Canadian Consulting Engineer

Lost: a moral compass

October 1, 2002
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

So, the unthinkable has happened. Acres International, one of Canada's most venerable consulting engineering companies, has been found guilty of aiding and abetting corruption in a Third World country...

So, the unthinkable has happened. Acres International, one of Canada’s most venerable consulting engineering companies, has been found guilty of aiding and abetting corruption in a Third World country (see page 69).

Acres vows that it will appeal the September decision of Lesotho’s High Court, and avers that no-one in the firm know that the money it was paying to its local agent was finding its way into the hands of a government official in charge of a water diversion project. Innocent or not, the firm will bear the lingering taint of wrongdoing. And the effects will be far-reaching. At least two other engineering firms — from Germany and France — are awaiting trial on similar charges in Lesotho.

Acres’ prosecution comes against a background of international efforts to combat corporate and government bribery in Third World countries. Most OECD countries signed onto an anti-corruption convention at the end of the 1990s. Then the day after the Lesotho decision came down, the African Union’s Ministerial Conference meeting in Addis Ababa approved the Draft African Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption.

What a strange moral quagmire we live in these days! In one direction, governments and societies are becoming much more circumspect about ethical issues when they relate to those in positions of authority or power. Thus we have conventions against corruption, legal instruments to protect human rights and the environment, and non-government organizations who keep a constant watch on companies like Acres who are working in developing countries. We expect politicians — and royalty — to have lives as pure as the day they left Sunday school. In the past most of society looked the other way when a king or a president had an affair; today any personal scandal results in their downfall.

Yet at the same time, society at large has virtually thrown out the book when it comes to the traditional mores and standards of behaviour. Individuals enjoy a sexual and cultural liberty not seen perhaps since the fall of Rome. Coincidentally — or perhaps not — newspapers are full of tales of corporate tycoons amassing wealth on a scale of decadence reminiscent of those ancient times. Gerry Koslowski, ex-CEO of Tyco, for example, thought nothing of lavishing $29 million of shareholder money on an apartment in New York, or of furnishing it with items such as an umbrella stand worth $15,000, bed sheets worth $6,000, and an ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David that peed a stream of vodka.

I’m confused, and I’m afraid my logic is drifting. But what I do know is that I don’t much like living in a society that has lost its moral compass to this extent. I feel like an alien in a culture that celebrates violence as a joke in Wrestlemania, where youths act out Beavis and Butthead aggression on old ladies in a supermarket, where 10-year old girls dress in seductive clothes to show off their bodies. What does it say about our ethical stance when the hero of the Sopranos, one of the most acclaimed television shows, “sometimes murders people with his bare hands,” and in the same sentence the newspaper columnist excuses the character by saying, “but he is a surprisingly good father”? I don’t enjoy living in a city where the mayor thinks it’s o.k. to publicly shake the hand of a Hells Angels leader, or listening to people who consider the economic consequences of war on Iraq before they consider the numbers of innocent bystanders who will be killed. But then … I’m confused … I’m meandering … Bronwen Parsons


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