throughout the trial, Eichmann insisted he had no choice but to follow orders, as he was bound by an oath of loyalty—the defense used by some defendants in the 1945–1946 Nuremberg trials. Eichmann asserted that the decisions had been made not by him, but rather his superiors.
Eichmann did not seem to realize the enormity of his crimes and showed no remorse. As a clear decision to exterminate had been made by his superiors; he felt absolved of any guilt. He was found guilty of his war crimes, and when considering the sentence, the judges concluded that Eichmann had not merely been following orders, but believed in the Nazi cause wholeheartedly and had been a key perpetrator of the genocide. There was no admission of personal guilt from Eichmann at any point.
Other Nazi war criminals who were found and tried provided similar reasoning for perpetuating their acts of violence. In 2009, Heinrich Boere, who murdered Dutch civilians as part of a Nazi Waffen SS hit squad during World War (and avoided justice for six decades), died in a prison hospital while serving a life sentence. He also remained unapologetic to the end for his actions, saying that he had been proud to volunteer for the SS, and that times were different then.
Ultimately, these rationales demonstrate that accountability frameworks are needed, but cannot replace individual judgment. Ethics needs standards, but they can’t be followed in a mechanical way. Each person must have their own stable set of core values with the integrity to take responsibility for his or her own judgment and choices, even in a turbulent, ever-changing environment.