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Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Ethic of Transparency

Recently I listened to Janice Stein reflecting on the notion of “accountability” which has all but replaced “responsibility” in our language. Since words not only express, but also shape thought and the worldview within which that thought has meaning, I found this a very useful reflection.

We have finally begun demanding accountability. And well we should, as presidents lead us to war on false premises, as financial institutions sell products with less than stated value, and religious organizations hide their officials’ wrong doings. We now speak of the accountable public or private organization and of holding our leaders and institutions accountable. We use less the word of the responsible leader or organization or of the responsible self and society. Or we simply use the words interchangeably. And there is a loss in that.

To hold accountable or require accountability has a different nuance than to be responsible or take responsibility. To account for something to someone has a different meaning than to respond to someone for something. Rendering account focuses on measured worth. Being responsible focuses on value, but not the kind that can be easily quantified. Accountability connotes an external referee and a balance sheet. Responsibility connotes a more internal judge, a conscience. An accountable politics is one of checks and balances and looks at forms, processes, and regulations. A responsible politics is one of social justice and looks at the substance of human freedom and equality.

Elsewhere I wrote of five metaphors for ethics. And here are two: the scale or balance in commerce (accountability) and the foundation of a building (responsibility). These two are important to each other: responsibility will require accountability, which in turn can measure and promote responsibility.

Yet there is tension when we look as the behavior of corporations and encourage social responsibility, when we look at voluntary organizations not just in terms of what we get for the money, but for what kind of a community they embody and promote. There is certain a tension in a leadership that is directing and supervising according to rules and one that is trusting and encouraging innovation. Education that teaches to the test may be accountable, but may not be responsible and educing responsible citizens.

Another word is being used a lot lately: “transparency.” Maybe that could resolve the tension or make it constructive. Transparency does mean visibility—out in the open for all to see and judge. But it also means illuminating or glowing from within like a radiance you can see through.

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