Editorial – Moral Authority

Every day we trust our lives, health, finances, and myriad other aspects of life to professionals. We visit the doctor; we trust that police, firefighters, and EMTs will be there when needed. In short, we trust these professionals? skills and put our faith in the authority their unique talents bring them.

But should we also hold them to a higher moral standard? On the job, That’s a definite yes. Doctors, lawyers, and police (among others) are in positions of trust. Yet what about in their personal lives? Just how moral should we demand these authorities be?

That was the dilemma a Swedish medical school grappled with recently. Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute is one of the world’s most esteemed medical schools. It selects each year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, and rejects students even with exceptional grades. So when Karl Helge Hampus Svensson was accepted into the freshman class of 2007 (one of only 180 students), it was quite an achievement. In part, his success was due to the top grades he received in online courses he’d taken during the previous six years.

But shortly after classes started, Karolinska officials learned that Mr. Svensson was a convicted murderer and had spent the past six years in prison. He had been convicted of shooting a man who had cost a friend of his a job (the victim had complained about the man’s neo-Nazi affiliations). At the time, according to a New York Times article, Mr. Svensson himself was also under surveillance for suspected neo-Nazi activities.

The result? After deliberating for months, the Karolinska Institute expelled Mr. Svensson in January. Although there were no legal grounds to do so, their decision was based on a technicality: after being convicted, Mr. Svensson had changed his last name and, although his high school transcript grades were accurate, he had altered it to match his new surname.

But does a past conviction for a crime necessarily mean that someone is unfit to be in a position of public trust? There are some who would argue no. According to the law, Mr. Svensson has paid the penalty for his crime; he has done his time. Clearly, he has the potential to benefit humanity through medicine, perhaps even repaying his debt to society more fully.

Conversely, should intelligence, and the capacity to make a positive contribution to society, outweigh a person’s proven ability to commit violence? Can a position of trust ever be re-earned, and if so, how much time should pass before someone’s past no longer overshadows their present? In the case of a doctor, should a hand that has taken life ever again have the right to hold other lives in the balance?

There are no guarantees, but people can and do change. One example is the case of a young man convicted of illegal weapon possession. He served his time, became a U.S. Army Specialist, and hoped to become a New York City police officer. According to his Army supervisors, he is ?reliable, honest and brave.? He has served his country in a war zone, and at the end of his 15-month combat tour he is expected to be honourably discharged. Yet because he was arrested for having an unregistered weapon under his seat (his only brush with the law), he is not eligible to join the force.

There is no absolute answer. Each case must be taken separately and weighed carefully. But at the very least, we must be willing to consider the possibility of allowing people to restore the balance (karmic, moral, or otherwise, take your pick). Because to do otherwise denies the potential for progress, and that shortchanges us all.

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