“A Brand New Image” headlined an article on corporate malfeasance in the February issue of the Banker. A sub-heading spotlighted that this cosmetic change was to be achieved by “Playing the ethics card”. The gambling image says it all. Similarly, a Australian ethicist declared his hand by prefacing advice with “The trick is …”.

The rise of the professional ethicist is but the latest redefinition of trust. In the USA of the 1880s, “trust” became synonymous with monopoly after counsel for Rockefeller’s Standard Oil converted a means of protecting legacies into a device for circumventing the laws against price-rigging by cartels.

Recent corporate manoeurvrings have been less innovatory than those lawyers. Despite the marketing of “business ethics” as a new wonder ingredient, that nostrum is as venerable as other snake-oils. By the 1920s, manufacturers and the Press had been converted to “Truth in Advertising” because they could no longer get away with claims about products washing the dishes while it cured your cancer.

The association of moralising with chicanery gave rise in the late 1980s to a shaggy-dog story about “Last Resort” Laurie Connell, a bagman around W.A. Inc. The financial elites of Melbourne and Sydney amused each other with a yarn about Connell’s modus operandi, known as “The Archbishop’s Ploy”.

In setting up a deal, Connell would invite a person of unquestioned probity – the “Archbishop” - onto the company board. Its first meeting would receive a proposal for some dubious action. Connell would denounce the proposition before he and his fellow directors passed a motion, seconded by the “Archbishop”, resolving never even to contemplate any kind of criminality. Of course, Connell was already engaged in that course of action. Should he be brought to book, he could call the “Archbishop” as his character witness to swear that the offence alleged had been rejected out of hand.

That fictional ploy has since been institutionalized. The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants advocates “having at least one board member well-versed in governance issues”. During 2002, 1500 executives undertook the Institute of Company Directors’ 10-day course which includes units on business ethics. One expectation from training in such oxymorons is a mitigation of sentence. If caught out, the firm will put out PR releases documenting how it paid for its staff to understudy “Archbishops”. The individual employee will tell the judge that her “A-grade” in Ethics-101 shows that she had intended to be honest.

Ethicists are what you rent when you have no ethics, and no intention of earning your own. They promote their services by arguing that moral choices are not ”common sense”. Perhaps not, but the fundamentals are not beyond the wit of the average tax-dodger. In the wake of Nixon’s Presidency, the literary critic, Paul Fussell, observed that compliance with The Boy Scout’s Handbook would have kept the White House honest: “A scout does not designate his fellow citizens ‘shits’ and then both record his filth and lie about the recordings”.

In the realms of profit-taking, a scout does not reward community health workers for getting mothers to feed their babies with infant formula in countries where polluted water is killing kids by the million.

Professional ethicists create a comfort zone for executives by explaining that they need advice because their choices are not between good and evil. According to Dr Simon Longstaff from the St James Ethics Centre, “The real challenges in ethics are when you need to decide between right and right”. How about when the bottom line depends on choosing between wrong and wrong? Or when executives convince each other that a wrong is a good? Directors are less likely to pay to hear about those dilemmas.

The St James Centre also represents itself as “non-judgemental” which risks the Biblical condemnation that “because you are neither hot nor cold … I will spue thee out of my mouth”?

Otherwise redundant philosophers have grafted themselves onto the growth industry of spin-doctoring. Some have transferred from Arts to the Commerce Faculties in which professors of accounting and business studies had trained the auditors who were expected to expose if not always prevent company fraud. Then, they got caught with their hands in the till. Consultancy fees had corrupted them. Ethicists have no service on offer except “consultancy”. Who is auditing them?

The latest round of exposures has not reduced corporate amorality. Morgan Stanley boasts that it was only a venal sinner because its fine was $50m. compared with the $325m exacted from SalomonSmithBarney. Their calculus of rapacity was captured in a suite of U.S. cartoons. A board chairman reports that a director has “called in ethical”. Another director recalls raising one eyebrow. A wife farewells her husband on his way to the office with “Don’t get caught”.